When I was a child and heard classical singers on the radio or TV, they all sounded alike. I could recognize that they were singing “opera style”, but to me, one voice was just like another. I also knew that Tennessee Ernie Ford sounded different than Dinah Shore (giving away my age here, folks) and that Perry Como sounded different than Dennis Day.
After I had had some good amount of training, I began to recognize individual classical artists. I began to hear the difference between Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland (a pretty big difference, but not to me at the time). Much later, after decades of work with classical singing) when I was with other skilled listeners we would play “drop the needle” and see who could identify the singer in the fewest notes. Sometimes it only took one long one to say, “That’s Corelli!” His voice was so distinctive.
The idea that classical singers all “sound the same” has to do with the resonances they must generate in order to heard over a full orchestra without electronic amplification. That similarity is a requirement in all but the highest sopranos, whose voices carry because they are often up on very high pitches which do most of the work of “carrying” the voice. It is the case, however, that there is such a thing as generic training for classical singing and it makes all voices sound pretty much the same: loud, indistinct or imitative. In other words, lousy training makes for lousy sound. When the person singing’s can be described as being “woofy”, “barky”, “hooty”, “over-darkened” or just distorted, you can’t really hear the voice for itself. You hear the vocal production which is off balance or manipulated.
Free singing brings out the individuality of the voice. It encourages the uniqueness of each person’s vocal production. It allows for the vocalist to find through exploration how he or she sounds over time, while learning and performing various kinds of repertoire. Teachers who have a preconceived notion of how the voice should sound even before the vocalist has a chance to wiggle around and try things out are not helpful. Many teachers have a fixed sound in their mind and they bring the student to it, regardless. Guess what, all the students of these teachers sound the same. Is this a surprise?
In CCM styles, it is the same. The people who teach yelling make all their students sound the same because that is their main tool. The people who tell belters to make whatever sound they equate with belting (a squeal, a grunt, a yell, a shout) end up training singers to approach their songs with a “rote” response and then everything sounds the same. If you listen to the great CCM singers, however, who very likely had no training, they sing with real expression, with variation, with a connection to both the musical line and the words, with little effort.
In order to serve a student’s highest good, a teacher must bring out the entire voice and balance it without distorting the vowels. The breathing should be deep, full and easy on inhalation and regulated on exhalation, adjusting the use of the belly muscles to the firmness of the ribcage during phonation. THEN, and only then, should the teacher begin to train the student toward a specific vocal production. Doing it before skews the instrument and will make it nearly impossible for the vocalist, if she is young, to get away from this production on her own later in life, unless she works with a skilled technician who can help her solve this problem.
If you are a student, listen to the pupils your teacher has. If they all sound like the teacher, if they all have “funny” vowels, if they are all hard to understand, if they all have bad high notes or low notes, if they all sound thin and tinny or big and overblown, be suspicious. A group of individual singers can’t all have the same characteristics. The more the training is good and useful, the more the person is recognizable as herself. The mechanical behavior melts into free singing and the ingredients necessary to sing any song in any style become a comfortable default that doesn’t get in the way of either individuality or expressiveness.
When everybody sounds the same, something is wrong.
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