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Some thoughts on Contemporary and Commercial Music (CCM) singing (part 1)

Dale works with singers one on one for strong healthy CCM voice function and performance skills

A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to be the adjudicator for the Queensland vocal competition run by the Music Teacher’s Association of Queensland. I was to adjudicate the Music Theatre and Contemporary sections, otherwise known as CCM sections.

There was some lovely singing and overall it was a wonderful day. However there were some interesting trends.

  • A whole section of musical theatre singing where every song was in legit style. No contemporary music theatre singing styles to be found.

So, what’s wrong with that?

Firstly, legit style is a completely appropriate singing style for music theatre. I absolutely love legit singing, which has strong articulation, a bright clear sound and legato lines (although NOT as legato as classical – to my ear there is a BIG difference). The sounds in legit are more speech-like than we hear in classical. I don’t hear much covering in contemporary legit music theatre. Perhaps in some older performances and performers, but the legit sound we hear now is VERY different to the legit sound heard forty or fifty years ago.

The important thing to remember with legit singing is that it is only PART of music theatre (MT)  singing. Traditionally the two singing sounds heard in MT are legit AND belt. If you don’t know how to belt, and can only sing in legit style, your music theatre options may be limited, whether you are a community theatre singer or professional. A study by Green, Freeman, Edwards and Meyer in 2013 observed that over a six month period only 5% of audition notices (for the American market – they looked at notices in Backstage.com) were for legit style singing. A further 40% of audition notices asked for traditional music theatre singing, which would include both belt and legit styles. The remaining 55% of auditions were for pop / rock (25%) and contemporary singing (30%). And there is more to being a contemporary singer than just belting. That is a  LOT of opportunities you may be missing out on because you only sing legit.

  • A section of contemporary singing where no-one sang with a a microphone, even though one was on offer.

Why do you need a  microphone when singing contemporary music? Have you EVER seen  contemporary singer NOT use a microphone? CCM singers are not AS interested in producing the resonance to sing over an orchestra that is a very important part of classical singing. We have expressiveness which may ONLY be picked up by a good microphone. A microphone is quite simply part of being a CCM singer. If you don’t know how to use one, or don’t know what you sound like with a microphone, you need to find out. And practice with one. Play with it. It is the other part of your voice in CCM. EQ and effects can have a major impact on CCM sounds. That is NOT CHEATING. That is the way it is. That is the market. I have three mics in my studio set up at all times. We may not use them every lesson, but they are in fairly constant use. At least everyday one of my students will be on the mic.

  • A section of contemporary singing where the only thing that was contemporary was the repertoire.

There are some contemporary songs which use classical style and function, I’m sure, but NOT MANY! I’ve been teaching CCM for 18 years and singing and performing it for 37. I’m having trouble thinking of one. I’m sure someone will send me some ideas. CCM style and FUNCTION is different to classical. If you don’t think these styles are different and require different teaching methods, check out what the American Academy of Teachers of Singing says about CCM voice teaching.

In males we need a LOT more falsetto/ head / mix happening. There is a lot more going on at the top. It is brighter. It is NOT covered. The airflow is different.

In women there is (usually) a LOT more chest register (or M1 – or lower register, or whether term you like to use here) and it is strong. There are a LOT of sounds that women need to make in CCM that require a super strong chest register that is capable of going higher than you might expect if you are a classical singer. I’m not just talking about belting here. However, the range of style and function in CCM music is incredibly diverse. There aren’t necessarily hard and fast “rules”. Some folk songs, some indie and pop singers use more head registration than other styles. the ideal is to have chest and head registers working and strong, to be able to move between these registers and on a whole series of notes in the middle choose what “weighting” you give to which register according to the style being performed. And that is just talking about the vocal sound source – I haven’t even started on the shaping of the vocal tract (vowels and the various sounds we can make with vowels) and airflow (more / less) or volume (loud / soft / medium) and how that can impact on the sound.

The lack of prescription about what the voice MUST do in CCM singing is precisely because there is so much diversity in CCM. There are many ways to make these sounds.

We know what is CCM sound when we hear it. We know what a classical singing sound is when we hear it. And we all know what a classical singer singing CCM without changing some of their function and style sounds like. It is embarrassing for the singer, I think, if they know it. Certainly when I pointed this out in my adjudication  of the competition section , a lot of the singers in the competition were nodding their heads. They were young people who KNEW they weren’t making the right sounds.

Well trained ears will help determine what part of the sound needed comes down to source (vocal folds, registration) and what comes down to filter (the shaping of the vocal tract and how this can be changed to help boost the appropriate sound). If that sounds technical, it is. If that sounds like a bit of training, well it is.

A well trained CCM voice takes time – as does a well trained classical voice. I love classical singing – it is beautiful. I love opera – in my undergraduate degree  we students went to the Opera House in Sydney very often on student rush tickets. I have had classical lessons so I know exactly how different it feels in my own voice. It is like the other side of the moon, to me. I played with it for a while, but it was changing more voice too much and I was losing my top belt notes. So I stopped, because I need to be able to sing and demonstrate my own speciality. It would take years and years of cross training for me to be able to switch from one to another. Right now I can switch from belt to legit and back, I can sing most CCM styles and that is useful for my teaching work. Do I admire classical voice? Absolutely. Those singers who study hard are incredible vocal athletes with the most amazing instruments. And so are the contemporary singers who are at the top of their field. It is extremely rare to be at the highest levels in both fields at once.

CCM and classical. One is not better than the other. they are just different styles with different functions and requirements.

References

American Academy of Teachers of Singing. (2008). In support of contemporary commercial music (nonclassical) voice pedagogy2008. Retrieved from http://www.americanacademyofteachersofsinging.org/assets/articles/CCMVoicePedagogy.pdf

Green, K., Freeman, W., Edwards, M., & Meyer, D. (2014). Trends in musical theatre voice: an analysis of audition requirements for singers. J Voice, 28(3), 324-327.

 

Mindfulness and Singing

Mindfulness is a very trendy word and practice at the moment. It is a tool used for anxiety, depression and coping with the hustle of modern life. It comes from Buddhist meditation traditions and is now the subject of much research within the academic community. It is being used in such diverse areas as police training to high level sporting performance. How do I use it in my studio?

Many students arrive rushed to their lesson. Occasionally traffic has been bad, or they have had a bad day at work. A busy week at university. A stressful time dealing with their friends at school. They may be concerned about their voice, or lack of practice over the previous week. There may be problems at home in their family. I don’t need to know the details. I am not a counselor, that is not my role. But often students share what is happening in their life, and as their teacher, I am genuinely interested in them, not only their voice. Many of these stressors have an affect on their mental and physical capacity to sing with freedom and to be attentive to what we are about to do in the lesson. As a result of a week of heavy study, or intense work pressures, they may have tension in their necks and backs. This is what stretches are for, to give physical relief, but what if a student is so mentally wound up they cannot begin to sing.

Mindfulness can help adjust both my student, and my own, focus back onto the job at hand – to teach a singing lesson with a positive and specific outcome. I must admit, I sometimes forget to use this tool. But I am always amazed when I do apply this in the studio at the start of a lesson how much more focused the student is, and how much more we accomplish in the lesson.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to Professor Mary Sandage from Auburn University discuss mindfulness at the Australian Voice Association conference. I felt like there were light bulbs flashing in my head. I use mindfulness myself, but I am not good at daily practice. I try! But like so many students and their singing practice, life gets busy and in the way. Those days when I DO start my day with some mindfulness (I use guided meditations from YouTube – I get too easily distracted with my busy mind without this!) are really productive and ENJOYABLE days. Lessons where we begin with a very short mindfulness practice (bringing attention back to the body, breath and generally noticing your thoughts and environment) are usually productive and enjoyable lessons. It doesn’t always work. But it very often does. It helps us to focus on exactly what we are doing in a non judgemental way. It helps us notice what our body is experiencing when we sing, what we are hearing when we sing, and how we feel about these things. Noticing then leads to adjustments which can have positive functional, stylistic or experiential impacts on our learning.

Here is a link to some interesting research on mindfulness and singing.

Want to study mindfulness? Check out the amazing program at the Centre for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts. This is on my wish list!

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