Healthy Cross-Over Singing
By David Jones
There is an increasing interest in ‘crossover’ singing today, or the ability to cross from one genre of music to another. Perhaps it is because many opera companies are feeling the need to incorporate more musical theater into their seasons in order to survive financially, attracting a larger audience.
Even though I started voice lessons at age 14 (too young), I always had an interest in popular music ‘crooners’ like Jack Jones, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, and Nat King Cole. Of course I had no awareness that they were lyric baritones, which was my true vocal fach. Many of us are greatly influenced by our early exposure musical performances and/or recordings. I loved the sound of Kate Smith singing big-voiced ballads with full orchestra behind her. I loved her voice and I loved her interpretation. But perhaps I was attracted to ballads because I grew up in a household filled with classical music, having two sisters who played classical piano and one sister (my sister Sarah Sulka) who sang with a beautiful soprano voice. I remember hearing her practicing her singing of operetta arias and I loved her sound. I would sit in my bedroom with the door open so I could hear her practice. I think this early experience influenced my later development as a singer and teacher.
My early training was more toward the tenor fach, which came very close to ruining my voice. Choral directors inherently needed tenors and if you were a lyric baritone in those days and had a few good high notes, then you were stuck in the tenor section. My voice developed later and dropped later due to singing a tessitura that was too high. My laryngeal squeeze was almost 20 years old when I got to Dixie Neill, who took me down to my true vocal fach, lyric baritone. She had the tools that helped me to release my laryngeal muscles and begin my vocal recovery.
I had always had an interest in vocal technique after graduation from university, mainly because I got no concrete concepts in my training there. I never saw a picture of a larynx, never heard the word larynx, never knew about jaw position or tongue position or how to breath and engage the body properly. I basically just learned repertoire, which helped me to develop musicianship but did not teach me how to sing or use my instrument properly. At age 23, I was given a copy of the Lindquest vocalises from my friend Martha Rosacker. At that time I was teaching in the theater department at Texas Christian University and my students began to develop very quickly, winning voice scholarships that assisted in paying their tuition. It was a thrilling experience for me to help these young singers develop in a way that I had not. I got my first taste of what if felt like to help a singer achieve a higher level of healthy vocalism and THAT my friends is what drew me deeper and deeper into teaching.
A few years later, I began to compose ballads as a hobby, which turned into quite a side profession. I moved to New York in 1978, after having received a letter of interest from a famous New York composer of pop music. Singing ballads with a gentle approach to singing was much easier than approaching classical music with a high larynx. The idea that I might be a baritone never entered my mind until I met Dixie Neill in 1983. I always wanted to enjoy classical vocal music, but it was always hard on my throat.
My teacher Evelyn Reynolds started her career in 1936 singing with big bands in Birmingham, Alabama. She would often describe to me how there would be 3 or 4 soloists, usually young women, who would wear evening gowns and sing the latest popular love songs while people would dance on the dance floor. It was a time when melody and beauty of tone was still a part of our popular music culture. Sadly much of this has been lost along the way and hopefully it will come back into fashion. Once in a while you will still hear a beautifully ballad, but not so often as decades ago.
I remember Evelyn and I once had a discussion about WHAT physically created the difference between singing pop and Broadway music, lieder, and operatic sound. What does a singer have to do in order to change styles? I loved her explanation. She said, “Pop or Broadway singing is more conversational and uses the naso-pharynx or the soft palate space. Lieder and a great deal of other recital literature requires the opening of the naso and oro pharyngeal space. Operatic sound requires that the singer learn to fully release the larynx lower and wider in order for maximum resonance to develop, offering the singer the ability to carry over the orchestra.” I loved her explanation. It gave a physical explanation of what we do to change styles.
When singers ask me, “Can I sing all styles?” My answer is, “Yes, but you will always train full classical operatic sound to fully protect your voice!” Phoebe Snow was a student of mine until she died about 2 years ago. We constantly worked on classical arias to strengthen her pop voice. Elaine Paige, the great British theater singer ALWAYS warmed up in her head voice using a classical sound before going onstage. Her teacher encouraged and taught her to do this. So NO the throat is not as open singing musical theater, pop, or rock music. It is more open singing recital repertoire, because some fuller music needs a near operatic sound. But in my experience, every singer needs to develop his/her full operatic sound in order to acquire what I call ‘damage control’. I have a tenor who sang “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway for years. By the time he came to my studio, he had developed a loss of high range and a large vocal wobble. After we trained him in his full operatic sound, he could sing any musical theater he wanted without any problems. I compare it to modern dancers who take ballet class to keep their ‘chops up’. Singers need to consider the same idea.
I remember I met Shirley Emmons years and years ago. She once told me, “I ruined my voice going from style to style, not knowing what I was doing with my throat!”
Thank you Evelyn Reynolds for giving me a clear physical explanation of the physical differences between singing different styles of music.
To read more from David Jones please visit voiceteacher.com and order his CD set “An Introductory Voice Lesson with David Jones” from cdbaby.com.