Classical vs. Non-Classical Voice Coaching, Pt. 1 - The Real Bottom Line

Sunday, February 2, 2014 by Thomas, Michele | Vocal Technique

by Michele Thomas

The Discussion Is On The Table

This discussion is nothing new in many respects.  But I notice that it is a discussion that’s rarely under the spotlight.

And though this subject is something I’ve talked a lot about over the years, yet never do I see enough being written about the matter. So, I’ve decided to do it. While there are an endless amount of articles about various singing techniques, few explain why these techniques exist in the first place and how experts determine “best” techniques. Over a series of posts I’ll explore the culture and attitudes surrounding the world of vocal coaching and what singing students should be aware of in their pursuit of vocal training and development.

The Unspoken Truth About The Common Voice Lesson

Some time ago I read a post on a music teacher's blog where an upset voice teacher wrote, "A few weeks ago, I had a young student be told by the music director of a local Children’s Theater group to stop studying with me as I was teaching her to be “too classical.”

Clearly this voice teacher had cause to be upset at the implications drawn from such comments. It was obvious the student had abruptly discontinued lessons after a long period of instruction. This left the teacher feeling discouraged and also created a gap in her studio roster, impacting her financially.

Regarding the music director's comments, however, I couldn't jump to the instant conclusion that his words were meant in malice or disrespect towards the voice teacher or her methods. Primarily because he presented a legitimate and underlying point, which is a conventional classical vocal technique should not be assumed to work for other genres of music. The long-standing theory that there is one basic technique (code word: classical) covering all genres has long since been debunked.

Research in vocal pedagogy over recent decades has proven that there are methods, which are better suited for non-classical, non-operatic singing styles. Additionally, these newer methods show that a safe, and natural approach to singing popular styles of music can be developed - even in the short-term – if guided effectively through instruction.

Yet given the current state of the vocal teaching community at large, it's obvious that many instructors, including myself at one time, remain uneducated or resistant to developments in vocal science. This is certainly true particularly as it relates to contemporary singing techniques.

Additionally, there is often a deeper issue of cultural bias and ethnocentric attitudes surrounding music outside of Western European classical traditions. These attitudes can fuel musical elitism that often shuns popular music in voice teaching culture. In that case, I think it's a fair assessment that many voice instructors may be unequipped to teach more contemporary singing styles.

I believe it's fair for students to ask the critical question, "Will the technique I'm taught work for the type of music I want to sing?" Ultimately, the training a student receives should be applicable to the kind of singing they do outside the studio versus reflecting their instructor’s personal musical tastes. Also, vocal instructors should be able to teach, in no uncertain terms, how to develop such techniques. A voice teacher shouldn’t assume their students must automatically default to their expertise as a voice teacher. On the contrary, teachers must earn credibility by producing clear and tangible results that the student experiences directly.

After a given time of instruction, if one of my students felt they weren’t progressing as they expected, I must re-evaluate their original goals AND examine my own teaching strategies to ensure that I'm giving them the tools that they actually need and want. Over the years I’ve taught, I’ve continued to evaluate my knowledge for vocal training and match it against current research and new developments in vocal pedagogy and science.

A great article exploring these ideas with great clarity and conviction is in the NATS Journal Of Singing called, "The Recovering Female Opera Singer" by Randy Buescher. Mr. Buescher is creator of the "Your True Voice" technique and a certified speech pathologist. He addresses what I believe to be the bigger ethical questions for voice teachers: do conventionally accepted teaching methods really meet the demands of our contemporary musical culture? If not, is it ethical to continue teaching those techniques?

These questions stir controversy in the vocal teaching community. But what about you?  How would you answer this question?  I would love to know!  Share your comments or ask more questions below.  I would love to hear from you!