The Confusion About Classical Singing

On my travels, I frequently hear “I am classically trained” when I talk to singers or teachers of singing. This is said with some level of emphatic emphasis.

“Classically trained”.

Is this a thing? Can someone find me an unequivocal explanation of what “classical training” is?

All you need to dispel the idea that classical training is one, codified, organized, clearcut, definite thing is to put a group of singing teachers in one room and ask them to agree to an explanation of these two words.

There are all kinds of opinions about what the sound should be, how it should be produced or taught, how it works, and how to apply those sounds to material. There are ideas about how voices should be categorized (weight, size, range, color, etc.) and there are ideas about how to breathe (and where). The people who like everything “forward, in the masque”, don’t generally agree with the folks who like “a lot of space in the back” or a “warm, creamy tone”. The belly out people argue with the belly up and in people. The science crowd is likely to by-pass the emotional expression component but the vocalists who like emotion may not be all that concerned with voice science.

There are some things that almost everyone agrees upon. They are: Do not move your upper body or shoulders during an inhale. Try to get the sound to “vibrate” somewhere in your head and face. Do something with your middle torso while you are singing to help the tone feel solid and steady. Learn to keep your mouth open for long periods of time. Relax, relax, relax whatever is above your collar bone.

There are things that are expected, but can vary a little. They are: keep a consistent and continuous vibrato going, go smoothly from one note to the next (legato), pronounce consonants clearly and crisply but don’t over pronounce them, be pitch accurate, don’t scoop into the notes (although glissando up and down is OK in romantic music if it’s moderate in amount).

As far as I can determine, that’s about it. Everything else is a personal judgement call.

Should the jaw be dropped with the mouth open a lot and the lips narrow and rounded or should it be not too open with the face in a more “smiley” position or should it change all the time? Should the consonants be minimized in order to create a seamless line or should the words be pronounced as clearly as possible no matter whether it sounds optimal or not? Should the abdominal wall go up and in during exhalation or stay down and out as it is on inhalation? Should the ribs be opened or should they be quiet? Is it OK for the vibrato to get very slow and wide? If so, how slow and how wide? Is there an optimal “place” to find resonance in the tone or does it move around from vowel to vowel and pitch to pitch? How do you determine what material is best suited to a voice and/or person? Is it the text? Is it the tessitura? Is it the orchestration? The language? The role? If it is all of these things, how do they interact?

If you have a fantastic voice and good vocal production but are not a good communicator are you still an “excellent vocalist”? If you are not such a good technician but you are an excellent musician and linguist, is that enough to “get you by”?

If you are “classically trained” does that teach you automatically, without any other subsequent training, how to sound appropriate and healthy in rock music? if you are classically trained, does that mean you can automatically sing any role in your voice category (SATB) in a Broadway show? If you are classical trained, does it mean that you have to generate “the singer’s formant cluster” whether you want to or not? If you are classically trained, does that mean you have studied for 4 years, 6 years, 10 years or an entire lifetime? If you are classically trained, does it mean that your training automatically makes you an excellent teacher, and that you also automatically understand all voices, especially those that are least like your own, and allow you to work with them?

If you read the research on “classical training” you will see that the phrase has been used in research for quite a while. “The subjects were classically trained………”. Why hasn’t anyone questioned this?

If I said to you my doctor was “medically trained” wouldn’t you look at me with raised eyebrows? Aren’t all doctors medically trained? Do they get one standard kind of training as pre-meds or medical students or do the colleges vary it from course to course and school to school? Do we make certain assumptions about “doctors” and what they must know or do we think that it’s OK if each doctor knows only certain things? Do the specialists take additional training for a reason or is it just because “medical training” is inadequate if you are REALLY serious? Ridiculous, no? But apply some of these ideas to the profession of teaching singing and then think……how different is it? How different should it be?

There is plenty of confusion about “classical singing” except when you are the person doing it and you know you are or you are the person in the audience listening to it and you know it is the thing you hear. Outside of that, there is no set definition and there isn’t any reason why this dichotomy has never been discussed or written about. Except here.

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