Contrary to what some “modern vocal coaches” will try to tell us, it is indeed possible to competently sing many styles using classical technique. However, many people seem to think that an open throat is what causes people to have the characteristic “opera sound” that doesn’t always work too well for styles such as rock, country, gospel, pop, etc. So if all singing requires an open throat, what is the important factor that determines what sort of sound will be produced? The rock sound, the country sound, the Broadway sound – is it all produced at the vocal cords, or is it determined by the shape of the throat?
Great question. I think this starts to get to the heart of what causes many people problems. I agree with your basic premise. But the answer to your question depends on how we define these concepts of “classical technique” and “open throat”.
What the “modern vocal coaches” are referring to as “classical technique” is the common, artificial imitation of the sound we associate with classical singing. And a big part of that imitative sound is what people refer to as an “open throat”.
Whenever our technique is based on a sound it is imitative. And when our technique is based on imitating a sound (rather than the basic fundamentals of sound production with the body) then we will be limited to the style of music whose sound we are imitating.
This is because we are creating a sound quality rather than naturally expressing a word and emotion that results in a sound. And the sound that is being created is an imitation of a certain type of sound, let’s say an operatic sound.
So if the technique of the singer is to create an operatic sound, then it will be out of place in a pop song. And because that is the only way this singer knows how to make a sound they are limited. They then have to resort to learning a new “technique” for pop, and country, and musicals, and rock. This is not a good situation.
On the other hand, if we define “classical technique” as the traditional Italian manner of using the voice naturally as a musical instrument, then I agree with your statement that we can apply that to non-classical styles of music as well.
Now, I should point out that although we associate the technique of using the voice naturally with the Italian tradition, it is not bound in any way to Italy or Italian music. It just so happens that the observation of the voice’s natural behavior originated in Italy. But I’m sure many of the same concepts were noticed around the world. And they can be observed and used by anyone in any style now.
This brings up another example of why I avoid the term “technique” and choose to focus on function. The concept of function seems to me to be more universal. Less at risk of confusion. Technique is open to interpretation and opinion. Too many variables for us to be able to discuss things and understand each other.
If we are talking about “Classical Technique” and I mean using the voice spontaneously and naturally with no artificial mannerisms. And you mean the way to make yourself sound like an opera singer by imitation. Then we will be using the same term but talking about completely different things.
The same situation applies to the concept of an “open throat”. For the imitative technique an open throat resembles a “yawn”. This creates a condition in the throat that causes the resonance to be trapped in the enlarged pharynx. It darkens the tone and creates the imitation of a big, impressive sound.
The way I define an “open throat” is one that is not closed.
When we talk of the throat what we are really referring to is the airway. The airway can be in a condition of being constricted or not, which is then “open”. It can’t really be “opened” because the normal condition of it is to be open. It can be closed, or constricted, by a number of different factors.
So our job to achieve an “open throat” is to remove the influences that cause the airway to close. As such, an open condition is a result of repose, not the result of doing something. So the idea of “opening” the throat is a misunderstanding of the nature of the airway and how it acts as a resonator for the voice.
The human animal is capable of a wide range of imitative sounds. These imitations are accomplished through complex manipulations of the throat/larynx complex. In other words through constrictions of the airway. So the “operatic”, “rock”, “pop”, “musical theater”, etc. “sound” is created through this skill of imitation. The identifiable sound of a particular style is determined by the shape, or more accurate-constriction– of the throat.
The problem that comes from this approach, other than the limitation to one style per “technique”, is the negative impact this imitation has on the physical instrument. Any time we imitate a sound we are deviating from our natural voice. We are introducing unnatural, interfering tensions into our body. When we do that we are causing the instrument to work in a way that it is not designed to work. Over time this will cause distress in the physical mechanism. Eventually the singer will experience difficulty with their voice.
This is the true purpose of learning and training to use the voice. So it will work for life. Not so you can learn to sound “like” someone or some style. Or so you can sound good or have a bigger voice or whatever. We will sound better and stronger as a result of better function. And we will accomplish it with a healthier voice also. But if we try to accomplish those more superficial objectives we will risk the health of the instrument.
It just doesn’t make much sense to try to get a “sound” that, if successful, will cause the voice to break down. If the voice breaks down you can’t do your job. Then what is it worth?
What I encourage people to go for is a vocalism that is functionally natural. Where the body is behaving as a musical instrument. With no limitation to a single style of music. If the voice is behaving completely and naturally we can take advantage of certain “reflexive responses” from the body that make singing somewhat automatic. And when we can utilize this aspect of our “living instrument” it makes the act of singing much easier.
It is simply allowing the different parts of the body do the job they are responsible for. The larynx and vocal cords are the material that provides the source vibration. The respiratory system provides air pressure to keep the vocal cords vibrating. The airway acts as a resonator to amplify the sound waves coming from the vibration of the vocal cords. Same as most other musical instruments.
This natural response also has the benefit of instinctively expressing the style of music, without being premeditated and contrived. The audience feels the expression directly because the singer is not placing any artificiality between them. The experience is like “thinking out loud”. It is the rare experience of a natural singer. It can be learned, but not through imitation.
Hope this helps. Thanks.