Coaching classical singers to sing in a contemporary style

A singer in your congregation has a passion for worship, and has approached you about joining your music team. You have a heart to use people’s gifts, and this person is clearly well-trained musically, has a genuine faith, and is keen to serve. But it soon becomes clear that their singing style is very ‘classical’ and feels completely out of place in a worship band setting whose staple musical diet is Tomlin, Wickham, Redman, Hillsong etc…

Or perhaps you’ve just taken on a new team and have inherited a classical singer who’s been serving for years. What do you do?

Broadly, you have three options:

  1. Find a way to stand them down from the team – but risk pastoral fallout in the process.
  2. Do nothing – and learn to be ok with a classical ring to your otherwise contemporary sound.
  3. Work to train your classical singer to sing in a contemporary style.

Option 3 has most potential for a win-win, but how do you go about this? In my experience, music teams face two challenges in trying to transition classical singers to sing in a more contemporary style.

Firstly, the relationship needs to be attended to: the singer in question needs to recognise the need and be willing to go on the journey.

Secondly, the contemporary musician acting as ‘trainer’ needs to be equipped with the language and knowledge to do the job.

Here I make a few suggestions as to how to navigate both.

1. Attending to the relationship

Here are a few suggestions that you can attend first to relationship before you start a coaching process.

i) Acknowledge and honour their training and experience

Classical musicians will often have received extensive musical training, which may far exceed that of your average contemporary worship leader, who may have learned their craft by picking up a guitar and experimenting until it ‘sounded right’. Both paper-based and ear-based musicians are prone to pride, and both may be prone to feeling intimidated by the other, and feeling a sense of deficiency.

As worship leader, set an example by asking them about their experience, demonstrating keen interest, and, if appropriate, finding ways in which they might bring their training to benefit the whole group. They may have something to bring in terms of teaching your other singers about breathing technique and breath control, for example. This sort of amenability can soften the ground for you to talk about stylistic issues in a way that will not bring fear or sound patronizing.

ii) Invite them to identify the stylistic issues first

Treat the singer as knowledgeable by asking them, “What do you hear in the difference between classical singers and contemporary singers?” This will give you a steer as to how much they are already hearing in their voice, and hence, how much work you will need to do in your coaching. In some cases, bringing the question up might be all you need to do, as they are able to hear and make the changes themselves.

iii) Ask their permission for you to coach them, and ask them whether they’re willing to put time into being coached

It is reasonable to explain that, as a contemporary group, you want to encourage all your singers to develop in that style. If the singer is unwilling, and/or practically doesn’t have the time to be coached, then they may come to the conclusion themselves that the group is not for them.

If they are willing, you will then need to have some language and guidance to help them develop into a contemporary singer.

2. Coaching tips to use

If you are a self-taught musician you may struggle to go beyond a simple, “Can you sing less classically?” request. Here are six contrasts that might help you coach someone to adjust their singing style.

i) Low larynx vs. high larynx (voice box)

Use of low vs high larynx is the most pronounced differences between the two singing styles. To experience ‘low larynx’, open your mouth wide and yawn – you should be able to feel your larynx descend down your neck, as your wind pipe expands to its fullest width. To experience ‘high larynx,’ smile with your mouth and give a high-pitched giggle like an evil cartoon character – you will now feel your wind pipe tighten and your larynx sitting higher.

Classical music predominantly makes use of low-larynx technique, whereas contemporary music makes use of a higher larynx. (Perhaps the most extreme example is a gospel choir, which uses high larynx technique to create a big sound without resembling a rowdy group of football supporters).  Most contemporary worship singers will sit somewhere in between – higher larynx than classical, but not quite as much as a gospel tone. Invite your singer to experiment with this with you to find what will work for your worship team.

ii) Vowel sounds

Your vowel sounds will be affected by the position of the larynx, and it may be worth you talking through how vowel sounds might be different. This may involve a slight Americanisation of your vowels – generally the American accent tends to make use of high-larynx in their normal speech.

For example, the word ‘top’ classical musicians may automatically sing “torp”; Americans, “tarp”. To create a contemporary style without sounding ‘faux’ American you might go for something in between.

Similarly, if you have a long “I” sound, classical musicians will tend to sing this with a sound more like ‘aaah’, but you may want to encourage a something closer to the spoken ‘I’ sound, which will inevitably shift the mouth into more of a smile, and the larynx, up.

Talk to your singer about vowels!

iii) Attack & decay

One the defining features of mainstream contemporary vs classical music is its emphasis on rhythm, and this should come across in the singing technique. Classical singers (or more nervous singers) may tend to “swell” the note, i.e. land on the note gently and then get louder.

Typically, a contemporary style will be more percussive, involving more attack at the start of the note and then dying away. Confident classical singers may often hold the last note of phrases on for longer than you do, because they are used to reading music and sustain a note all the way to the end. Encourage them to give attack to the start of the note and then die away quickly. This more closely resembles how one would speak, and is more typical of the contemporary style.

 iv) Vibrato vs clean

Most singers of either genre understand vibrato. In contemporary music you almost always want a ‘clean’ sound rather than vibrato. Ask your classical singer to cut down on vibrato.

v) Using the mic for dynamics

You may need to do some microphone training in and of itself, but it is worth talking with your musician about using the microphone effectively to create dynamics. If you are using a cardioid microphone such as the SM58 then the difference between having the microphone 5cm away and 15cm is significant. For harmony notes, or for high notes that need ore ‘belt’, it will be important to manage your dynamics by moving the microphone further from your mouth.

vi) Full tone vs ‘Airy’ tone

If your singer’s voice feels a little too ‘full’, talk about putting more ‘air’ into the tone. Having worked on microphone technique, explain to your singer that they can let the microphone to do much of the work for them.

vii) Solo vs. Blend

Another set of language you can use to communicate a similar is to talk about solo vs blend. Classical choral music distinguishes between ‘solo’ singers and ‘choral’ singers, and the most desirable quality for a choral singer is to blend with the singers around them. If your classical singer’s voice is sounding too ‘piercing’ then encourage them to create a blending tone rather than a solo tone.

What next?

The voice is the most personal instrument of all, and the journey to work with someone’s voice typically needs to be taken with care. It is likely that gentle reminders will be needed in rehearsal, but hopefully you will be able to get the win-win outcome you are hoping for.

If the person’s tone isn’t changing to the extent you would like, I would recommend using them predominantly on harmonies parts, which need to be somewhat ‘hidden’ anyway. Your classical singer might be a music-reader, and may love the care you put into writing them a part. Or, if you are not a music reader yourself, ask them to work with you to develop harmonies for the songs in your repertoire.

Want to watch these techniques in action?

Musicademy vocal coach Cat Mayne has created a video lesson demonstrating the techniques Chris describes. Watch it below:

Musicademy resources to help

The Musicademy Worship Vocals Course is a comprehensive training course in contemporary vocals. Your singers can work through the 4-DVD set or alternatively download or stream individual lessons.

The Musicademy Harmony & Backing Vocals Courses teach how to form basic harmonies as well as many levels of detail in providing great contemporary backing vocals. Learning the techniques taught by Soul Survivor singer Andreana Arganda, your singers will learn how to work with 3rds and 5ths without you having to write parts for each song. Again this course is designed with contemporary techniques to the fore.

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Chris Steynor

Chris Steynor has 15 years’ experience in full-time church ministry and is currently Associate Minister for Music at All Saints Church in Lindfield. A cathedral chorister in his childhood, he now spends much of his work in contemporary worship music while continuing to work with classical choirs and orchestras. For six years he played piano for an award-winning gospel choir.