Applying Classical Technique to Pop/Rock Singing.

Why Classical Technique?

Many young singers come to my studio with their guitars in hand and hopes of singing like the Rock stars of today and yesterday.  With the success of Broadway musicals like Rock of Ages, Rent, Aida, Hair and the sure-to-be hit Green Day musical American Idiot, as well as the resurgence of 80’s rock music we hear on shows such as Glee, it is no surprise to me that everyone wants to find their inner Steve Perry, Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi or Chris Daughtry.  The problem is that most of this music is quite difficult to sing.  It requires singers to produce a big full-voice sound, while singing high notes.  If this is done incorrectly, however, it can become very difficult and can cause damage to the voice.

During my early career as a singer, I, too, struggled with singing high material comfortably and healthily.  In my contracts on cruise ships, production shows, or with bands, I was often asked to sing the highest, most difficult, tenor Rock or Pop songs.  Instinctively, I would push my voice to the top to produce a big belt sound, but this was uncomfortable for me.  At the end of each show, my voice felt hoarse and tired.  It was when this began to happen that I started to apply some of the classical concepts from the operatic training that I had received in college to my Rock and Pop singing.  Vocalizing on pure Italian vowels, for example, was a good way for me to avoid vocal damage, while singing Pop songs in English.  This allowed me to alter some of the vowels in the English songs in order to access the higher notes more easily. 

Recognizing the need for a more classically based technique, I began to search for a voice teacher who could help me apply the technical principles of classical singing to the kind of singing that I was doing in my shows.  I began to work with Maestro David Jones at that time, and have experienced remarkable success with my singing in the years since.  In my lessons with Jones, I began to work with rock ballads to see where I could use more operatic technique, without sounding like an opera singer.  David pointed out that all of the same “rules” that apply in operatic vocalizing apply to rock singing.  This is the basis of my approach with my own voice students.

The Passagio

One of the first rock ballads I took into a lesson with Jones was the famously difficult, but beautifully written song, Open Arms, written and performed by one of my early rock heroes, Steve Perry. The song starts off easy, with the gentle melody “Lying beside you, here in the dark; feeling your heart beat with mine.”  Gradually, it becomes more difficult.  Most singers will begin to experience difficulty as the melody ascends to the F# on the word “be”. This is where operatic technique becomes useful. Most well trained Operatic Tenors and Sopranos know that something has to happen on that “crazy” note in the passaggio, F#.  There is a certain shift in the voice.

Passaggio is an Italian term, meaning passageway.  For the purposes of singing, the passaggio may be defined as the area of the voice between chest voice and head voice.  Many singers talk about the passaggio in terms of their “break.”  Learning to train the passaggio to work properly is one of the major classical concepts that I have incorporated into my Rock/Pop technique.  For a more detailed explanation of this concept, refer to David Jones’ article, What Is Passaggio And Why Is It Important?

http://www.voiceteacher.com/passaggio.html). 

In essence, whether one is singing Classical or Rock/Pop music, it is important to learn to bridge the chest voice and the head voice, or falsetto, in a healthy way, without closing the throat or straining the voice.  The legendary Rock singer, Steve Perry (of the band Journey), talks about his application of this concept in a Voice Magazine article (1980): “There is that point, the threshold, where the normal voice crosses to falsetto. There is a way in which you make an edge on your voice the higher you get. The trick is to get so you can bridge the upper register of your normal voice to the lower register of your falsetto” (Speak 1).

One way of making the “bridge” or connection between the head voice and the chest voice is by bringing the “operatic falsetto” that Perry references down and mixing it with chest register. This helps the voice to take on a new strength and beauty. Most singers who do not have a clear understanding of how to navigate the passaggio will push the chest voice up into the high register.  This causes tension in the vocal chords because the throat closes under the vocal weight.  When we begin incorporating more head voice, falsetto, or “Operatic Falsetto” into our singing, however, we gain more freedom in the upper register, especially in the passaggio area of the voice.

When my new students begin this regimen of bringing the head voice down as far as possible, they usually complain of two things: first it feels very weak and disconnected. Second, there is a little “bump” in the sound on the way down from the high note in head voice to the low note in chest voice.  I can usually predict their comments before they verbalize them.  Without hesitation I tell them, “That felt very weak and you didn’t like the break in the sound did you?” The student will usually start laughing and say something like “Wow, it’s like you’re reading my mind or something,” at which point I will tell them “I’m not Miss Cleo, I’ve been doing this a long time now!” 

I expect these problems to occur because I recognize that the voice needs time to adjust to the new mechanism changes that occur when working with this concept.  What I have seen is that the “bump” on the way down from head voice to chest voice begins to disappear after the third or fourth lesson. Also, as the bump or break begins to dissipate, the head voice gets stronger and even takes on more chest color. This gives the listener the impression that the singer is using full chest voice. However, the singer feels only the lightness of the “connected” head voice in the throat. Of course, none of this can be achieved fully until the singer begins to support his/her voice properly. I will be addressing support in future articles. For now, we will focus on an exercise that promotes the proper singing through the passaggio.

Exercises

One of the most effective passaggio exercises that I learned from Maestro Jones is called the “Cuperto”. The exercise starts very low in the chest voice, say about low Ab or A and on the vowel “Ah.”  The singer sings a short 1,2,3,2,1,2,3,2,1 scale. From there the singer jumps up one octave in pure head voice and sings the vowel “ooh”. Then, the singer descends, carrying the head voice sound back down to the low Ab or A. This exercise is absolutely brilliant because it utilizes the light mechanism of head voice and connects it in a very healthy way to the chest voice.  Once the singer becomes comfortable with the one octave “Cuperto,” he/she can progress to the two-octave version. Jumping from low A natural to high A natural is no easy feat for any singer. The goal, however, is to sing the high note gently in head-voice and to carry that head sound all the way down to the chest voice. 

Over time, the “Cuperto” becomes effortless and the singer begins to gain more confidence in his/her upper register. I have seen this happen to so many of my students. They come in with a 1- and-a-half octave range and after a few months on the “Cuperto” they will easily gain a three-octave range. The effectiveness of the Cuperto results from the ability of the singer to bring the head voice down, rather than to push the chest voice up and then connect it to the falsetto—a bad habit in most young singers that almost always ends in disaster.

Final Thoughts

I encourage you all of you future “rocks stars” to begin to look at rock music from a more classical point of view. The term “ROCK OPERA” may be closer to actual opera than we think. In my long career as a singer and voice teacher, I have found that the classical technique has served me well. In my continued studies with Maestro Jones, some lessons we work on Operatic arias and others on very difficult Rock tunes. The payoff is the ability to sing just about anything I want to sing without damage or fatigue to my voice.  Both my students and I have benefited from this kind of training.

Jeffrey Alani Stanfill

Works Consulted:

Jones, David L. What Is Passaggio And Why Is It Important? (www.voiceteacher.com)

Jones, David L. The Role of the Cuperto in the Italian School (www.voiceteacher.com)

Speak, Chuck. Steve Perry: Lead Vocalist of Journey. March-April 1980. Voice 1. Web.

(http://www.steveperryfans.com/press/voiceapr80.html)