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 the vast majority of universities offered only a classical singing track. A handful of colleges also offered jazz programs or music theatre programs. And the schools that offered contemporary commercial styles, such as pop, country, and blues, were all but non-existent.
But something shifted in the beginning of the 21st Century. Schools that offered musical theater options began gaining respect. Not only was there acknowledgement from singers that musical theater is fun and offers more potential for employment than opera, there was also new focus by voice scientists to look at the singing techniques. Soon ignorance and disdain for pop and belting styles became awareness that modifying the shape of the vocal tract and increasing the closed quotient of the vocal folds was not inherently wrong, it was just a different state of function; there are many valid ways of singing
Different resonance strategies, different ways of using the voice, 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 the voice is very good for the voice and for the performer. Strength, stamina, resonance, and breath coordination improve across all styles for that singer. There is no downside.
For decades, independent teachers working with people in a variety of genres, both youth and adults, had long been dabbling in cross-training the voices and minds of their singers. A common sentiment, however, was that each teacher felt they were “making it up” on their own. Thankfully that is changing.
In recent years, not only has musical theater gained a strong foothold in colleges, contemporary Christian music training is in high demand at private Christian schools. Along with the shift for colleges, more professional artists are crossing the lines between genres. U2, Sara Bareilles, Jimmy Buffett, and Green Day have all written musicals. Cristina Ramos’ gave a jaw-dropping cross-genre performance on Got Talent España 2016. American opera diva Renee Fleming made an album covering pop songs, and musical theater star Kelli O’Hara crosses beautifully from country to opera all in the same song in performance after performance. Cross-genre artistry is becoming the norm.
All of this is to say, if you have a voice in your head softly but insistently telling you to stick with one genre, it is time to tell that little voice to start speaking the truth or be quiet. If you are ready to start cross training your voice or to increase the amount of cross-training you do, then nothing should hold you back – it is time to rock! (or croon, or barbershop, or whatever).
There are two main areas to focus on to train your voice for any style; the mental game and the physical skills. Authentic singing cannot be done without both of those 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 not! In retrospect, the weight and size of the front end of a motorcycle make that a ludicrous idea, no matter how slow or fast the bike is going. It didn’t take long to pick up the new skill, and now I successfully ride both types of bikes with no inner turmoil 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 set up for an authentic sound in the new genre it is important to create a new muscle memory. Our brains are clever enough to put that new muscle memory into a new folder. In the same way, I no longer confuse steering my bicycle with steering my motorcycle, I also no longer confuse Schubert with Sia.
The physical skills of how to train your voice come the same way any muscle and coordination activity does. The more you do it, and the better quality your practice, the more capable you become. Having muscles and coordination you can rely on is essential.
For the most part, we look 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 has one side longer than the other, or has a big crack down the seat on one side – it 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 the different genres. Full-on imitation is a great way to explore different postures and resist your habitual posture. Also, play with your voice – exercise your mind and muscles by asking your voice to create a wide variety of sounds. Moan like a monster and squeak like a mouse. Of course, before too long you need to find the natural, relaxed sound that comes from your heart in each posture.
When it comes to exercises, stepping outside of your typical tools will work to your advantage. Try out the free vocal exercises on NancyBos.net. They are designed to encourage cross-training. Read more about exercises on 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 2nd set of 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 with a surprise; you might find a new genre that works best with your voice and brings you and your audience more joy than you ever expected.