Recalibrating for Popular Music Singing // Julie Dean

Unknowingly, I was getting a little classical and popular music education in my ears when I grew up singing. I had classical music experiences in choral groups in church and school. Sang old gospel hymns and then Contemporary Christian Music at church. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I loved singing along with popular music movie musicals like Grease and Honeysuckle Rose. However, my mom loved traditional music theatre, and my family’s first video tapes were My Fair Lady and Sound of Music

Though I studied classical music in college, I mostly enjoyed and listened to popular music for pleasure. The closest thing to pop music I was allowed to sing in college were jazz standards. And so, the love of Gershwin, Porter and Ella began! 

A couple of years after I began teaching I realized that I did not know how to teach my clients the sounds they wanted to make in popular music songs. I sought out voice training in popular styles. It was during this course of study that I had to admit to myself that I would rather be singing popular music instead of opera myself! 

Coming from what I think of as traditional classical vocal training, there was a great stigma against popular music (“unpleasant, ugly sounds” – one voice teacher said) and concern of hurting our voices singing those songs. The ”good student” that I was, I stayed away from singing some of my favorite songs because I didn’t think I was that kind of singer. I assumed all voice training was centered around classical music. I started my research in 2005 and was pleased to find teachers doing studies and offering training in popular music styles! I’m grateful for all of the pioneers of voice training in popular music. Gaining this knowledge and training has given rise to a successful business training singers to sing whatever their heart desires, and has given me a fulfilling part-time music career in singing all kinds of popular music styles, as well as beginning a journey of being a singer-songwriter. 

I’m sure my own history of listening to and singing popular music styles through most of my life were helpful in making the switch to training myself and my clients in these styles. After all, my voice could remember some of the things it did naturally, before it was trained to sing classical music. I had to learn how to make the sounds, and then hear how those anatomical changes made the sound different. It didn’t take long for my ear to pick up the differences in others, but I had to be more patient in learning to like the different sounds coming from my own voice. And, this is what I notice in so many of my clients who have a classical/choral background: they have a hard time getting used to hearing their voices differently in the training. 

I had gotten used to a big open mouth/throat space, big breath and supported sound from my classical days. I never thought I would have to learn to sing folk and country music, but I needed to be consistently told to make a smaller space, take a smaller breath to get at the more authentic sounds to those styles. I had trained my body out of those natural inclinations when I began to sing classical music and was told this way to sing should work for any style of music. I found that did not work for me. 

So, whether you as a voice teacher need guidance in learning how to listen for popular music sounds, or you need to know how to guide your clients in re-training their ear, here are some tips from my experience in training classically trained singers to sing popular music. 

Recalibrating Muscles

A quick comparative anatomical analysis, classical/choral styles of singing tend to ask the following of the instrument:

  • Lower Larynx
  • Lifted Soft Palate
  • Taller open mouth space (sometimes rounded)
  • Thinner Vocal Fold vibration
  • Big deep breaths and Air Pressure (support)

In contrast, popular music styles could employ the body to act like above, but most often require this of the instrument:

  • Neutral or Raised Larynx
  • Neutral or Lowered Palate
  • Neutral or Wide mouth space
  • Thicker – Thinner vocal fold vibration
  • Breath of speech, Air Pressure needs vary

When we ask these different things of the body, our sound will be different. 

Recalibrating Client Ears

My classically trained singers who were not allowed to sing with a thicker vocal fold vibration (chest register) and wide mouth space, often think their voice sounds ugly or annoying when making those sounds. Some say “it just feels like I’m talking.” Give them confirmation that feeling like they’re talking is the goal. Encourage them to be patient with the emotional feeling that they don’t like the sound of their voice. Their ears will adjust. And, as their muscles change behavior and gain strength, the sound will get more stable and feel more secure, too. It does feel funny at first to have the vocal folds vibrate thickly together after so many years of not letting them. 

Some clients tell me they think their voice sounds dull, flat or boring when beginning to make these speech-like sounds. Coming from a classical/choral background, where the sounds are more full and what many call “resonant” (typically more airflow and more space in the mouth and throat), the sounds of popular music can feel and sound strange coming out of our mouths as we employ less air flow and have less mouth space. 

“It doesn’t feel like I’m singing!” is what I often hear from folks when they achieve that new sound. In order to create a new normal, we need to establish an awareness around how it feels and become accepting of the sounds in order to duplicate it in practice. It is not uncommon for the singers to squirm and make faces of disgust and want to go back to the way of singing they are used to. I have a couple of projects to help them hear sounds that might lead them to accepting their voice in a new way.

1) Sound Analysis

Pick three of your favorite popular music singers and write down adjectives about their sound, and pick three singers who you don’t like to listen to and do the same. I often have to coach them to use non-judgmental words because sounding good or bad is relative. Identifying a heavy power in Adele’s voice, or a raw grit in Brandi Carlisle’s voice, or the desperate heart-tugging whine of Patty Griffin’s voice, will give us a map of quality of sounds. So much of popular music singing is emotional singing. Angst should not sound like beautiful singing. Or, maybe our definitions of beauty get expanded through this exercise. I see great beauty in the yodel-cries of Hank Williams, for instance. 

2) “You Are My Sunshine”

You can pick any simple folk song for the point. This is a simple easy tune and most people know it. Picking an appropriate key to access their speaking voice sound is important. I typically start in the key of A for most women. I ask my clients to record themselves as I have them sing these simple four lines in several different ways:

  1. Sing it with no thought (see what happens naturally)
  2. Sing it with full classical training technique
  3. Sing it like with little energy, almost lazy and depressed.
  4. Sing it joyfully.

You can pick different emotions or moods. They likely will all sound different. When a singer is resistant to that thicker/speakier sound, I will ask them what could be the ugliest sound imaginable for the first 2 lines and then find a middle road (not as unpleasant) to finish it. I don’t like asking for an “ugly” sound, but, like me, most of these singers have been told that’s what these thicker sounds are like. We’re redefining ugly, too. 

Recalibrating Voice Teacher Ears

Voice teachers who are new to singing and/or training in popular music styles will need to get familiar with and used to appreciating these different sounds and sensations too. I suggest making a playlist of popular music songs of different genres to get familiar with the different sounds of the voice. I use Spotify to make playlists of songs, artists, and the site generates genre playlists to peruse. 

If not currently listening to popular music styles, what did you listen to when you were 15? Even my deeply classical loving/performing/listening friends still start singing pop songs in the store when those 80s hits start playing. What music do you remember saturating those formative years? Did you make mix-tapes or CDs? Make a playlist of those singers to re-acquaint yourself with songs and maybe voices you loved at one time. Analyzing their sound, mimicking their sound and figuring out what your body is doing to make the sound will begin to give you a foundation for how to talk your students through sensation of sounds. 

Recalibrating Vocal Health Markers

I was taught that I might hurt myself singing popular music and I now know that to be utterly false! We can all have vocal injury singing anything, or even just from coughing. I hope this stigma will continue to lose its power. Still, I use discernment when needed.

I had a death metal singer client a few years ago. While I attempted to make certain sounds to coach accordingly, it is not my strength, and not my bread and butter. I referred him to Melissa Cross’ “Zen of Screaming” DVDs and continued to work with him on other technical strengths to support the music he was making. He is a professional musician and this sound is his bread and butter. 

From time to time I have a hobbyist singer asking to sing a song like their favorite singer and I might deem the sound too intense to consistently make healthily. We give it a go to see how far we can take it to determine if their instrument is up to the task of supporting the sound they want to make. Sometimes we can make it work by changing the key. This can make a world of a difference! Sometimes we shelve it to work on an easier song and work up strength, or sometimes I will share that I’m not sure how to successfully make this sound consistently without their being harmful consequences. I always let the students try it first. Voices are different and some of my clients’ are stronger and more resilient than mine in different ways. You’ll need to train your ear how to hear when muscles are actually straining, and discern that from a healthy sound that is just taking more effort to be produced and should sound that way (some heavy popular styles require this). 

Have fun!

Learning to sing popular music styles has opened up a world of fun music to sing, and now I can easily sing those jazz standards close to Ella’s key and sound more lush than lyrical too! 

Every time I have learned and tried something new, it has made me a better teacher!  I hope you find the same. Share your favorite popular music singers in the comments if you would. 

3 thoughts on “Recalibrating for Popular Music Singing // Julie Dean

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