Classical & Contemporary: Can you do both? By Daniel K. Robinson


There are few topics in the modern era of vocal pedagogy that invoke such heated debate as that generated by the discussion surrounding ‘Classical vs. Contemporary’. On one side of the fence you have the historically grounded establishment of the Classical school, whose years (centuries) of dedication to the craft, and research thereof, is a shining beacon to all those wanting to develop vocal artistry.

On the other side we have the new kids on the block: the Contemporary school that, having only just arrived on the scene over the past 40-50 years, are courageously forging a new path of pedagogical approach and understanding. On the surface of things its perhaps not surprising that we have the age-old, somewhat predictable clash, occurring between old and new; but I believe when you dig a little deeper there is a little more to it. Recently, I received my NATS journal1 in the mail.

I’m always excited to collect this journal because it often speaks directly into my practice as a singing teacher. But nothing could have prepared me for the pleasant surprise that I received when I opened the journal to Professor Ingo R. Titze’s short article, Some Reflections on Speech-Like Singing and Related Contemporary Approaches.2 Titze’s editorial briefly explains his position concerning one of the many battlefronts ranging between the classical and contemporary camps: Can you do both? If I’m interpreting Titze’s position correctly I believe he respectfully declares, “You cannot!” And, it is at this early stage of my reflection that I must reveal my hand and join Professor Titze in his stance.

I have been stating openly for a decade (and longer privately) that I personally believe the human voice, while versatile and mouldable to the requirements of the artist in which it is housed, is limited by a muscular function which ‘learns and memorises’ particular coordination. Simply, is the voice capable of creating both classical and contemporary sounds? Yes, but not simultaneously; at least not to a professional standard. Jeannette LoVetri agrees with this view when she writes,

I know of no one who is a professionally established, successful ‘high rock belter’ who also sings in a classical sound with equal success at a professional level. There are limits to what can be managed on both sides of the equation.3

I am yet to hear (and I’ve been keeping an ear out for many years) a voice that convincingly performs a range of genres across the spectrum of both classical and contemporary disciplines. For example, Kristin Chenoweth performs the wonderful piece 14G. For those of you unfamiliar with this piece, 14G (specifically written for Chenoweth by Jeanine Tesori) takes the performer from a legit Music Theatre sound through to classical-esk lines and jazz-like scat. Time to get controversial...I don’t believe Chenoweth, despite her wonderful and world class talent, pulls off either the classical or the jazz sounds to a convincing level.

That is, I don’t think she would hold a concert-hall for the duration of an opera on the classical sounds alone, nor would serious lovers of Jazz wax lyrical about her scatting chops. I readily acknowledge that there are some exceptional individuals (Chenoweth included) out there (and I place the emphasis on ‘exceptional; i.e. they are the exception to the rule) who have acquired the skills necessary to know and, to some extent, perform across genres. Stylistically these vocalists are typically categorised as ‘cross-over’ artists. Some might also argue that music theatre singers require a stylistic versatility in order to sing the multiplicity of genres within Music Theatre. I don’t disagree. There is definitely wide ranging evidence to support this notion of ‘cross-over’.

CrossOverOfGenresFigure 1 (above) illustrates my thoughts on how the inter-relationship between the three categories works. The graphic displays three distinct stylistic groups, with points of definite ‘cross-over’, but they are nonetheless distinct in their own right. I am given to placing an artist such as Chenoweth in the centre where all three disciplines intersect. By no means am I suggesting that artists like Chenoweth are a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’! To balance all three styles is a trademark skill and receives nothing but applause from me; but as I have already stated it does restrict the voice from acquiring a ‘discipline-specific’ sound. But it is not on the sounds (or style) alone that I rest my case. And neither does Titze. For me, as it is for Titze, the main issue supporting my stance is an understanding of the muscular coordination’s required toachieve each vocal discipline. Allow me to present a second graphic (Figure 2; below).

Vocal Spectrum

Mechanistically, the vocal disciplines of Classical and Contemporary stand at opposite ends of the breath spectrum when management is accounted for. It is this balance that accounts for the major (and to my mind) definitive difference between the two disciplines. Classical technique works on higher levels of sub-glottal pressure than does Contemporary. Plainly, if the contemporary singer employs too much air pressure underneath the vocal folds, the thyroarytenoid (TA) muscle, which is already employed in a dominant fashion, may respond by further bracing against the increased pressure causing all familiar vocal fold constriction; a sound which is both unpleasant to the classical ear, and undesirable as a habitual mechanism response to the contemporary pedagogue. Equally, when the classical voice is unsupported by sustained breath pressure (in keeping with a cricothyroid/cricoarytenoid (CT/CA) dominant mechanism) the voice will lack the power to invoke the TA muscle into action.

This in turn can leave the classical voice lacking substance and sounding reedy. Again, there is room in the middle for the ‘cross-over’ styles such as Music Theatre, where the artist plays within a framework of balance: not too much and not too little. But surely the artist need only make the modifications required muscularly as well as adjusting the breath-pressure in keeping with the desired outcome. If only it were that simple. It takes approximately 3–4 weeks to develop muscle memory (if not, longer).4

Once the muscles of the larynx have established a coordinated muscle response for the production of sound it is virtually impossible for the larynx to simple ‘flick a switch’ and change its setup. Additionally, Johann Sundberg highlights, “One of the results of singer’s successful education is the development of a proprioceptive memory, which is useful in performing intended shifts in phonation frequency.”5 Any change to the mechanistic coordination will have an immediate impact on the finely tuned sensory awareness needed for accurate pitch. Anecdotally, I have noted in my studio, that when I am teaching a classically trained singer6 who is wanting to re-train as a contemporary vocalist it takes many months of unstable mechanism and inaccurate pitch control before the instrument once again becomes steady and reliable.

During a recent, and very stimulating Facebook interaction7 with some of my respected colleagues about this issue (and Titze’s article) one singing teacher noted that perhaps it is only we pedagogues who get hung-up on drawing such distinctions. She correctly suggests that the average punter is generally incapable (and disinterested) of recognising the stylistic nuances required for the ‘true’ presentation of each discipline (classical or contemporary).8 This thought certainly has merit. And while I am reticent to directly argue against her comment, I would suggest that it behoves all pedagogues to correctly apply their anatomical understandings of the voice in order to position their students correctly, and safely, on the Spectrum of Mechanistic Co-ordination for Vocal Disciplines (Figure 2 p. 2); regardless of what the punter can or cannot discern.

The voice can do either classical or contemporary; but it cannot do both simultaneously to a professional standard. The canyon of change is simply too great. Before closing, allow me to also comment on what I feel fuels the opposing view; that is you can do both simultaneously to a high level. At the risk of offending many excellent classical pedagogues, I have observed that it is more often the classical singing teacher who believes you can teach the voice to sing all three styles (Classical, Music Theatre & Contemporary). Perhaps controversially, I think this position is underwritten by the old (and no longer sustainable) notion that when you learn classical voice you can sing anything. Robert Edwin is quite blunt when he writes, “naïve colleagues who say, ‘Singing is singing. If you have a solid classical technique, you can sing anything’ are inviting vocal disaster if they impose classical vocal technique and sounds on the style of singing called belting.”9

I humbly add to Edwin’s concise statement, broadening the context beyond belting, by including other contemporary sounds such as pressed phonation, vocal distortion and aspirated sounds.10 It is my view that when this underlying paradigm is revealed, the position of “You can sing it all” becomes untenable. Now that I’ve made these bold, and some would say professionally suicidal comments :), allow me to finish with an open recognition that my experience and knowledge are not all- encompassing. I readily admit, that I may yet be blind to a crucial piece of information; information which might be currently in existence, or may await our collective discovery. I join Ingo Titze in his invitation to openly and respectfully continue the discussion with a view to improving our collective knowledge and pedagogical wisdom.


1 Journal of Singing, September/October 2013, Vol 70. No. 1 National Association of Teachers of Singing. 2 Ingo R. Titze, "Some Reflections on Speech-Like Singing and Related Contemporary Approaches," Journal of Singing 70, no. 1 (2013). 3 Jeannette LoVetri, "The Confusion About Belting: A Personal Observation," VoicePrints, no. September–October (2012). 4 Janice L. Chapman, Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice (San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing Inc., 2006), 10. 5 Johan Sundberg, The Science of the Singing Voice (Dekald, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1987), 62. 6 I am a Contemporary Singing Voice Specialist and I do not teach classical; despite having studied two years of my undergraduate degree as a classical singer. 7 8 One only need watch one of the many TV Talent Shows to know that the general public wouldn’t know the difference between Rock and Jazz. 9 Robert Edwin, "Belting 101: Part Two," Journal of Singing 55, no. 2 (1998): 61. 10 Daniel K. Robinson, "Look before You Leap!," Journal of Singing 69, no. 2 (2012).

A link to the original article (and many more that delve deeper into the world of vocal care) can be found here, courtesy of Dr.Dan:

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