How to Train Your Voice for Any Style/ Cross-Training
A Little History
Until very recently, training and singing in one genre only was the norm. If the student was on an academic path, he or she would have found that the vast majority of universities offered only a classical singing track. A handful of colleges also offered jazz or musical theatre programs. But the schools offering contemporary commercial styles, such as pop, country, and blues, were all but non-existent.
However, in the beginning of the 21st Century, something shifted. Schools that offered musical theatre options began gaining respect. Not only was there tremendous interest shown in the programs and an acknowledgement from singers that musical theatre offers more potential for employment than opera does, but it was also becoming a new focus by voice scientists researching singing techniques. Soon, ignorance and disdain for pop and belting styles gave way to awareness that modifying the shape of the vocal tract and increasing the closed quotient of the vocal folds was not inherently wrong or unhealthy: It was just a different state of function, and there are many valid ways of coordinating our vocal instruments.
Using the voice in different ways or employing different resonance strategies is not a moral or ethical decision. In fact, anecdotal evidence from performers and voice teachers across the world paint a clear and undeniable picture that cross-training is very good for the voice and for the performer. Strength, stamina, resonance, and breath coordination improve across all styles for the singer. There is no downside.
For decades, independent teachers working with singers in a variety of genres had long been dabbling in cross-training the voices and minds of their students. A common sentiment, however, was that each teacher felt as though they were ‘making it up’ on their own. Thankfully, that is changing.
In recent years, not only has musical theatre gained a strong foothold in colleges, but also contemporary Christian music training is now in high demand at private Christian schools. Along with this shift in colleges, more professional artists are crossing the lines between genres. U2, Sara Bareilles, Jimmy Buffett, and Green Day have all written musicals. Christina Ramos gave a jaw-dropping cross-genre (opera-rock) performance that earned her the Golden Buzzer on Got Talent España 2016. American opera diva Renée Fleming recorded an album of pop song covers. Musical theatre star Kelli O’Hara crosses beautifully from country to opera all in the same song, They Don't Let You in the Opera (If You're A Country Star). Cross-genre is becoming the norm.
All of this is to say: If you have a voice in your head softly but insistently telling you that you have to stick with one genre, it’s time to tell that little voice to start speaking the truth or be quiet. If you’re ready to start cross-training your voice or to increase the amount of cross-training you do, then nothing should hold you back. It’s time to rock (or croon, or barbershop, or whatever)!
How to Train Your Voice for Multiple Genres
There are two main areas to focus on in training your voice for any style: The mental game and the physical skills. Authentic singing cannot be done without both of these skill areas working fully and together.
The mental game is the process of training your mind to switch successfully between genres. For example, I love to ride bicycles and I also love to ride motorcycles. I remember the first time I got on a motorcycle to learn to drive it. I was completely surprised that I couldn’t turn the handles like I could on a bicycle. But of course I couldn’t! In retrospect, the weight and size of the front end of a motorcycle make that a ludicrous idea. Of course, it didn’t take long to pick up the new skills, and now I successfully ride both types of bikes with no inner turmoil or confusion about how to steer.
Cross-training the mind for singing is a very similar thing to training my mind for bikes. The muscles have done it one way for so long that it takes a conscious effort – and a little bit of laughing at oneself – to successfully find your way into the new genre. Once the muscles have been set up for an authentic sound in the new genre, it’s important to create a new muscle memory. Our brains are clever enough to put the new muscle memory into a new ‘folder.’ In the same way, I no longer confuse steering my bicycle and steering my motorcycle, I no longer confuse Schubert with Sia.
The physical skills of how to train this kind of versatility into your voice come the same way any muscle coordination activity does: The more you do it, and the better the quality of your practice, the more capable you become. It is essential to have muscles and coordination you can rely.
For the most part, we aim for a balanced instrument – a voice with equal power and skill in the top, middle, and bottom. I picture it like a well-balanced seesaw in the horizontal position. You can ‘sit’ on either side or move toward the middle and it will reliably perform as expected. The opposite scenario would be if the seesaw were to have one side longer than the other or a big crack down the seat on one side. In this scenario, the seesaw can’t be relied on and the person has to lower their expectations.
If all is well with the registration balance, then you get to do the fun part of learning the physical postures for different genres. Full-on imitation is a great way to explore different postures and resist your habitual posture. Also, try playing with your voice – exercising your mind and muscles by asking your voice to create a wide variety of sounds, such as moaning like a monster or squeaking like a mouse.
When it comes to exercises, reaching outside your standard tool box will work to your advantage. Try out the free exercises on my website, NancyBos.me. They’re designed to encourage cross-training. Read more about exercises in my post Vocal Exercises: Boot Camp for the Voice.
Another favorite exercise series is 21 Bebop Exercises* by Steve Rawlins. The exercises are very challenging and demand a variety of acoustic set-ups and mental flexibility.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a second pair of trained ears listening. A trusted and knowledgeable friend, coach, or teacher – whether in person or online – will guide you toward authenticity.
Everyone can cross-train their voice. And who knows? You may end up being surprised: You might find a new genre that works best with your voice and brings you and your audience more joy than you ever expected!
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