Technique and Style

“If you can sing lyrics, you can sing anything! ….”

We hear it often, but is it true? To be honest – no. It’s a myth we hear over and over again and is often repeated by people who either think that lyric is superior to any other musical genre, or that opera style and vocal technique are the same thing.

Where does this myth come from? Because we don’t often enough differentiate between vocal technique and vocal style. Yet they are two very different things. Consider a child who is learning to walk – the movements of his body are the basis of his walking, but the clothes he puts on don’t change the way he makes the movements that make him walk.

To make a more vocal analogy – my voice is my voice, and the way I produce sounds is the same whether I’m speaking in French or English (caution, I’m not talking about phonetics here – but about sound production – making my vocal chords vibrate and configuring my canal to make a sound).

So, in summary:

Vocal technique brings together everything related to sound production for singing, for example – how to hold a note, how to pass between registers and laryngeal coordinations, how to breathe dynamically (I’ll write more about breathing in another article), how to vibrate etc.

Vocal style is the set of tips and tricks that singers of a given genre use to make it sound authentic – in RnB, for example, one can think of the rapid ornamentations (the “vibes”) that make the style distinctive and recognizable; in metal one can think of the famous ‘saturated’ voice that is found in this genre. The musical dialect, if you like.

If you put the wrong style on the wrong genre – it doesn’t sound right and an ‘Opera’ sound is no more suitable for a Blues song than a ‘Blues’ sound is for an opera song. It would be like going to dinner in a fancy restaurant dressed in a bathing suit! But opera singers (including me, until a few years ago) often find this hard to admit (I would like to point out, however, that until now I have never gone to dinner in a bathing suit…).

Half of the equation

Now it becomes obvious that if we try to teach us singing by teaching us a lyrical style – we’re missing half the equation. There are two possible outcomes to such an approach:

  • The student learns the style, but not the technique, so his voice will not last long and he will end up hurting himself.
  • The student manages to learn the technique in spite of the teaching he has had (talent) but ends up believing that the classical style and the technique are the same thing and therefore spends his life singing everything with a classical voice. At best he looks like an idiot, at worst he becomes a singing teacher and forces his students to sing opera whether they like it or not – because he is spreading a lie he was made to believe.

This idea that you have to sing lyric is totally false – it’s like telling Irish musicians that they have to play Bach to make a violin sound good. That would be ridiculous and slightly disrespectful to a musical tradition that is just as rich as the Western classical tradition.

So, what approach should be taken?

First you need to learn good vocal technique and then, once the basics are laid out, you start learning the style(s) you like – not before, and this for all musical genres.

People who contact me for lessons often ask me ‘what technique do you teach? Lyrical singing?” – I tell them that there is no such thing as lyrical technique, that they are two different things – technique (which is the same for all kinds of singing) and lyrical singing (which is a musical genre that you can sing if you want to once you have acquired the technique) – which technique do I teach? It’s simple – vocal technique!

I also often have conversations like ‘I would like to learn to sing rock, but I know I’ll have to do lyrical singing to do it’ – ‘huh?! Why is that? If you want to sing rock, sing rock, damn it!’

I also see people who come for consultations and who have done years of lyric studies (higher conservatory – professional singers etc) and who realize that their voices are beginning to give way. What do we do? We untangle the technique from the style as quickly as possible so that these people can save their voices, and their careers.

It’s often said that a singer has less range as he gets older – physically there’s nothing to stop us from singing well in the same range for the rest of our lives if we have good technique. It is true that women can lose some range at menopause, up to a minor third, but the notes are recoverable if the technique is good and the set-up is done by an expert.

A simple calculation

If you learn lyrical music as a technique, at best you’ll end up with a voice frozen in a musical dialect, which you won’t be able to apply to other musical genres (and if you want to sing from Celine Dion to karaoke, you’ll look ridiculous!). – at worst you’ll be able to screw up your voice.

If, on the other hand, you first learn a neutral and healthy sound production technique, you can then learn to ‘dress’ your voice in several different styles and sound convincing in each. A true all-rounder. That way, if you want to sing lyrical you can do so (and why not, lyrical is very beautiful after all!) – but if you feel like singing other styles, you can do so too.

The point is that vocal (or instrumental) technique and the kind of music we call classical music are very different things, and if we try to tell you otherwise, we’re lying to you – after all, there were many people who could sing before the time when most of our ‘classical’ music came from, weren’t there?