Let’s be clear. If you have a degree in vocal performance, you have been classically trained to be afraid of everything but opera. Sorry, but you’ve been lied to. Your voice is an instrument. Just like a violinist can learn to play blue grass without breaking a finger, you can learn to sing any number of genres without developing nodes. The song above is Renée Fleming. It was recorded around the same time as this piece. Listen closely to both. Did the pop song above ruin her voice for Song to the Moon? Hardly. So, get over it. Pop is not the enemy.
I’m not telling you to make unhealthy noises. There are many singers (I refuse to name them) who are basically standing in line for the laryngologist. Please don’t try to sing like them. Instead, emulate singers like Lady Gaga (here is her Jazz voice), Beyoncé, and Pink; if you’re a man, Usher, Justin Timberlake, and Sam Smith. Here’s how.
Step One: Bring it forward. When you’re singing over an orchestra, you need to use every resonator in your body. The complex series of sinus cavities, your mouth, and chest create additional pitches, called overtones. Those complex overtones make the voice sound fuller and louder. They are also the same tones manipulated in Asian folk music, like Tuvan Throat Singing. Microphones amplify the voice in pop music. Because they don’t have to carry, pop singers only use their front-most resonators. Doing so omits many of the classical overtones, making the sound naturally brighter and thinner. If someone says you sound too operatic, they often mean the tone sounds too rich. Pop musicians also confuse that rich sound with vibrato. Simply focus all your sound in the front of your face. You might even lower the soft palate a little. It will sound thin and nasal to you, and will be a more pleasing pop sound.
Step Two: Add some air. Again, singing long phrases over an orchestra requires you to be efficient with your breath. Comparatively, pop singing is short phrases in something like a stage whisper. Don’t sing loudly. Pop is not all belting, in fact there is surprisingly little of it. Air also gives a sexy sheen to a song. Air adds intimacy. Picture yourself singing lightly in someone’s ear on the dance floor.
Step Three: Learn to navigate your passaggio. This is good advice for all singers, but it is imperative in pop. Pop ears love the wild quality of the singer’s break. I wrote about this in Range Rover a couple of weeks ago. Pop requires you not only to bring chest voice into this area, but to suddenly flip into head voice. Most songs written for women have a range of an octave and a half, with the climax of the song in the passaggio. If anything in pop singing can hurt you, this is it. If you are serious about singing in this genre, learn to navigate this part of your voice. It will only make you a stronger singer in other genres. Just like every other kind of singing, engage your brain before you open your mouth. Warm up your entire range before you sing, and pay the closest attention to the middle. If it hurts to make certain sounds, consciously make another choice, or change the key.
Step Four: Develop your falsetto. If you’re a counter tenor, you’re halfway there. Spending most of your time singing in head and chest voice will get you compared to Josh Groban. Now, you could do worse. He’s doing quite well, but he doesn’t sing pop. Pop is still in love with that Motown sound.
Step Five: Listen to the current Top 40. In a business that considers 6 months a long time ago, Renée Fleming might as well have been wearing a bustle in Endlessly. What was hot a year or two ago, sounds dated today. Listening to Top 40 is the only way to tune your ears to what is current. You will start to hear the subtleties. Think back to when you started taking lessons. You had to learn to listen for diphthongs, phrasing. You acquired that skill. Listening to current music does the same thing for pop. You won’t hurt yourself, not if you sing it well. And finally, it might be a good idea not to spill the beans about your classical training. Let your voice speak for itself.