Subject: Having to teach more popular singers and the frustration of them wanting big sounds before they have fundamentals down.
Dear Michael,
I want to thank you for your great articles. I have voice students read them all the time, and it is a great help; I wish you lived in my area! I have been teaching classical and opera for many years, but now there are more students interested in belting and just singing loudly without the understanding that to build the voice takes time. The schools put on shows that the students are not vocally ready for. It is most upsetting, they do not realize or do not care that the voices are being pushed. I try to approach all styles first with finding the lighter/thinner vocal cord/ head voice mechanism. This light, natural sound is not what they want, few have the patience to learn, and want to take the time for careful / proper voice building. They want a big sound right away. It is not until they hurt themselves that they start to believe they should not push up a thick sound until it cracks. I was wondering what your thoughts are on this problem. Also, if you would explain to me your ideas on what the differences are (technically or otherwise) between classical and popular singing. Indeed to get a brighter timber to the voice it seems important to open the mouth more and go for a very bright sound. I would love to hear your thoughts on the two styles. Thank you so much, you are an inspiration to keep teaching.


Thank you very much for your kind words. I appreciate it and am encouraged that you have found my web site helpful enough to recommend to your students. The description of your approach of starting with finding the thinner vocal cord adjustment is very good to hear. I feel that a healthy voice, male or female, needs to start there. Then it can strengthen without risk. A thick cord mass will become difficult as intensity is increased.

I agree that there is a problem in the world of student musical theater. I had a client last year that had a lot of trouble in that situation. It is a challenge for everyone involved. And it is difficult to change because so much of what is out there for students to hear is not good singing. So they go by that and want to do the same, like you said, before they can do it and keep their health. But to be realistic, the professionals aren’t usually doing things in a healthy way either. So there aren’t many good examples for young singers interested in musical theater. I often tell people they need to be better than the singers on the recordings. Or at least smarter. Because they have problems too.

One thing I try to do is assure them that what they want is possible, but it requires skill to do. And if they do it before developing the skill they will hurt themselves. Not maybe, but will. I usually use athletes for comparison. Because a singer really is more of an athlete than anything else. We are using our bodies in a very skillful way at the risk of injury.

It is easier to convince them if they play a sport or another instrument. Then you can point out that it took time to develop skill with the other activity. They usually see that it is the same kind of situation. But it is normal to want to do what they hear. So you just have to guide them and then build to what they want. It takes constant repetition before they will hear your message. Keep telling them. And show examples of singers that have developed problems whenever you can. The stories are out there.

I am often asked if it is possible to belt in a healthy way. I always say that it depends on what you mean by “belt”. Most belting we hear is just yelling on pitch, and not in a good way. I use the idea of yelling on occasion to illustrate the level of energy needed for full voice high notes. But the action at the larynx can never be yelling.

This kind of belting can never be done healthy. But if by belting we mean a full voice expression that gives the impression of being the same voice as lower but actually uses the lighter register, then yes it can be done. This is basically what a classical tenor does. So for female belters I treat them as if they are tenors. If a tenor were to do what many female belters do they would wear out their voice too.

But I don’t consider this belting. I just consider it good singing with expression. Belting to me is the unhealthy use of air pressure and the thicker vocal cord mass to sing higher pitches than is appropriate. And should be avoided, even for music that is expected to be belted. A healthy function uses less breath, not more. That is efficiency rather than over-working.

See, it is all about illusion. The difference between the impression the listener gets vs. what the singer is actually doing. Great tenor high notes that seem powerful and just an extension of the normal voice are not actually produced with the same vocal adjustment. The voice instinctively adjusts for pitch if it is being used in a well-coordinated way. The problem is this adjustment will not happen properly if there is extra breath flowing through the larynx. And since this is how the majority of singers are being taught to sing there aren’t many examples of the adjusting I’m describing.

Actually many of the old female pop singers had this coordination to some degree. Some better than others. The key is the voice is always “based” on the lighter register, even when singing full so it sounds like lower register but actually isn’t. The test is the diminuendo. If the voice is being forced and the singer performs a diminuendo, at some point the voice will either choke off or turn to breath, depending on the condition of that particular singer. A well-coordinated diminuendo will change from full voice to pure light register when it gets piano.

Regarding my ideas of the difference between classical and popular singing – again there are two perspectives. There is the perspective of how it generally is being done and then the perspective of how it can be done so it is effective and healthy.

How singing is generally now being performed, in both styles, is an imitation of some idea of sound that is in the head of the singer. There is very little honest, natural singing. I understand that this is a very broad brush of a statement. Of course there might be exceptions that I am not aware of. But my general observation is that classical singers are imitating the sound of great singing and pop singers are imitating some sound that is in their imagination. Which is usually some distortion of the voice. There are very few singers that are just honest human beings making truthful human sounds.

That is how I would describe great singing. And it has happened. Just more in the past than now. All styles of singing need to start with a vowel and a pitch. That’s it. Most singers now start with an abstract “sound”. The older classical singers always said they were trained on pure vowels. Now we almost never hear a pure vowel because a pure vowel is impossible when imitating the sound that classical singers are going for. The same could be said for pop singers as well. Like I said before, they are trying to distort the voice to sound like something else or simply yelling.

So again, we start with a vowel and a pitch. That is what any singer should be singing. They need to express the words and the music which breaks down to a vowel and a pitch. These are strung together to make word statements and musical phrases. Both need to be expressed for the singing to be any good. And this can be done in any style.

When this becomes more familiar to the singer the natural feel for the music will start to come through. Without artificial “emoting” and affectation. But we need to always start with a simple, honest expression of the song. Which is hard to do. But that is where good singing starts regardless of style. I always feel that if we are open to the style of music, and are well-coordinated with the voice, the music will take care of the style. If we are singing in an honest manner. That is why a fake “opera” sound never works in other styles. It isn’t an honest expression of a vowel and a pitch with the voice.

You brought up the aspect of singing brighter for non-classical singing. I agree that is a common difference. But I feel that is an example of what I was saying earlier about perspective. I don’t feel that is necessarily how it needs to be or even should be.

For me good singing, regardless of style, should be clear. This means balanced in all aspects, including bright/dark. So even though classical singing is often thought of as darker than non-classical singing, I don’t feel that is a correct approach. Good singing should have natural brightness, especially for classical singing, because that is the acoustic element that determines audibility. Which is very important to the classical singer because of the lack of electrical amplification. If a voice lacks brightness naturally the resonance is out of balance and probably suffers from an incomplete vibration of the vocal cords.

The darkness we associate with classical singing isn’t really a result of singing darkly when done correctly. That is what many do. But it isn’t correct. That is an example of what I’m talking about when I say singers are imitating the sound of great singing. The darkness of great singing is a result of the completeness of the acoustic energy resulting from an intense vibration and the balanced resonance of the vocal tract.

Actually, in practice, the proper acoustic “darkness” is a result of singing brightly with the full openness and intensity of the voice. This might not make sense if one has never experienced what I’m talking about. But this “darkness” is a result of the full spectrum of overtones, or partials or whatever you want to call them, that results from a fully functioning voice. This is how words could be understood by classical singers, and why they aren’t because they are imitating a dark sound.

So then for non-classical singing there would be less intensity in the vibration, which results in less acoustic energy, which results in less darkness and more of just the natural, clear brightness of the voice. But this is where we should be starting. We don’t need to “add” brightness. That is what musical theater singers are already doing by closing the throat and singing “forward” to add artificial clarity to the words.

Clarity needs to come from the larynx, not from distorting the mouth and pronouncing more forward. If we have a good, natural vibration from the larynx the impression will be that the words are forward because they are clear.

I hope this helps. Unfortunately the meaning of what I’m saying might not be totally clear just from written words. But hopefully this gives you something to explore.