This post is a response to the following query that came emailed to me from Toni in Washington State:
"Michael, I don't want to sing opera in particular but I know that most training is based on the classical way to sing. I really want to sing jazz and soul/r&b. I have lots of ideas going through my head on the songs I would like to sing and record. My question comes into play here. The way [my voice teacher] makes me sing I would never sing in soul or any other music but classical. Is it enough to just know how to breathe correctly or do I really need to know proper placement of vowels?"
I love these questions, because they allow me to address a fear shared by many singers -- that lessons will make them sound different from what they want. I hope to show you that, with my approach to teaching at least, this fear is unfounded.
Let's start by listening to some duets, each sung by one classical singer + one pop singer. I think that all the singers here remain true to their own personal styles as well as to the spirit of the music they sing.
So, what makes the difference between classical and pop "styles"? To a great extent, it has to do with the temperament of the performer, but there are technical differences as well. With a well-developed technique, you can sing any piece within your range in the style of your choice. Not everyone shares the same tastes in applying musical styles outside of the repertoire in which they're normally encountered. Here are a couple of examples that might grate on some people's nerves, although I personally find them both charming and interesting:
Singers have a range of options in approaching a given song, and the better their technique, the wider this range will be. The two main technical adjustments available to make singing sound more "classical" or more "pop" are resonance and vowel sound. Classical singers normally develop a greater resonance (amplified within their own throats and oral cavities) than pop singers, who tend to rely more on electronic amplification.
The gradual increase in microphone use has caused an increasing polarity between classical and pop styles. In the early days of Broadway, there was a lot more crossover, as the singing techniques required for opera houses and musical theater halls were more similar. Nowadays, in pop music -- and, sadly, in opera more and more -- voices unable to produce sufficient natural resonance are simply miked, allowing a more "natural-sounding" (i.e., non-operatic) resonance to be heard throughout the theater.
To focus on the positives of this situation, using a microphone (or performing in a small enough space) can allow a singer to adopt a singing style that is closer to speech sounds. Many listeners prefer the resulting vocal effect, which seems more intimate and less artificial to them. Once you've developed your natural resonance, however, it's hard to give it up, because it feels so good and because it represents a high degree of skill. This is why classical singers sometimes sound so ridiculous when they do pop music -- they are unwilling to adjusting their resonance back to "normal" levels.
Vowel sounds are the other sound characteristic that singers can easily adjust to alter the style of their singing. Vowels for classical singing tend to be darker and more rounded, whereas vowels for pop singing tend to be brighter and broader. (Think of Renee Fleming vs. Ethel Merman.) The difference is similar to that between the "plummy" British English of the Royal Family and the way native New Yorkers speak. Most of us would pronounce the same word differently in different musical contexts: the [ah]'s in "Maria" change depend on whether you're doing Schubert's "Ave Maria" or "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" from The Sound of Music.
When I am teaching voice, my aim is not to make all my students sound like opera singers. Or like heavy metal vocalists, for that matter. I aim to give them a solid technique so that they can produce the widest range of sounds their instruments will permit. That way, they can choose the appropriate sound for each song, phrase, or even note they sing. In all cases, good technique is good technique. Style is a matter of making choices from within your personal possibilities, which should be constantly increasing as you learn.