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The MYTH of Operatic training

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

When I first embarked on singing my own music, here’s what I was told:

“You must first learn to sing classical music (opera), this will give you the proper foundation to sing any style of music.”

If only it were true.

The myth that operatic training provides the foundation for better pop singing, belongs in the same category as the “tooth fairy”. It may very well have come from the mouths of kind and loving people, but it’s still a myth. (For those of you who still believe in the tooth fairy, I am truly sorry to have ruined your day. The rest of you, read on.)

Picture this: You save up for months to travel to a nearby city to hear your favorite artist, let’s pick Billie Eilish. But you can insert whomever you wish into this imaginary exercise. You were lucky enough to get tickets the moment they went on sale. You booked a room in town with your favorite people and make a weekend out of the event. When you show up to hear Billie Eilish sing Ocean Eyes, and she opens her mouth and out comes the operatic voice of Renee Fleming! Yeah. It’s a fair guess that you wouldn’t buy the t-shirt and flood social media with selfies. No matter how great her operatic sound was, it wouldn’t be Billie Eilish.

You see, there is something “special” about Billie Eilish that makes her sound like Billie Eilish.

If you replace that sound with “good, foundational operatic technique”, you end up with something other than Billie Eilish. And for those of us who are fans, that would be tragic.

But as voice teachers, we habitually train the personality out of people, and push them into an operatic mold. If someone WANTS to train in opera, great! But let’s not fool people into thinking that what we are giving them will suffice as a foundation for “all healthy technique”. I have years of education in music. I am grateful for all of the training. But I would have to say that only about 1% of the technique that I learned for opera could be used for pop music. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that my music education was a waste. Here are the unshakeable principles that I retain from my classical music education to this day:

  1. There is no substitute for practice and hard work. Classical music training taught me to have disciplined practice habits, and a lifestyle that supports those habits.

  2. After all that practice is done, get out of your own way, and give the authentic gift of your music to your audience. At the end of the day, your audience doesn’t care how scared you felt stepping on stage, but they remember how your music made them feel.

  3. No art is ever “done”. Determine to be an artist who learns, creates, and grows for the rest of your life.

And for these values, I am grateful for the foundation that I received in my musical education.

But when it comes to actual vocal technique, very little that I learned in the vocal studio could be transferred to my hopes and dreams as a contemporary singer. In fact, quite a bit of what I learned as a trained singer, made me less likely to succeed in pop music. (Mind you, I wasn’t all that great of a singer before my training. I had pitch. And some rhythm. And I could read music).

But, when I finished my “training”, I had a wide vibrato, a “round tone” and high notes with “chiaroscuro”. I had good tools, but they weren’t the right ones for the task. In the 30+ years since, I have made it my mission to figure out contemporary music stylizations and to create a methodology that really works.

Here’s what I have found essential since then:

  1. No two voices sound alike. Find what is unique about your voice and learn to embrace it and accentuate it. Not everything is fabulous, but everyone has something fabulous within their sound.

  2. Most people only use about 3-4 vocal colors in a song. Most professionals use 3-4 per second. If you do the math, that leaves a big gap between a “natural singer” and the “professional singer”. Filling in the gap between what is unique about your voice, and what will create a “signature sound” is your goal as a contemporary singer.

  3. Pop music is a specialized field. If you want to learn a specialized topic, you want to work with a specialized professional. The right information, at the right time, can save years of heartache. Many people injure themselves using classical techniques for contemporary singing. Knowing what to move within the anatomy and how to move it is essential.

When I met Jo Estill in 1995, she stated unequivocally that “Everyone has a beautiful voice”. This was something she believed at her core. Jo began to turn my music world upside down. Initially under Jo’s guidance, I took the same disciplined approach to singing pop music that I had done with my classical music. She helped me to think anatomically, and to hear variety and variance in tone. When my students started having success, I took note.

When they started moving from singing in my quiet home studio in the suburbs of San Francisco to taking the stage on American Idol and Disney, I took more notes. After 30 years, I had a lot of notes!

That’s why I’m so excited about the program called “The Singer’s Style Lab”.

I created a program that had the information I wish I had known when I first set out to become a singer.

In the “Singer’s Style Lab”, singers

  1. Define their unique vocal sound

  2. Expand their vocal choices (without injury)

  3. Accelerate their progress with the anatomical precision that Estill and vocal science has to offer.

Unfortunately, there is no substitute for practice. But I would add, there is absolutely no substitute for intelligent practice. Intelligent practice can make the difference between vocal dreams and a vocal career. Guidance from an expert can shorten the length of time it takes to master a skill, and avoid having to “undo” other habits.

If you want to sing contemporary music, you need an educated, contemporary coach with a track record to get you there! Don’t waste another minute believing the myth that “classical training” is the foundation for all voice.

You CAN define YOUR sound, YOUR way.

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