How to transition from a theatrical singer to an authentic pop rock voice

As a vocal conditioning and performance coach. I regularly receive inquiries from singers that have found that the theatrical vocal style they have developed is now restricting  their ability to sing other styles of music with full confidence.  

Many of these singers have become frustrated or concerned at been type cast ie as been only suited for musical theatre type rolls. Which is fine if you aspire to performing in Broadway type musicals.

But what many of these singers want to know is how to reduce the time it takes to learn how to transition a theatrical dramatic voice to become an all round singer capable of singing pop/ rock/ and beyond!

The question is a good one, and I will do my best to provide some tips and free advice to help you learn how to make the smooth transition from a theatrical dramatic voice to been capable of authentically singing other styles of popular music.

First lets understand the general differences of the three main vocal styles, ie Opera, Musical theatre and Popular music (Country-pop rock,blues, heavy metal metal) etc

Operatic voices:

Desirable operatic vocal characteristics differ greatly between male and female singers.

Typically to be a successful male opera singer requires a broad deep resonating voice capable of extending the chest voice into the upper register with a minimum of mix or head voice added to the sound. The desirable characteristics for a female opera singer on the other hand is to develop a voice with bell like clarity where the high notes are mainly produced with maximum head resonance, primarily designed to ensure that the frequency range of both the male and female singers carries above  the orchestra to the back of the opera house accapela, (without microphones).

Musical theatre singers, are known for the dramatic often exaggerated manor in which they deliver a vocal line. There vocal delivery is adapted to match the broadway esque style of the music arrangement.

Typically Broadway songs are structured, written and arranged in a less than conversational style and the larger than life arrangements resemble a more modernised  version of an operatic performance.

Alternatively Pop, rock, blues, country singers etc tend to adopt a more laid back casual approach to their vocal delivery due to the more conversational song writing styles in these genres of music.

In essence there vocal styling is based on a conversational approach to singing, this style approach can be used to create raw, in your face vocal deliveries and performances  that allow the individual character of each singers voice to be easily heard and developed.

In popular music styles its the individual character of the singers voice that the audience is drawn towards and identify with. This is why we can have a number of personal fave singers in our record collections, because each singers voice has its own individual charm, from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen- to Michael Jackson – Billy Joel or Elton John or Dave Grohl or from Whitney Houston to Mariah Carey, to Amy Winehouse to Beyonce etc these singers all understand how to make the most of their conversational singing style.

Vowel styling:

Another big difference between theatrical singing and conversational pop-rock vocal styles is how the singers in each genre approach there vowel shapes.

Opera singers tend to utilise the widest broadest purest vowel sounds and while they do employ subtle vowel modification to allow the voice to change registers the objective of a male opera singer is to retain a manly voice throughout his range. That’s why a male tenor opera singer dose not normally sing higher than a c5, because in order to sing higher they would have to modify the vowel sound further and in the process they would be forced to reduce the width and girth of their manly voice on the highest notes.

IE “Nessun dorma” performed by Luciano Pavarotti

In performance, the final “Vincerò!” features a sustained B4, followed by the final note, a sustained A4. One main difference between opera singers and musical theatre singers and of course pop singers is that typically a tenor opera singer is never required to sing anything higher than a mens high C (C5).

For female opera singers, the desired voice type is the soprano in particular the highest soprano voice is known as the coloratura soprano. Coloratura sopranos are capable of amazing superhuman feats. The voice is extremely agile, singing short passages that ascend as high as the 3rd F above middle C (and in a few cases even higher). A particularly fine example is Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. 

Theatrical singers employ a broad vowel sound (closely mirroring operatic vowel sounds) in order to produce a larger more dramatic vocal tone. How-ever the larger and broader your vowel shapes become the more difficult it becomes to sing in an extended chest voice, ( ie refer back to  the previous Luciano Pavarotti example)
When a theatrical singer is required to sing higher notes up around mens a#4 or ladies C5 etc typically the singer will start to employ a lighter voice and utilise a combination of head voice or even falsetto to further extend their vocal range. This produces a vocal tone that is softer and while it is a desirable effect for musical theatre it typically sounds very out of place in a pop or rock performance etc.

Pop singers tend to approach there vowel sounds as though they were using there every day speaking voice, and only tend to broaden the vowel shape when they require a larger sound ie holding a power note. Pop/ rock/ country/blues/metal  singers enjoy all-most total freedom in regards as to how they approach there vocal production. The only standard rule of thumb been that regradless of how you approach your vocal production  remember to ensure that your extended voice ie your high notes need to retain a solid connected sound to your chest voice.

The vocal requirements for popular music singers can often be more challenging ie a rock or pop singer maybe called upon to scream or sing full vocal passages above a mens c5 or C6  for women.

How you go about forming your vowel sounds and where you choose to place or position your sounds in your throat (vocal placement), are largely down to what works best for the singer, and best compliments there natural vocal style.

Here is the two biggest challenges that most theatrical singers face when learning how to make the transition from musical theatre to singing pop or rock, country etc.

A. Learning how to approach singing in a more conversational style. This means that particular emphasis needs to be placed on how they form there vowels and consonant sounds. If the vowel sounds are pronounced to broadly the sound will end up splating as the singer ascends higher into his or her range. While this condition is true for every singing genre generally popular music arrangements span the largest vocal ranges of any singing genre. So its very important that pop rock and metal singers learn how to modify there vowels properly to maintain a connected tone over music that spans a vocal range sometimes as wide as 3 and 1/2 octaves.

B. Learning how to smoothly extend their upper register by using  vowel modifications to retain a conversational quality to their voice, while maintaining a solid connection or mix with their chest voice. The latter requires regular strengthening and conditioning of the vocal chords to safely load the desired amount of healthy tension to the chord so that the voice doesn’t flip over into a light theatrical heady voice.

Both skills can be learnt given enough time and patience.

Here’s an exercise that will help you make the transition from theatrical singing to pop singing much easier.

Learning how to develop these new kinds of vocal co-ordinations will not only improve your ability to authentically sing in popular music styles but also provide your theatrical voice with greater power and provide you with additional options and choices to improve your vocal dynamics.

1. Starting on a comfortable note closest to your speaking voice. Vocalise on a “hey”  sound  using your chest voice and progressively increase the pitch of the start note until you are just below the point in your voice where the voice wants to break or flip over into falsetto. Don’t yell aim to perform the exercise on 60% of your full volume potential. Remember to avoid sounding overly dramatic or stiff, keep the tone and style of your voice relaxed and conversational!

2. Cut back on the air that is passing over your vocal chords and aim to reduce the size and the width and the weight of the sound until you can comfortably extend your “hey” sound one or two notes past your previous break area. When you’ve sang as high as you can comfortably without straining then go down the scale again until you reach your start pitch and relax and try to sing one or two notes lower than your starting  pitch. Repeat the exercise again as often as appropriate and rest for twenty minutes in between practises.

This exercise will teach you how to safely extend your chest voice range over time without straining. A strong chest voice is very important if you want to sing popular music and is the required foundation for acquiring the vocal strength and flexibility to produce enough mass in the vocal chords so that your higher notes (in head voice have a mix of chest and head and sound fully formed).

As always if you think you would benefit from one on one coaching to help make this transition easier then get in touch via phone, email, carrier pigeon etc.

Better singing everyone.

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