The terrible superficial conflict between classical and CCM vocal techniques: A Spontaneous Tribute to Master Teacher, Robert Edwin

During a conference on vocal acoustics a year ago I was lucky to make the acquaintance of a great voice teacher, named Robert Edwin. Robert did a compelling presentation on the training of CCM singers that not only supported my personal theories about the subject but inspired me to work more freely with my CCM students. The result was direct. The new confidence I had with my CCM students was palpable. My long-time student, Regina Gatti recently got cast as Rosie (the lead) in the national tour of Bye Bye Birdie. She attributes this milestone in great part to her recent vocal work. It has been a goal of mine for a long time to bridge what I call a “superficial divide” between Classical vocal training and CCM vocal training. Robert Edwin’s approach eliminated the divide as if it never existed. In fact it never existed in his mind. His mother was a voice teacher who trained opera singers and broadway singers alike at a time in New York when theatrical vocalism was not a rarity. However, Robert Edwin’s beliefs and commitment to the fundamentals that make for great singing regardless of style are countered in equal measure by teachers in the field who feel better served by widening the divide as much as possible, whether classical teachers who like to criticize CCM teachers for dangerous practices or CCM teachers who like to discuss classical singing like an unnecessary dinosaur that has no practical application to the needs of the CCM singer or possibly to the world of Music Theater.

It is important to understand the similarities and the differences between the two disciplines, as well as the historical relationships between Opera, Musical Theater and other popular vocal styles. First it is important to know that the origins of theatrical vocal music goes back to Italian Opera in 16th Century Florence and Naples. The exportation of Italian Opera gave birth both to national opera movements in France, England and Germany and eventually across Europe and the New World. As early as the early 18th century, standard Italian Opera met with more popular alternatives like the English Ballad Opera and the German Singspiel. While Italian Opera was based on vocal and musical virtuosity, these alternatives were based on popular consumption, textual intelligibility in the vernacular and more accessible plots that reflected the experience of the middle and lower class people that attended performances. This movement in fact gave rise to the Italian counter-movement, Opera Buffa, beginning with Pergolesi’s one-act, La Serva Padrona culminating in masterpieces like Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Verdi’s Falstaff. The English and German versions continued first with masterpieces by Mozart (e.g. The Magic Flute) to Operettas by Offenbach, Johann Strauss Jr, etc and on the English side culminating with Gilbert and Sullivan. Out of the English model developed the American Musical Theater, which was further influenced by the many Vaudeville acts of the early 20th century culminating in great works by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, the Gershwins, Berstein and Sondheim and so on.

The significant vocal departure between the two disciplines has primarily to do with vocal virtuosity on the operatic side and textual intelligibility at all cost on the Musical Theater side. At the height of the two disciplines, whether in Germany or England or the United States, the formidable teachers responsible for the training of both disciplines were from the operatic discipline and often Italian in heritage. By the 20th century in the United States (New York) the teachers remained largely operatic and European. But then came the development of the microphone. With the microphone came radio and musical broadcasts based on an electronic model. Suddenly acoustic vocal production was no longer necessary for the Musical Theater singer or the evolving popular singer whose career was as much made on the recording of popular songs for mass consumption as it was for concerts for large audiences. Over time, the broadway belter whose vocal style was conceived for character parts became more and more mainstream. The last quarter of the 20th century saw a deep divide widening between classical vocal production and what is now referred to as Commercial Contemporary music (CCM). The Met may be on Broadway and 65th, but unlike the days when Cesare Siepi would leave the Met and go to the Majestic Theater to give his rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” in South Pacific, the twenty or so blocks that separate the Metropolitan Opera from the Theater District might as well be 20,000 miles.

When the training of musicians became democratized through the development of Music Schools in State Universities, the process was gradually modeled after other purely academic courses of study, squarely reduced to a four-year process complete with fundamental education courses that should have been mastered at the High School level. The actual hours spent in musical training even at the top schools are severely inadequate as compared to the way musicians were trained earlier on. The conscientious young musician who learned discipline from earlier private teachers usually had the foundation to turn the degree program to his/her advantage, filling the holes by arduous practicing. It is usually the instrumentalists who followed a strict regimen of practice, theory and harmony before they even entered school. The singer often comes with a well coordinated voice (in modern times, even that is not assured), some basic stage presence and a couple of songs learned for the college entrance audition. Those that have had a piano or other instrumental background usually thrived with respect to the musical/academic aspects of the program while their better vocally coordinated colleagues got cast in the operas even without the ability to learn their notes on their own.

Now University programs, continually trying to be artistically relevant even while remaining behind the pace of development in the professional field, found the addition of Musical Theater programs lucrative. With the popularity of the vernacular musical forms, there was no lack of prospective students. Musical Theater programs became the province of the established Drama/Theater programs, which depended on the music departments for vocal and rudimentary musical instruction. In most of those programs the musical theater singer is taught by graduate students, some of which are natural teachers, many of which have neither a basic knowledge of vocal pedagogy nor of the stylistic differences between classical and CCM modes of production.

With the many inadequately skilled singers coming out of musical theater programs, a need for truly competent voice teachers geared for the needs of the CCM singer became evident. This need gave rise to some wonderful teachers, such as Robert Edwin, Jeanette Lovetri, Joe Estill and Seth Riggs. Great vocal technique, like a miracle, becomes quite ordinary when one attempts to package it into a neat product for sale. That is why I have a particular affinity for Robert Edwin. Mr Edwin is a no-nonsense, gifted teacher who likes to see the possibilities instead of the limits. His intincts are first-rate and seeing him work has been one of the most inspiring vocal events of my life. It is my sincere hope in the next couple of months to interview him for the blog. I must mention that he is also a fantastic singer, a gentleman and a selfless colleague dedicated to taking away this imaginery wall between singing techniques.

Now I am not being naive. There are necessary differences between the vocal needs of the Classical Singer and the CCM singer. The differences are fundamentally resonance-based. Phonation practices for the legit CCM singer are no different from those of the classical singer and this point above all must be taken into account. The average pop singer does not aim to do the extreme heavy vocalism that a heavy metal singer uses nor the extreme falsetto-based approach of a singer like Aaron Neville. The great majority of pop singers sing in a mode that could be fairly labeled “light belt”, or objectively described, modal phonation with a speech based (i.e. first formant dominance) resonance. First-formant resonance in the female middle range or male high range depends on a high larynx to be viable. This is the fundamental acoustic difference. This mode of singing because of the high larynx does not make use of concepts like inertial reactance which necessitates a long vocal tract (i.e. a low larynx). This means that by nature, a light belt is slightly less efficient. But absolute efficiency is not the goal of CCM singing. Text inteligibility and a sense of the vernacular are paramount and therefore lush resonance is sacrificed.

CCM singers depend on immediate recognition in order to have success. In the vernacular realm, this can include raspiness, breathiness and many levels of imbalance that gives the charismatic performer a recognizable idiosyncracy. Whether it be the nodule-ridden lead singer of the Gipsy Kings or the falsetto antics of Little Richard, or the extreme nasal twang of Willie Nelson. Noone should be disillusioned in thinking that these people have great vocal technique by any measure but rather that these singers use limited vocalism combined with their very charismatic personalities and unique musical style to create a visceral package that audiences find thrilling. At the same time, we have had beautiful vocalism, by any standard from the likes of Bette Middler, Barbara Streisand, Annie Lennox (the lead singer of Eurythmics), Freddie Mercury of Queen, etc.

Robert Edwin’s teaching does not waste time with whether this approach is the ideal approach or not. He essentially concentrates in giving the singer a healthy way to do what he or she needs to do and in this way bridges the divide between classical and pop singers. I watched him teach a classical singer who has never belted to sing a beautiful healthy belt without a break. This he did in minutes, while helping the singer shed her fear of the unknown. Mr. Edwin is a hero to me because unlike certain teachers who package popular vocal techniques as revolutionary new approaches, thereby tying themselves to techniques that have little basis in actual science, he uses practicality to arm the student with a healthy approach unique to the specific musical and stylistic needs. Int his way he is no different than the greatest teachers of singing who help their students find their unique mode of vocal production. I set him apart not only from those who find it convenient to get rich on packaged vocal techniques (an oxymoron in the real sense), but also from the cowards who benefit from making classical vocal technique a culprit for the ills of the CCM world.

I did not set out to make this a tribute to Robert Edwin, but there is no reason it should not be. As a voice teacher and a singer I am inspired by those who make sense and whose hearts drive them to serve the art of singing that we all love. So this post is for you Robert! I hope to see you soon on the golf course where I am nowhere your equal, if you remember the hundred balls I must have lost in the rough when we met in Fredonia. I also hope to see you soon in your studio, where I will be the humble student, learning from your true mastery. My sincere admiration!

© 03/08/2009

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