“Every singer should study classical repertoire and technique.” Many teachers have claimed this. The argument for this is something like: If working “classically” can lead to greater power, flexibility, and stamina, it must be good for all singing. We want those as options, don’t we? A singer can always scale it back. This idea could be explained as: classical style is the ultimate, and other styles are classical minus one or more elements.
“If a student doesn’t want to sing classical, and will never perform classical, why should they study it? To do so would be to ignore the musical marketplace.” Here one needs to make the difference between repertoire and technical training. If we are talking about ways of vocalizing to make the voice functionally better, we could possibly have “exercises in general” and “specific repertoire” that are independent of each other. Or this could mean that “classical” exercises would be ignored and some other exercises would be used that are especially designated for a certain style.
“A voice can be trained technically without any specific repertoire.” Theoretically, functional ideals of high, low, loud, soft, flexible, sustained, and clear vowels could be worked on without reference to repertoire. Some functional teachers in the tradition of Cornelius Reid, for example, follow this approach.
“We do not even know what ‘classical singing’ sounded like in the Bel Canto era. How can we say we are teaching that?” Here the follow-up question is “Are we teaching a specific sound, or the ability to execute this difficult music by any means necessary, or something else?” We cannot truly know the sound, without exact high fidelity recordings from 1840, but functional ideals based on the music performed at that time can be deduced with logic. Can’t we say that a singer with a highly functional voice is a fine singer, and let the voice be? Furthermore, when one takes recording and live sound technology into consideration, how do we know that a recent performance in any style is a true indication of how the voice sounds and functions physiologically and acoustically?
If we are concerned about a marketplace – which one? Especially with a young person, are we closing doors for them if we train for a specific application of the voice?
Markets come and go, but the human voice is the same thing through the ages. Train your voice to do the most things it can do, sing all the kinds of music that interest you, and see what happens. A supple, powerful, responsive voice does not require “classical”, “popular”, “commercial”, or any other label. Give it a label if you want, but there is more to your voice than its marketability. It is my quiet agenda (until now?) to train each voice to become more expansive in its capabilities, and then give a bit of help in applying a greater technical range to the music that the singer sings.
We need to learn how to keep the larynx, the vocal tract, and the whole body healthy to have our best shot at getting the most of any vocal specialization we ask of ourselves. Health first, then skills, then projects. If your singing projects are going to drive your training, don’t forget to pay attention to overall vocal health. Observe and honor what your voice needs as a voice – at the basic, primal, physical level.
If you just can’t get enough of these philosophical treatments of voice training, my colleague Justin Petersen wrote an excellent piece related to these issues called “The Style Agnostic Singing Voice”.