Cross-training, really?

Porpora

I have recently discovered the term ‘cross-training’. This method justifies itself by saying it creates commercial opportunities for the singer. I agree with this. However, it also claims to be a healthy way, perhaps even healthier way, to train the voice.

Well…I have worked as a fully professional singer for a few decades. I have sung classical, cross-over and pure CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music). In a nutshell – my Classical is mostly live theatre, Cross-over is mostly events and CCM is working as a singer-songwriter.

I also have performed duties as a Kaikaranga which uses only belt voice. This is an Aotearoa/New Zealand Māori traditional way of singing. (Sorry, the United States of America DID NOT invent belt voice. Indigenous peoples, of all shapes and sizes, have been using this technique for longer than America was a twinkle in the eye of its colonizer.)

Until this year, I have not taught. Now, my teaching this year is 90% CCM. All of my students learn from the Garcia Method. I then add CCM techniques to this foundation. I emphasise breathing and support, balanced onset and singing on the interest, not the capital. I communicate to all students that cross-training is untested. We proceed with belt, aspiration and noises by giving it the respect it deserves.

My passion is to work with singer-songwriters who have the freedom to establish their own voice and identity. I also like musical theatre. I enjoy the brilliance in the musical theatre sound. However, when I suggest a piece of musical theatre, nearly all of these young people express their dissatisfaction with the direction musical theatre is now headed. In particular, nearly all but two of the young people I work with don’t like the nasality and the extreme use of belt voice in modern musical theatre.

My experience of years and years of singing across genres is that cross-training is NOT a healthy way to train the voice. Rather, practising CCM techniques, for me, required me to use my voice in a manner that, I felt, by sensation, nature did not intend.

I have returned to Bel Canto twice (singing solely Bel Canto for a period of two years) to refresh my voice.

Don’t get me wrong, I love CCM. I love belting, aspiration and noises. I use these techniques as carefully as I can by using strategies based upon considering how high and loud I belt, aiming for mostly balanced onsets etc (caveat: this is most of the time… high-risk is part of the CCM singer/songwriting game for me). However, my experience is that ONLY Bel Canto can maintain my voice. To me, it achieves longevity and feels ‘healthy’.

I adore the Bel Canto exercises from Garcia and Marchesi. I rehearse only Bel Canto exercises. Then, I turn to belt, vocal fry, aspirations in my songs. (From time to time, I practice CCM techniques a couple of times a week for about 10 minutes at a time to keep a check on things. They are fun but I feel, sensation wise and progress wise, there is no benefit to rehearsing them too long).

In my experience, microphones do NOT make up for the fact the voice is being used against what nature intended. For example, I worked on a new song yesterday using an extremely close mic technique. My voice was NOT as fresh when I finished as when I sing a full classical concert unamplified (based on an estimated time I spent singing in both examples).

Currently, I am reading material on cross-training. Who knows, there may be a scientific study out there. However, I believe singing teachers must be careful. The evidence we have in front of us is that Bel Canto techniques, in their purest form (not Verismo additions) preserve the voice. Bel Canto singers with a perfected technique work for decades with a voice that is youthful and can access the full range of the voice. You may say, well this is aesthetic. However, to me, this is also nature. We have a vocal range, do we not?

Nowadays, in our post-Bel Canto world, many opera singers don’t seem to last as long as they used to. It is arguable this is because verismo came along. The head voice was lost. Shouting begun. I have sung verismo. I have sung avant-garde opera. In my experience, this type of opera is much tougher on the voice than singing a piece of Handel or Mozart.

Goodness knows what will happen to female singers in the 21st-century musical theatre world. Night after night singing with a technique that was only ever used, until now, in western music sparingly (or, by indigenous peoples, very sparingly). Time will tell. Let us hope these singers are being observed closely by an objective researcher…I fear the proponents of cross-training are far too close to their subject.

The picture at the top of this post is of Porpora. Composer and teacher of the top castrati and, ironically, one of the great Bel Canto teachers. I included him for a reason – we must not forget the past. We are prepared to go to extreme lengths for sound and, ultimately fame and money. Ouch!!!

For argument’s sake, let’s go with my experiences and say CCM is not as healthy. Then, I ask, are songwriters, composers and the establishment within which they operate, still, to this day, centuries after Porpora lived, causing us to harm our bodies? If so, who are these composers? Who is the establishment? Do they know anything about the voice, in particular the female voice? Do they realise the female voice is different from the male? I don’t know much, but it appears there are different acoustical properties? Can we not work around differences between the voice types, if any, rather than force ourselves to be something we are not?

Should we not be demanding composers write for the voice, in particular the female voice in an educated way? Educated by robust research. Science perhaps? In musical theatre, this could mean encouraging composers, for now anyway, until there is robust research, to write for the voice as a legit voice with a contemporary flair.

Sadly, many questions and thoughts weigh heavily upon me as I continue to sing, write songs and begin my teaching career.

Surely, we singing teachers must advocate for common sense if we are involved on boards, committees, workshop cooperatives etc which commission new works or choose repertoire. I fear singing teachers, who should have the knowledge, are playing around with the creative lives of young singers. This includes solid evidence before suggesting students spend money on University programmes to learn these techniques rather than on another subject which could be a backstop for when their CCM career finishes early.

Published by Deborah Wai Kapohe

I am a classical singer and guitarist. I have created a project called 'The Lilli Lehmann Project'. The project, lasting from 2020 until 2023, aims to refresh my voice and prepare me to be a singing teacher. The scope of the project is that I am studying Lilli Lehmann's singing book, bibliography, recordings and her reviews, as well as other historical vocal pedagogy. I have chosen this platform in order to blog about my discoveries, demonstrate techniques and exercises, and perform pieces of music. I have done so because I wish to be transparent. I think that if a student is prepared to learn from me then I should stand up to public scrutiny.

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