Learning how to sing operatically is actually quite simple. But it’s not easy. The hard part is doing it well and consistently. I mean opera singers are people who have the same equipment that everybody else does. They have a voicebox just like everybody else has a voicebox. It’s what they DO with their voices that allows them to sing operatically.
When you think of classical vocal technique, these are some of the things that probably come to mind:
…Let’s look at some of these elements a bit more closely.
Vibrato is the periodic beating of the sound of the voice and it’s a really beautiful effect when it comes out unforced. And that’s the key thing to remember — vibrato must come out as a natural vocal phenomenon when breath support is correct and when the body is sufficiently free from tension (including the vocal chords themselves). What most singers do isn’t actual vibrato but an attempt to manufacture it.
This usually comes in 2 flavors: wobbling and tremolo (pronounced TREH-meh-loh, from the Italian meaning ‘a trembling’). Wobbling is when a singer shifts the pitch of their voice up and down. It winds up sounding out of tune and lacks a consistent rhythm. Wobbling can actually be a useful stylistic device and some musical styles make frequent use of it. You can find many examples of wobbling in Mexican musical styles. However, it isn’t appropriate for opera or most Western idioms except very occasionally to make an artistic point. You can do a tremolo by making a scary ghost sound “OoOooOOooOoOOo”. Make sense?
Tremolo is a rapid shaking of the voice box. It usually sounds out of tone because it shakes in small tonal intervals (called quarter tones) that clash with the Western ear and tuning system. You can actually manually shake your voicebox with your hand and produce tremolo. Just sing a note and while you’re holding it shake your voice box really fast. Some singers do this and think it’s vibrato but it’s actually just shaking the voice box using the muscles surrounding it.
True vibrato is rhythmic, unforced and unmistakable. The reason it’s so prevalent in classical singing is because the focus of classical vocalism is developing the most technically perfect technique. Once proper breath support is in place and tensions are minimal, vibrato actually happens on its own. It doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time but it’s definitely important to develop it. How long does it take to develop? For a beginner, it can take up to 2 years or more. It took me approximately 2 years before I had a decent, natural vibrato.
The increased volume you hear from classical singers comes from using the voice correctly. After all, your head is basically just a boombox and a big part of singing is learning how to manipulate the various resonance chambers in your ‘boombox’ to achieve the most natural, unplugged sound. That usually involves getting your tongue and other things out of the way to allow the sound to naturally vibrate. If you fill a cave with a bunch of stuff and sing inside, the sound will be muffled. Take all the stuff out and the sound will resonate freely inside the cave. So it goes with your voice.
It’s important to note that learning to sing operatically also involves developing a beautiful ‘pianissimo’ sound. That means super super quite. My old singing teacher once told me that the technical definition of a perfect voice is one that can sing beautifully and expressively, both super loud and super soft, across the entire vocal register. Very few artists achieve this or even have the innate capacity to achieve it. But then again, there’s always a next level…
The vocal acrobatics performed by a classical singer is a display of his/her technical prowess. It’s meant to show off the singer’s voice in the context of the music they’re performing. Sometimes, the music is written specifically to show off a particularly beautiful voice. For example, the composer Donizetti often made his music a stage for a versatile vocalist to show off. The comic opera (aka an ‘opera buffa’) “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini is well known for it’s aria “Largo Al Factotum”. You know… “Fiiigaro, fiiigaro, figarofigarofigaro, FIIIIIIIGARO!” Yeah, that one. That aria is one of the most difficult arias for the baritone voice because it requires the singer to perform extraordinary technical feats AND improvise during the cadenza.
Of course, not all classical and operatic singing is meant to show off vocal acrobatics. Other composers focus on vowel purity, or on poetry, or melody, and the voice is just another instrument in the orchestra, albeit the most visible one. Entire books full of vocal exercises have been written to train the voice to do all these crazy runs and tricks but the good news is, they’re not really necessary. Generally, you’ll get all the technical training you need directly from your music and from a well-picked set of fundamental vocal exercises.
Another important feature of learning how to sing operatically is being able to sing for hours on end at the top of one’s voice. That’s not to say that it doesn’t get tiring (believe me, it does!) but it just means that a well-trained opera singer is basically an athlete of the voice. They know how to use it, how NOT to use it and when to give it a break. And just like an athlete, proper training is vital.
Opera singers definitely take plenty of time off and when they get sick they often take complete vocal rest (no talking, no singing – just recovering). Pop singers, on the other hand, usually fatigue and peter out halfway through their concerts and wind up with soar throats and vocal problems because of poor technique. Learning how to sing operatically means basically becoming a vocal athlete and a mental athlete who can handle a lot of pressure. It’s pretty cool that learning classical technique carries over into other styles of music because you know how to handle your voice without messing it up.
Another key element of classical vocal technique is diction. Diction is the clear articulation of distinct sounds. In operatic singing, the focus is on pure, uninterrupted vowel sounds, so consonants are typically short, slightly late and distinct. It’s important that your listeners can understand the words that you’re singing, even if they’re in another language.
Diction involves learning to use your tongue and lips very sensitively, since they are the physical instruments that articulate sound. Think about it. Can you make a consonant without using your tongue or lips? Can you make a vowel without using your tongue or lips? Of course not, so they’re vital components of your vocal instrument.
Incredible vocal tone is one of the defining features of classical singing as a genre. Most other genres contain many examples of good diction (jazz, classic pop), acrobatics (jazz, afro-cuban, groove, r&b), vibrato (pretty much all styles) and volume (also most styles). But a truly astounding vocal quality is rarer outside of classical vocalism. Again, this is just my opinion.
But it makes sense because classical singers are taught to produce pure vowels. There are a lot of acoustics and science that go into making very pure, beautiful tones, but you can find many operatic singers with amazing tone qualities. Whereas, you’ll find very few rock singers with a similar quality. I know I know…that’s not the point of rock. But it IS the point of classical singing, and that’s the beauty of it!
Finally, classical singers tend to have great pitch. In other words, they sing in tune well. Not all of them of course, but many. This is something that certainly takes time to develop. If you put the average opera singer up against the average pop or rock singer and his pitch will be much better. Jazz singers also tend to demonstrate fantastic pitch accuracy and for the same reason: because both jazz and classical singers must learn a lot of musicianship skills, which includes ear training, pitch matching, critical listening and more.
We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg…there’s so much more! But hopefully this article gave you an idea of some of the elements that define classical operatic vocal technique.