Should Every Singer Take Classical Voice Lessons? hero

Should Every Singer Take Classical Voice Lessons?

Posted Tuesday, December 19th 2023 by Tim Rosser
How important is classical voice training to the vocal development of non-classical singers? In this article, I will take a deep dive into my own experiences working with a classical voice teacher and how it impacted my ability to sing different styles of music.

I’m not sure how "common knowledge" this is, but musical theatre performance programs often require their students to study with classical voice teachers. It can be a bit of an awkward arrangement for both the students and the teachers since Broadway performers are rarely called upon to sing with anything resembling a classical sound, and most singers who are really into belting out Defying Gravity are less enthusiastic about learning art songs in Italian. Is there a benefit to singing in a classical style for non-classical singers? There are myths floating around that "classical technique is more healthy and efficient than other vocal techniques", and that "classical technique is the core from which all other techniques are deviations". These are very biased opinions. Certainly, someone who sings with terrific classical technique has a real handle on some of the fundamental physics of the human voice, but are the best dancers trained in Russian ballet? Are the best cooks trained in French cuisine? Of course not.

My Experience with a Classical Voice Teacher

A while back, one of my voice students, an incredible singer, told me she was considering taking classical voice lessons, and asked me what I thought about that. As someone who had never had regular classical voice lessons, I had to admit I didn’t have a real opinion, just a vague cautiousness based on what I’ve shared above. That really got me thinking: I would love to know what it’s like to sing that way and perhaps dispel any personal biases I have about that style. So, I went ahead and booked some classical lessons with a highly recommended teacher to try it out myself.

My voice teacher told me she teaches the classical bel canto style. Bel canto means “beautiful singing” in Italian. Opera singers have been trained in bel canto for hundreds of years. The focus of the lessons was on establishing a balance between the bright and dark qualities of my vowels, which is called “chiaroscuro”, another wonderfully on-the-nose Italian term that means “light dark.” Some vowels naturally skew darker, and some lighter or brighter. A casual “Ee” like in the word “dream” has a lot of the bright quality, and a yawn-y “Aw” like in the word “dawn” has more of the dark. The brightness of the tone amplifies the sound over an orchestra without a microphone, which is a major requirement of this style. If you can’t be heard, the people can’t adore you! The darkness gives the voice warmth and fullness. We worked on balancing my vowels to achieve the preferred bel canto combination of light and dark and did exercises to maintain that balance seamlessly throughout my range. I found the exercises demanded my very best effort in terms of breath support, larynx control, careful coordination of my vocal cords and release of extrinsic tensions. My teacher was very patient and had helpful and detailed adjustments for me as needed. Sometimes I knew what was happening and sometimes it felt like grasping in the dark. It was a challenging and very rewarding process!

However, I would say it was not different from the other really good voice training experiences I’ve had in my life, other than the style. The resonance does feel totally different from what I was used to. Something about the sound and posture seems to exude “importance” and “seriousness.” Like wearing a tuxedo, or taking high tea. And it was highly focused, which is a benefit of studying one style with a specialist. Most of my experience in taking and teaching voice lessons has involved training all the different registers of the voice, different resonance strategies, and different styles, all in the same lesson. These lessons were all mix-voice, all similar vowels and resonance, all the time. However, it was still a process of working with my voice in a detailed way to get the desired results with exercises and direction, just like other voice lessons.

So... How DID it impact my singing?

I can’t put my finger on exactly how this training has impacted my singing in other styles, to be honest… The “high tea” quality just isn’t appropriate for most other things. But I feel the work has impacted all of my singing in some way. It’s a process my voice and I went through, going in one place and coming out somewhere else. Some things are startlingly easier than they were before, and sometimes I need to remind myself to snap out of it, “This isn’t bel canto, Tim!” It’s been empowering, and disorienting, and I don’t think I can ever be the same as I was before. It has also changed my teaching in ways I’m still sorting out. I like to sprinkle some of the exercises in when it feels like the right student at the right time. But, I see my classical voice teacher’s influence in so many things I do and say these days.

The bulk of my early voice teaching career was spent working with classically trained singers who wanted to learn to belt for Musical Theatre roles. Most of these performers were incredibly gifted singers who needed to learn a technique they weren’t familiar with to achieve career goals, the reverse process of what I went through in my classical lessons. Some of them expressed resentment for spending so many years learning to sing art songs and not putting their energy in the “right” place. I find this incredibly relatable, as an artist. “Why couldn’t I be given everything I need up front?" “Why did I have to take a scenic route?” I think the mistake we make sometimes as artists is looking for straight lines between where we are and where we believe we want to be in the future. You can’t know where you really want to be without context and you can’t establish context without having experiences. Consider instead the possibility that the best use of your time as an artist is to nourish yourself with a variety of experiences. Let things take the time they take and let yourself change your mind as often as you need to. Artists are the sum of their decisions: when they say “yes” and when they say “no.” Keep choosing. Nothing is wasted.

I don’t think everyone needs to take classical voice lessons to be a great singer. I don’t think everyone needs voice lessons at all to be a great singer. But I have to share that I have never grown so much or so fast as when I’ve reached out to experienced professionals for guidance, my classical voice teacher included.

Tim Rosser

Tim studied music at Oberlin Conservatory and since then has pursued a 14+ year career as a voice teacher, vocal coach, music director, and pianist here in New York City. He’s worked with many of Broadway’s biggest stars in these capacities, including Kristen Chenoweth, Tituss Burgess, Chita Rivera, and Andrew Rannells, and on several Broadway shows as a pianist and conductor, including The Addams Family, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Carousel. Tim is always honored to join singers on their vocal journeys. Helping a singer to unlock their vocal powers is one of the most gratifying things he’s ever been a part of. He has tremendous respect for anyone who has the courage to challenge themselves to grow, and is eager to be a positive force in that process!

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