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Ingredients of Vocal Styles

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Good singers are often described as having a unique personal style, a special way of expressing a song. But in the larger picture of singing, let's talk about vocal styles in general. First off, you want to be clear on which style you sing the most. Pop, rock, jazz, country, blues, R&B, classical, folk, gospel, Broadway belting or perhaps a combination of one or more of these styles? I frequently encounter singers who think they're singing in a pop style but are actually singing in a classical style because of prior training. It can sound quite strange and disorienting to the listener to hear someone sing in a wrong style. The conventions and techniques of classical singing are so different from popular, commercial styles that classical voice training can become a disability to the budding pop singer.

Every vocal style is a recipe using only certain ingredients. Like a cook who knows the difference between braising and grilling, you should have an acquaintance with the recipe for your desired style. Let's start by comparing classical and non-classical styles: simply put, non-classical sounds like speaking or yelling and classical singing doesn't. If you've ever heard an opera singer speak then sing, you might be shocked to notice how different these two modes of vocal production are.

Whether you sing classically or in a commercial vein, your choice of ingredients will determine if you're nailing your style or not. What are some of the ingredients of vocal style?

  • Laryngeal Height - Your larynx (voice-box) can easily move up and down. Which vertical position you choose, regular, raised or lowered, will affect your sound. You might lower it for classical or soulful R&B and jazz, keep it regular for pop or legit Broadway singing, or raise it for rock and country.
  • Airflow - How much air should you have in your sound? In country, there's typically not a lot of air coming through the vocal folds, but when singing sultry R&B or jazz, you may allow the folds to open more.
  • Resonator Shape - What is the shape of your throat and mouth? For country, I recommend constricting the pharynx slightly under the jawline (never constrict the vocal folds themselves), while in classical or R&B I recommend widening that area to give me a more open sound. Shape decisions also include how open your mouth should be and if you're mostly smiling or pursing your lips.
  • Nasality - Air which is routed through your nose creates the buzzy sound of nasality. Listen carefully to your favorite singers to see if you can discern how much nasality you hear. This important resonance is a must in rock and country, less so in pop and jazz, and not desirable in classical production.
  • Dialect - Can you imagine hearing a country singer with a Russian accent? Or a blues singer with a French accent? Might sound strange. Consider a Southern accent for R&B and country, a standard American accent for pop and Broadway singing, perhaps even an English accent for classical.
  • Stance - Ever notice how classical singers seem like they're leaning forward but some R&B singers may be leaning back on their heels? Subtle stance differences can make a difference in vocal production and are interesting to watch for.
  • Volume - In sultry jazz singing, you may hear singers shift their volumes suddenly from loud to soft and back again, while in opera the vocal dynamics mostly range from loud to louder. Pop is often soft to medium loud, never getting very loud. When country, which is fairly soft to medium loud, gets louder, it then enters the world of country-rock. So volume can be a determining factor when combining styles.
  • Stylisms - Each vocal style has particular stylisms which act as style hallmarks. For example, vocal fry can be heard in pop, jazz, and rock, which cry is common in country. Yodel can be heard in country and alternative pop, while stops are only heard in Broadway belting. There are different slides and swoops used and using the wrong swoop can get you into big stylistic trouble. Ornamental riffs such as R&B runs are important to master as well as classical ornamental runs called melisma or coloratura.
  • Emotions - No one style has a monopoly on the human experience. For dignified and regal, no style comes closer than classical. If you want to express sensuality or ecstasy, look no further than R&B. Pop is sincere. alternative pop is quirky, rock is anti-social and powerful. You get the idea.

A fun way to hone your style discernment skills is to sit at the ole radio tuner and go from station to station. See how quickly you come to a conclusion on the vocal style(s) you hear. It's not easy sometimes. Are you hearing country, pop-country, rock-country or R&B-country? Can you identify WHY you came to your conclusion?

Remember that like in cooking (Thai, French, etc), each vocal style has conventions; rules that have developed over time. These conventions arise out of the particular culture and history which are the roots of a style. Listen and watch your favorite singers. Everything you see or hear helps to determine style choices. Styles are not accidents- make sure your style choices are well thought-out.

Your next step? Pick a style, listen to the greats, observe everything, imitate, THEN play around to creative your own unique expressive masterpiece. Stay true to your style before you venture forth into uncharted territory.

Lisa Popeil - Voiceworks Method - www.popeil.com 818-906-7229


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