It’s not unusual to hear a soprano sing a classic music theater song or an American Songbook jazz piece in a key that is simply too high. Not for her voice, not for her comfort, but for the song.
The key of a song makes a big difference to the way it feels when it’s being sung, and how audiences hear it. The mentality of classically trained singers who must learn operas in set keys often gets carried over into other music mindlessly. Songs are meant to be transposed unless you are auditioning for a show and you are singing a specific piece to indicate that you are able to manage it. Many times the feeling for the style is there, but the artist doesn’t seem to know how to find the right “home” for the song. In that case, the whole thing suffers. The vocalist looks and sounds only so-so, the song isn’t really represented at its best, and the audience is cheated of a satisfying experience.
During a master class or when judging a competition, listening to classically trained singer after classically trained singer, it is so very clear that the earmarks of what we call classical training can easily be picked out like cans of Campbell’s soup at the supermarket. You can see and hear the poor vocalists who have been taught to sing with a “low larynx” that never moves because they tend to sing heavily in low and mid-range and go flat or constrict on top. You can tell the females who have been taught not to use “chest register” because their voices are limp, sometimes insipid and are frequently wobbly. You can tell the people who have been taught to sing exactly what’s on the page and do so diligently, regardless of the effect that has on musical expression and personal communication. You can tell who has been taught to “breathe in the diaphragm” because the belly is busy, but there is little connection of the rib and abs to the postural muscles during exhalation. You can tell the ones who have been taught to bring the sound forward at all costs, because the brightness is sometimes overwhelming, causing a warm voice to lose it’s attractiveness and a brighter voice to become thin and shrill. And one finds over and over the folks who sing with wet spaghetti arms and frozen bodies. Sometimes these singers sound just fine, so if one were listening to a recording, there would be no issue. In a live performance, however, singing with a lot of emotional conviction and no movement at all flies in the face of what we know the body does. Have you ever seen anyone get out and argue about a fender bender with limp arms and a frozen body? But you can see vocalists who passionately expressing something without any congruence with their own body language. This is either taught or ignored. The job of the teacher is to see that things are connected, so you can assume that if the vocalist has studied and gotten away with this behavior, either the teacher encourages it or just pretends that it doesn’t matter.
If you sing CCM styles and you are classically trained, and most particularly if you are a high voice, please consider lowering the keys of your songs. Chirping away on “Someone To Watch Over Me”, trying to do an “arrangement” of it is not a great way to present yourself. And, if you can’t belt but think that you can talk or yell your way through a belt song, you are not doing yourself any favors. You actually have to know what you are doing and why and practice it.
And, if you do not really know and live a style, just singing it thinking you do is really a mistake. Like anything else, all styles deserve to be respected if you take them seriously. Guessing how a style should sound only makes your performance fall short of the mark. Performers should seek out experts in a style in order to get some feedback when attempting more than one style, especially if the singer is primarily a classically trained person, else they run the risk of sounding and looking foolish. You, too, may not know what you do not know.