One of the primary differences between classical singing and the varied styles of Contemporary Commercial Music is what happens when we sing.
In classical singing, research has shown that the larynx usually sits low in the throat (near the bottom). In loud classical vocal production the vocal folds are pressed together firmly while they vibrate in singing. The open/closed quotient is nearly the same for loud vocal production (above 100 dB) as for belting. There is research to prove this, but I don’t have the reference, so you will have to believe me, at least here. A good deal of air moves across the folds as they vibrate in most singing, but the loud climatic pitches may have less flow. In females, head register strength and dominance is important, but in most men, chest register is the primary driver. Head register development is an enhancement that allows for ease, softness and varied acoustics. There is an interface between vocal fold behavior and vocal tract behavior (between source and filter) or between what happens at the level of the larynx in the vocal folds and what happens in the throat and mouth coupled together as a tube. The jaw position as well as the mouth shape and tongue position also effect the overall output of the sound, typically called timbre or color. This includes the resonant frequencies that are enhanced. The five formants (frequencies that are prominent in the vocal tract) boost the carrying power of the sound when they line up closely with the harmonics of the pitch being sounded. The first two formants determine the vowel itself, the third, fourth and fifth determine the “oomph” of the sound. In good classical singers there is a boost between 2800 and 3200 Hz and this is what allows a single unamplified human voice to carry over a full orchestra. (The general resonance of the orchestra is about 900 Hz.) High women’s voices sit up there so they carry quite a bit because of the pitches, but lower voices would not be easy to hear if the formant cluster boost wasn’t there.
Making the correct shape for the vowels eventually involves all the muscles inside the throat and mouth including the back of the tongue, the soft palate and the muscles in the back of the mouth, the muscles of the throat, the neck and the musculature of the larynx. The swallowing muscles should not constrict the throat but the throat must “iris down”, or “focus” enough to keep the tube of the vocal tract firm and occluded enough to help boost the sound. Teachers call this behavior “singing in the masque” but many people just confuse it with singing in the nose and/or with “forward” resonance. Some people think that “point” or “squillo” describes the sound. There is an element of squealing or controlled screaming in classical singing and there is absolutely no consensus about what causes that phenomenon.
The air underneath the vocal folds matters a lot in classical singing. If you do not take a good amount (without struggle) and you are not strong enough to push it as it comes out, you have problems. Therefore, the vocal folds have to be strong enough to resist a considerable amount of airflow (sound pressure level or intensity) without being breathy or off pitch. The rib cage and the abdominal muscles have to be strong, too, but not so strong that they are too tight to move.
Classical singers often soften consonants and keep them very short in order to extend the length of the sung vowel sound. Verismo asks that the consonants be present, but just barely, and it takes years to develop the skill to do that. There are very gentle pitch glides in this music, something not found in Mozart or Handel and there is almost always an effort for the vocalist to sing in a tone that is considered beautiful (that’s relative, of course). These days, people are so obsessed with singing loudly, being beautiful is often a second or third goal after volume. It isn’t easy to make a beautiful tone until you have mastered all these behaviors and unfortunately most of them are indirect at best.
It is true that creative imagination can effect the throat and this tool has been the most commonly used device for singing teachers since the beginning of vocal training. In the mind of a highly creative and somewhat suggestible individual, thinking something can change the body’s response instantaneously. But, since the training is about developing consistency and volume, and not very much (at first) about developing subtle responsiveness, sometimes the very thing that makes the vocal response stable is what prevents it from also responding to mental images.
Further, if one is working with someone who has strong sturdy (throat/body) muscles but has also never sung, it can take quite a while before the muscles described can respond in a large enough way for the singer to feel change and the teacher to see and hear it. If the person is very flexible, it can take a long time before the system stabilizes enough to handle long phrases and loud continuous volume. Even if the student is trying as hard as he or she can, the results don’t show up just because the image is vivid or personal or even startling. Kinesthetic learning just isn’t that way. That’s why classical training takes years to perfect, even in people with good voices and natural aptitude. It is also why it diminishes in older people who do not have functional training. They have no place to turn for assistance.
In CCM styles there are two primary default productions and myriad variants of them — belting and crooning (we call that chest/mix). Belting is generally what you hear in rock, pop, gospel, country, R&B, rap, and sometimes jazz. Folk and bluegrass, alternative and a great deal of jazz do not rely on or default to belting all the time. The belt sound has been investigated for about 35 years but the research is not conclusive. This is because the earliest research was done primarily by one person who used herself as a subject. Her version of belting was neither representative of the marketplace sound nor was it evaluated by other singers who belted. The scientists who reviewed and ultimately accepted her work did not know anything about belting and evaluated the statistics, not the sound they were based upon, which was very unfortunate. This research has produced some points that were valid and have proved to be useful but it has also caused enormous confusion, particularly outside the United States, in countries that had no exposure to belting and didn’t know enough to evaluate the published data. The one place this research did not catch and become popular was in New York City where there were numerous teachers of belting who had experience and did not believe this sound was what they wanted to teach. Unfortunately, if you begin to research belting, this data cannot be avoided and each person is still on their own as to know which parts of that particular person’s research are helpful and which are not.
Subsequently, younger people began investigating belting and there are currently many studies on belting and related sounds going on all over the world. We will soon have a much better, broader and more up to date evaluation of what belting does and what it is, but I will explain below what is generally accepted by most people as being applicable at the present moment.
Belting requires that the vocal folds come together very firmly during the sound. Many would agree that the vocal folds are “pressed” together. In order for this to happen, there is some constriction in the throat, but it is not so that constriction should be a desired behavior. Rather, the training process should work to develop a good belt sound that minimizes constriction. It has been found that the larynx rises (hopefully, slightly) and this changes the shape and configuration of the vocal tract. The airflow parameters during belting are such that the sound requires high pressure (a lot of air in the lungs and help from the abs) and has low flow (air going out through the vocal folds during sound). It is quite possible to learn to make this sound without excess tension, constriction or forcing and it is not at all always damaging. It is, however, a high stress behavior for the vocal folds, so good conditioning is important. Since most teachers of singing do not understand this, they often undermine the sound by trying to use too much “breath support” or “legato” when what is needed instead is flexibility and a lack of deliberate squeezing or forcing on higher pitches. It is easy to confuse this sound with a shout, but good belters are singing, not shouting. The sound is loud, but freely produced, often has vibrato, and is emotionally evocative. Shouting has only one similarity, and that is its volume.
The acoustic parameters of a belt sound are very different, in the same person, than those of a classical sound. The formant behavior is different and the amplification of the sound usually lacks a singer’s formant cluster. Nevertheless, it absolutely carries like a trumpet so something may be going on that we just do not yet understand. The sound is generally clear, has a variable amount of vibrato, and can go up very high in pitch. It isn’t pretty (unless you would describe a trumpet’s sound as being pretty), but it is powerful, dramatic, and impressive in a clarion manner. Not everyone who sings can belt but anyone can learn if they are willing to spend time and have a knowledgeable teacher. Belters can sing quietly, as needed, but just because they can do so it does not mean that they are not belters.
Remember that “to belt” is a verb describing a specific kind of vocal production. “Belting” is an adjective used to describe what is happening when someone is using the sound and “a belt song” is a description of a kind of music. Sometimes you hear about opera singers “belting” out a high note, but that’s a metaphor, not a definition. Opera singing is not supposed to be belting.
The rest of the sound made in CCM styles is closely related to speech or chest register in most people, both men and women, and sometimes also in children. A soft, conversational sound, such as was found in jazz vocalists Peggy Lee or Mel Torme, is not a belt sound and they were not belters. Rosemary Clooney could croon, she could belt and she could go back and forth between them with no problem. That is true for others as well.
Soft vocal production does not require strong, powerful breathing, but it is still useful to develop breathing because it can help in terms of vocal health and stamina and in terms of expressiveness. The other styles that stay quiet and contained are not demanding vocally and one can sing in them without fussing over breathing, vocal production or anything else vocal as long as the music sticks close to spoken range and volume. As soon as it gets more demanding, training is both useful and wise.
There isn’t much “resonance” in this kind of singing, when thinking in the classical sense, and there is nothing wrong with that. There isn’t need for it as long as the person is amplified and the equipment is good. Producing classical resonance in a voice that is singing soft styles is absolutely a bad idea. It gets in the way, it sounds phoney, and it can be fatiguing rather than strengthening.
Singers in the styles that do demand loud powerful sustained sounds may or may not have other parameters in their vocal production such as vibrato, clear tone, crisp consonants or connected sounds. It depends on the style and the artist.
Some few people can sing operatically, and can also belt and also do a good mix. This is most often found in music theater singers where it can be a requirement of a summer stock season with several different types of shows. Crossing out of classical singing into other styles that are CCM has been tried by many opera stars in recent years, mostly with limited success. Only Michael Bolton and Barbra Streisand have made recordings of classical music. The Met did not rush to hire them. Generally, crossover artists are a special lot and limited in both number and recognition through marketplace viability. In other words, no one at the present time is having equal success as both a CCM singer and a classical singer. (We will see how Debra Voigt does singing “Annie” in “Annie Get Your Gun” this summer at Glimmerglass. It will be interesting to see how she does in Verdi and Strauss after that gig is over).
As long as the academic, recording, casting, composing and teaching world do not take this information into consideration, there will be a great deal of confusion about who can sing what. There will continue to be poor composing, stupid casting, unfortunate recordings, convoluted research and dreadful teaching. Who suffers from all this? The singers. Always, the singers.
So, if after reading this and the previous two posts, you still insist that classical training is a “one size fits all” approach and that learning “Caro Mio Ben” is going to help you sing “Defying Gravity”, and if you think that classical resonance is going to help you learn to sing “Silent Night” in a sweet angelic tone, you had better think hard about why you hold so tightly to your ideas. The real world is knocking on your door and if you hurry, you might still be able to answer and step outside.