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Teaching Contemporary Singing Lessons

As a young student, I was trained in the classical style in my vocal education, and I loved it. Today, I am really more of a contemporary singer, swaying more towards folk and rock music. My students are very attracted to this, because it’s the same music they love to listen to. When I first began teaching voice, I struggled with how to incorporate the very important classical singing techniques with the contemporary pop music that so many students prefer to sing. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years:

1. Keep the Italian vowel sounds at the core of the training. AH, EH, EE, OH, and OO are what make the words sound more professional. Have the student identify which vowel sound is central to each English word they are singing, and teach them to make their mouth into that vowell shape. Since it is contemporary music, it’s important that they are a little looser with their vowell shapes, however. There is nothing worse that a pop song that sounds like an Aria!

2. Teach a simple Italian song, such as “Caro Mio Ben” as an excercise in addition to their pop repetoir. Explain that by learning a song in a foreign language, they are forced to shaped the vowels exactly as you teach it. Once they are comfortable with the song, they will understand a little better how to form the vowels and to incorporate the same feeling into their contemporary songs.

3. Find good examples of contemporary singers and have students identify when that singer transitions into head voice. Singers such as Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton (love her!) are good to start with, but it would also be fun for your student to bring in a CD of one of their favorites to study. If they bring in someone like Britany Spears, you can also explain what not to do! 😉

The biggest difference, in my humble opinion, between classical and contemporary singing is the shape of the mouth. Students still need to learn breathing techniques, head voice/chest voice, so that isn’t different at all. In contemporary singing, it is important to retain the proper mouth formations, while still remaining relaxed. No english accent is required, and students should just try to use good technique while still singing in the English language.

About the Author

Bella Payne
While working on a degree in Sociology with plans to become a Social Worker, I fell into teaching piano lessons as a way to pay my bills. I had no idea I was stumbling into a totally fulfilling, creative and exciting career! Every day, I teach several students in their homes, in my home, and online how to play piano from scratch. Over the last 10 years, I have seen kids and adults go from timid b... [Read more]

8 Comments

  1. Robert Lunte

    The differences between Classical vocal technique and contemporary are vastly more different and complicated then this article points out. You dont use Classical vowels in contemporary technique, you dont use the head resonance the same, Classical does not address distortion, “twang” and “belting”…

  2. Michelle P

    I actually do use the vowell shapes to help, and it seems to work just fine. As far as belting goes, the same lessons I learned in Classical singing works in contemporary singing. If you have some tips to add, I’m sure everyone, including myself, would love to learn from them.

  3. Candy H

    In coaching a professional rock singer, I have found that having him adjust some vowels to a more classical shape does really help improve his tone quality. He doesn’t sound British or affected, just better. It was a stretch for me to accept him initially as a student, but it has been mutually beneficial to hear and see how applying classical techniques can improve contemporary singing. I would encourage other classically trained instructors to take the leap!

  4. abide_in_Him

    Hi, I’m in kind of a sticky situation. Our pastor’s wife directs our music and sings as lead vocalist. She is a music professor and has a masters and is classically trained. She is EXTREMELY gifted as a Choir director and classical voice teacher. I know this first hand. However, she is singing contemporary music with full classical voice, constant vibrato, all of the classical pronunciation, and is breathing in all of the wrong phrasing. People have asked me and my husband to play louder on our praise team so that her vocals will be drowned out. The associate pastor will not bring any guests to the church because of how bad it sounds and many people avoid the contemporary service all together. The church is declining, in the red financially, and the fruit is really not that great.

    We have to say something to her, but I’m struggling with how to have tact and also with the potential this situation has to hit a wall of pride. I can’t tell whether she really can’t hear the difference or if she knows she’s singing classically to contemporary music and just disagrees musically with contemporary vocal style. (the rules for singing contemporary are almost the opposite for how one sings classically).

    I remember when a worship leader first told me I was singing with too much vibrato. It really hurt me, because in my heart, I was worshiping God truly with my voice. After getting over my hurt, I realized that God was giving me an opportunity to learn again and I embraced it. On the other side of it, I am glad to have had and to continue to have the opportunity to learn.

    I’m hoping to share my experiences with her. But I can’t assume that dropping subtle hints will fix this issue. I really care about this woman and don’t want to hurt her feelings, but people aren’t worhipping and are turning away. Her whole family runs all of the music and arts at the church. Others don’t feel like there is any room.

    Could you post something with the differences technically between classical and contemporary singing on a deeper level. I’d really like to not just present a problem to her, but to have some solutions or recommendations on how she can improve if she wants to.

    Thanks so much,

    God Bless,

  5. Michelle Payne

    Hmmm. I have definitely heard people do this before. It is not pretty. I feel your pain. So the choir is contemporary? And she sings while she is conducting? That is strange to me. You could try telling her that her voice is not blending with the others, so maybe she should not sing while she conducts. But perhaps that is not what you mean. Maybe you could very casually bring up a conversation about how nice her voice is and ask her if she ever sang contemporary music before.

    “I can’t tell whether she really can’t hear the difference or if she knows she’s singing classically to contemporary music and just disagrees musically with contemporary vocal style. ”

    I’m willing to bet that she does know and that she disagrees with contemporary singing style. Please tell us later if I am right. When I was in school we would sing folk songs, spirituals, and other “contemporary” peices and we were always expected to sing in a classical style because that was the mark of a trained singer.

    “I remember when a worship leader first told me I was singing with too much vibrato.”

    I’ve been in a choir before when the conductor looked at the sopranos, but straight at me, and said “less vibrato!” It stung for a second, but I got over it and just followed the instruction. You could probably say it in a nicer tone too 😉

    “Could you post something with the differences technically between classical and contemporary singing on a deeper level.”

    When you discuss ideas with her, ask her to try and loosen up on the annunciation. This will be very difficult for her, but she could at least try. Also, suggest easing up on the british accent that I’m guessing she sings with. Ask her to try sliding up to some notes and breath in the places you think are more appropriate. If she tries to argue that that is not the correct way to sing, patiently explain that contemporary singing breaks a few classical “rules” and that lots of people love to listen to it!

    It could take her awhile to transition. I know it took me a long time to “lose my accent”. Good luck. This is a very sticky situation indeed.

  6. L

    Can you please explain specifically what techniqes teachers can use that are different than the classical techniqe.

  7. Suzanne Clark

    Maybe she just doesn’t understand how to sing pop because of her training. I grew up singing pop and classical music and then studied voice at a liberal arts college and came out sounding like Beverly Sills trying to sing Alannis Morissette. When I told my professors that I wanted to sing pop, they would either just dismiss it, or say that I needed to know the “basics” of technique.
    By the grace of God, I began singing in a choir right after college that used frontal placement technique. I was given a few exercise that I have held onto all of my life, and began to realize that if I wanted to sound like the singers that I truly admired, (and more of who I truly am) I needed to know how to place my sound toward the front of my face and deal with my pronunciation. Maybe she just doesn’t know how??? I had had certain things so unconsciously drilled into my head over 4 years of college that I would not have been able to change without the right guidance. I now teach voice and sing using more pop techniques, but I still use some of the breathing exercised I learned in college, but I can sing classically if I want to . Bring her on. I’ll speak to her if you’d like.
    Blessings,
    Suzanne Clark

  8. Susan

    I studied classical voice for years and I found it very difficult to adapted classical technique to belting pop style singing. I had to go to a specialist to learn how to belt. Unfortunately a lot of classical teachers a look down on pop techniques. What it really comes down to is breath support and voice placement.