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"Unlearning" Classical Training

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Cake
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Hello everyone! :D

I am a classically trained singer (lyric baritone) and have spent the last ten years studying with classical teachers. However, I'm also a songwriter. My style is acoustic pop/rock (think: Ed Sheeran, Mumford and Sons, James Morrison). This is music that feels closer to my "soul", more closely resembling my inner landscape. Up until now, I've always given my songs to other singers to sing: usually friends and local artists whose voices are more suited to contemporary music. I'd really love to be able to take ownership of my songs and perform them. I have a handful of really personal songs that that would hurt to give to other singers. But whenever I listen to to a recording of myself singing contemporary music, it sounds... off.

Basically, I hear my classical training automatically take over, and it just doesn't sound natural. Part of it is diction. I'm slowly learning to pronounce my words closer to conversational speech, rather than the sort of hyper-enunciated, vowel-focused (Italianate) diction taught to classical singers. I've also noticed a tendency to be overly-legato: legato is a quality that is prized in bel canto, but it's not really stylistically appropriate for pop music.

But the biggest issue is simply the tone quality of contemporary singing is just so different. I can't even tell what it is I'm doing wrong, but it ends up sounding arch and overly formal. I've tried to "unlearn" my vocal technique (as most popular singers are untrained), but I've been at it so long, I've forgotten what it was like to sing before I ever had any training. I've sung some contemporary musical theatre (Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Schwartz, Duncan Sheik), which is a little closer to the type of music I write, but even that is still a tad too "cultivated" a sound, mostly in terms of diction.

Does anyone have any tips/ideas/things to notice or look for in re-learning how to sing in a completely different style?

Thank you so much for your help!

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Cake. Hey man.

Well before you unlearn it, send us some cool recordings of arias. :) But anyways.

There are two problems that are big. The obvious one is that you conditioned your voice to produce a very "noble" quality. The opposite is a harsh and vulgar production. Think of drunk men talking loud on a bar. Got the idea?

The other problem is the musical language. Classical singing has a number of things like enforcing legatto in the interpretation line, which if you dont take care will surely break the more rhythmic phrasing on pop. But legatto is still important, rather you have to add interpretative resources directed to rhythmic phrasing. Not just stacatto, but really getting locked to the bass.

Making articulation a bit heavier also will help, on both cases.

Its not something that will change from a simple procedure, the technique is the same, but application is very different. You will have to train and you will also see that 10 years of conditioning is not something that changes very fast. Also keep in mind that letting go of the conditioning will have an effect on how your voice will behave on classical material.

I recomend a very, very good teacher that can follow your technical development and that has experience both with classical technique and pop singing. And dont buy anything less than comfortable, it can be just as comfortable as it is to sing classical music, in some cases even more.

Good Luck! Hope it helps.

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I would play around with characters. Our mind is Very smart, but you can also fool it instead of changeing your classical sound and dabbling with your core technique.

As felipe said changing your core sound can be of negative nature for your classical approach.

Instead pretend your someone else(copy movement patterns, howthey movetheir lips everything) i mean really act it out, when you got the character down abit. You can try applying singng to it, but still keep that mental image our brain wont connect that to the usual singing and there is less chance you get into old sounds and habits and you dont have to change your core sound.

This maysound very corny, but it works got a friend who's really good at acting all his characters have widley diffrent vocaltechniques. Although he cant access many of the sounds out of character

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You know,Cake, it's funny. I did a very basic blues song and got gob-smacked because I didn't have enough legato. That is, I can sing pop and rock and blues songs and get held to classical standards. And so, I follow some classical technique and in some cases, have been told that I sound european, even though I live in Texas.

So, it depends on who you ask and what day it is.

I did a cover of a Led Zeppelin song (one of many) not too long ago and it was pointed out that I was less nasal than Robert Plant, which I took as a compliment. I don't care for too much nasal in the sound and it meant that others could hear my own voice, not a carbon copy of someone else's voice.

Which is funny because some genres, thanks to problematic singers becoming famous, get known specifically for defects in sound, such as rasp, overt nasality, even pitchiness. For example, it's easier for me to count the number of times that Lou Reed was ON pitch. But he is an icon, partly because his sound breaks every rule there is.

I don't know if this question is like the perfect storm, or what, but there are examples of popular singers who had classical training from a teacher before going to pop and rock. Pat Benetar, Dee Snider (yes, the guy from Twisted Sister,) Kip Winger, Ron Keel, Ronnie Milsap (progressed from classical to rock to country.)

And there are people who use a classical sound in rock, such as Bruce Dickinson, Ray Alder. And more often lately than in previous times, Geoff Tate.

I think the basics of singing can translate to any genre but I think the focus may be slightly different for each. It seems to me that opera has a sound ideal, for a good reason. The voice has to fit the role, as it is written or composed. And the sound ideals for classical and opera are well-established and part of the charm and allure is the sound ideals found therein.

Whereas, in pop and rock, the more identifiable the voice, the better. Some singers, technically imperfect with defective sounds, are huge successes primarily because you know his or her voice the moment you hear it. I never particularly liked Bruce Springsteen's voice but I know it the moment that I hear it and I sing along with his masterful songwriting. And some songs of his would sound wrong if sung by anyone else. "Born To Run" and "Thunder Road" are the most iconic in his voice. But he's always been a handsome guy and his singing range is within reach of the average untrained singer, which translates into ticket and album sales from any direction. And he sings about the every day things that every one else encounters. For example, my friend, Sgt Kenneth West, US Army, had an older brother who died at Khe Sang. So, the line in the song "Born in the USA" ("I had a brother at Khe Sang") had special meaning for my friend, Ken. A hero ghost that haunts him to this day.

Habit is habit. So, you may have to change some habits. For example, what makes american english hard to sing is precisely what gives its character. Spoken american english rarely has pure vowels. Mostly dipthongs and those vary, depending on local accent or dialect.

So, I would try that, first. Start corrupting some vowels.

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Can you post recordings of both your classical and your attempts at pop? You may be closer than you think, or maybe not.

Felipe, Jens and Ron have some great ideas.

I think Jens has an interesting idea in trying to get into "character" the way an actor would. Actors have to learn different dialects - this is the same thing in singing. You may even try emulating different actors that have thick accents, like someone with a thick southern accent, or someone with a thick new york accent. Mimic the "style' and attitide and rhythms the way an impersonator would. Try it in speech and singing.

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Can you post recordings of both your classical and your attempts at pop? You may be closer than you think, or maybe not.

Felipe, Jens and Ron have some great ideas.

I think Jens has an interesting idea in trying to get into "character" the way an actor would. Actors have to learn different dialects - this is the same thing in singing. You may even try emulating different actors that have thick accents, like someone with a thick southern accent, or someone with a thick new york accent. Mimic the "style' and attitide and rhythms the way an impersonator would. Try it in speech and singing.

Excellent advice, Geno. Sometimes, I think actors use each other for voice models.

In the movie, "GI Jane," Viggo Mortensen, originally from Sweden, plays the master chief petty officer in charge of bud/S. (I know that's not the rank they call him in the movie. That's a decision on the part of the screenwriter to respect the Navy. Often, the one in charge is a master cpo.) Anyway, I closed my eyes at one point and realized that Viggo got the voice for his character by ripping off Christopher Walken. Seriously. if you watch that movie again or just youtube a clip of it, see if it doesn't sound like Viggo "needs more cowbell."

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Just had a funny thought. Often, the advice here is to get a coach. Well, you already had one. Now, you need another one to rough up what took you ten years to accomplish. :)

Patricia Andsrejewski was a natural. A teacher picked her, rather than the other way around. And she trained in opera all through school. And had an appointment to audition and study at Julliard. But she was in love with Sgt Benetar, US Army. Eloped with him, moved south, started singing in jazz clubs and the rest is a twisted history.

Same with Dee Snider. He was a legit countertenor. And got into that devilish rock and roll. When he joined Twisted Sister, they were trying to be a little glam. Then his girlfriend got crazy with his costumes and a look was born.

Kip Winger studied classical voice and ballet.

And though it's not truly classical, Anne Wilson sang in choir in high school. Says she learned about breathing and breath management from her choir teacher, Allan Lund.

Geoff Tate sang choir in high school. And had a total of 6 lessons with David Kyle, who came from a classical background.

To quote Ronnie James Dio from the song "Time to Burn," "Someone told me I would never be free. That where you are is where you'll always be. But they're all wrong ...."

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Use one of the songs that has a tone you are looking for to practice to. Think of the feelings and mood of the song. When you are in an emotional state do you express yourself with a Classical tone and posture?

Use a line or two of the song and speak it with the feeling implied. Use your speaking voice at first to keep your singing instincts from ingaging. You want to use your former training to raise volume in your speaking voice but not change the tone.

I am not a teacher. I am just giving suggestions. Take it for what it is.

Good luck.

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My suggestion would be to temporarily stop thinking of singing as singing. Because right now, to you, singing means classical singing. But if you tell your mind to speak on pitch, or cry on pitch, or yell on pitch - all of which are closer to the sound of contemporary singing - you'll probably find a better foundation to work with.

I think the fastest and most important part of the fix is to getting rid of the vibrato. Tell me, how can one sound classical if they don't employ vibrato? You can't really. You can keep many of the same characteristics, tame the vibrato, and it will work okay in contemporary singing. Make the vowels a little more speech like, let the larynx raise with the pitch, and I think that's really the only adjustments you need to make.

I'm not sure which approach would work better, modifying the classical technique into contemporary by changing a couple components, or starting from scratch by letting the verb "sing" exit your mind and begin by sustaining speech on pitch, and then morphing that into contemporary singing.

But my biggest advice would be to ask Felipe if he can give you some skype lessons. He is classically trained and also sings contemporary tunes like a boss. I'm positive he could help you out. Or any teacher that is classically trained and sings contemporary music without sounding classical. Anyone who does both would be the best at helping you transition.

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Thank you so much, guys! Lots of great ideas to consider. I will try to get some recordings up at some point. I need to find a better microphone than the built-in on my computer, however.

I am a bit worried about my classical singing being affected, but I would be willing to sacrifice some of my classical training to be able to sing my own music. I already have experienced this to some extent when I was doing musical theatre. I found I couldn't sing classical repertoire and the more contemporary theatre music in the same day. However, it usually does "reset" by the next morning. I will be sure to take Felipe's advice and seek an approach that never feels uncomfortable. I only know of one voice teacher in my area who is familiar with both classical and popular styles. I will see if I can have a few lessons with him.

I like the idea of forgetting about singing "as singing" and thinking of it as "talking on pitch", as well as Jens' idea about thinking of it as adopting characters. I will experiment with those suggestions and see what happens. If there is one thing that being a classical singer has taught me, it's how to become very sensitive to the vocal mechanism and really pay attention to what's going on. Hopefully that will help, even if I have to let go of some of my habituated/conditioned patterns. :)

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