A sad, but typical story from an opera singer trying to transition to a non-classical singer.
I often meet new students who have a lot of formal training in becoming an opera singer. When they struggle to make a living at it, they usually look to change things. That’s when they meet me. Here is a typical scenario that I frequently encounter:
A woman, somewhere between the ages of 25 to 30, comes into my studio for her first lesson. After a few minutes of interviewing to discover her history, goals, what she perceives as her problems, I find out she has a degree in vocal performance but now wants to pursue a career in Music Theater or pop. I have her sing a five note scale on /a/ starting fairly low in the voice. Hearing a lack of chest voice, I tell her to come out of pure, raw chest on the bottom. As the scale ascends, the buildup of sub glottal pressure is evident, the vowel goes very wide, the larynx ascends because of the involvement of suprahyoid muscles, and a discernible flip into a falsetto-like head voice or an overly cultivated sound (neither having any thing in common with what came before them) occurs around C#5. The singer possesses a fine sound but lacks the correct coordination to make the sounds necessary to have a chance when pursuing her new goals (and most likely her original goals when she started singing). The singer is very frustrated by the situation. I usually intervene at this point by saying, “Let me tell you your life story.”
“When you were a little girl, you loved to sing. You sang what was on the radio, watched musicals with your mom, pretended you were in the musicals, and were recognized by people as having a wonderful voice. You continued in this fashion until you reached high school where the choir director said you should take voice lessons. Not knowing any better, you went with a teacher the director recommended. You were implicitly or explicitly told that the music you liked was not worthy, your chest voice was beaten out of you, and you were told, ‘if you can sing classical music you can sing anything.’ You went along with the program because they were your teachers, and your teachers would not steer you in the wrong direction, would they?
“Your choir director loved you, gave you all the solos, entered you in contests where you did well, and cast you in principal roles in the musicals. When it came to the musicals you struggled vocally. You tried to sing in the style that you heard in movies, recordings, and on stage but were unable to make those sounds. You resorted to yelling (which made you hoarse), all head voice (which did not fit the music), or a big disconnect between chest and head, which sounded like yodeling. Your high school voice teacher told you to use middle voice and modeled it for you, but that did not sound right to you either. It still sounded too classical. You suspected something was wrong with what you were being told but did not know where to go to fix it.
“Looking for guidance, you talked to your choir director, parents, voice teacher, and other respected individuals. The general recommendation was that you go to college to pursue a degree in vocal performance. You were accepted into a prestigious program and were inundated with art songs. You learned to sing in a variety of languages and were schooled in Western music theory, ear training, etc. The sounds you heard around you were very operatic and the attitude in the institution was rather snobbish. Once again you were told, ‘If you can sing classical music, you can sing anything? A master’s degree was possibly in your future.
“You went out into the world armed with your degree in vocal performance, and guess what? You could not find work. Why? Because you were not good enough. Classical singing is a very niche market with little demand. Those who make it are extraordinary in that field. I am not saying you had a bad voice and could not perform as a singer, but that very few people make money at classical singing. Statistically, you had a better chance of being a pro athlete.
“You recognized this, and had the epiphany that you never wanted to sing classical music in the first place. Non-classical music was what you wanted to do, and besides, you were told, ‘If you can sing classical music, you can sing anything. ‘So, you started auditioning for musicals, bands, etc., and no one would hire you. Why? Because you sounded like an opera singer. You are in vocal no man’s land.”
At this point I ask the student how right I am in this description. The answer is usually that I am pretty dead on. I know this may sound like a shocking, harsh way to start off a relationship, but if one is to fix the problem, one must expose it first. The problem in these cases was the student’s training. Students need to know that they were given some well intentioned (perhaps), but totally irrelevant advice to what their initial goals, and, now re-realized goals, were and now are. However, with patience, humility, and hard work, a new coordination can be established.
In part two I discuss some of the challenges an opera singer will face in converting to a more non-classical style of singing.