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  • Some advice on style

    I am training as a pianist and composer in the classical tradition and as a vocalist in the musical theater tradition, but I would also like to learn to sing, play, and write in pop and rock styles as well. I love the music that I am learning and want to continue in it, but I also want to be a little more versatile. Does anyone have any suggestions on how I could learn to pull off these styles without sounding like a total suck-wad? The piano might be easier to pull off, but the vocals are a little more difficult. I've heard singers try to cross from more classically oriented styles to more popular kinds of music and pop/rock singers try to sing classical songs and it kinda blows both ways around. In fact, I've rarely heard anything more horrible than these pathetic attempts and I REALLY don't want to be THAT guy. I am really hoping that the reason these failed attempts were so absolutely horrible is because of a lack of training and practice in those styles, but I don't know. What do you think?

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can do this? Everything that I sing sounds like it belongs in a musical and I don't know if it's my tone, vibrato, over-pronunciation, or maybe a combination? Please no comments that are too vague. I've listened to pop and rock my whole life and I've tried to imitate them, but it just comes across as a bad imitation and nothing more. So the suggestion of,"just listen to your favorite singers and try to sound like them....do what they do" doesn't really help me much. There's something that I just don't seem to grasp. Some nuance or consideration that I'm not aware of and I don't know were to find the answer.

  • #2
    [I just realized that even though you're relating it to your composition and songwriting efforts, it might be a better fit in the Singer's Forum -- but I already wrote a bunch of paragraphs below... and I suspect others in this forum might have some thoughts, as well. I hope some of our edgier forum members will keep their edginess in check a bit. ]

    Actually, it sounds like you've already put a fair amount of thought into the subject.

    I've long shared your observation about so many of those who attempt to cross over from one of the mentioned uber-genres to the other. I'm not a big fan of either classical or operatic singing, but I have heard (a preciously small handful of) classically trained singers who could do show tunes (and I'll make distinction between show tunes and light opera for reasons that are probably already obvious to you) and even pop, blues, and rock. (Offhand, I can think of... Kristin Chenoweth. )

    Of course, there can be enormous stylistic gulfs between the three genres. The training that goes into operatic and classical singing seems to be extremely hard for those folks to shake. Like glancing sideways at freeway wrecks as one crawls past, I've often listened furtively -- and almost always painfully and briefly -- to more than a few opera stars trying to tackle pop and show standards. Usually it is simply jaw-droppingly bad.

    But the traditions of show singing (some of which you listed above) typically don't translate well to pop -- and certainly not to rock -- despite the fact that so many pop standards in eras past have come from stage and film musicals. What sounds right in the context of a stage musical or show cast recording typically sounds strained or affected in a pop or jazz standards context.

    Of course, there is no one approach to stage singing. While most female leads have typically been selected for a modicum of singing ability, character parts often emphasize that aspect of singing. And male leads can be all over the map. As mainstream singing fashions have shifted away from 'straight' singing, traditional baritones and tenors have increasingly sounded 'corny' and affected. What can play OK on stage in a work like Oklahoma or Carousel often sounds dated and weird to mainstream audiences. A glorious and skillful bari like Howard Keel or Richard Kiley is a fish out of water off the stage, for the most part. So, at a certain point, we found Hollywood and even Broadway casting pop singers (like Bob Goulet) or actors (like Rex Harrison or Richard Harris or Richard burton!) in singing roles, to varying degrees of success.

    None of this, of course, is the kind of specific advice you were looking for...

    Frankly, I found myself vamping, writing that preamble to prime my mind for what I had hoped would be some good points of advice for you.

    Unfortunately, the best one I could think of, heartfelt, unashamed imitation is one you've already apparently tried. But just because it hasn't got you where you want to go in the past doesn't really mean you should abandon the effort. (If I'd quit trying to learn music just because it took me months to learn how to tune a guitar, the world would be a poorer place. OK... maybe not the whole world. But my world. )

    So, we find ourselves winding around to the notion that perhaps part of the problem is the standard(s) you're trying to hold yourself to.

    One of the problems of being adept in one field and trying to move into another that seems closely related is simple frustration that those skills don't easily translate.

    But I wouldn't beat myself up too badly if I couldn't effortlessly switch from "You'll Never Walk Alone" to "Dock of the Bay" or "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

    And, for that matter, today's broader pop is all over the map. For every Tom Waits, there's a Jeff Buckley. For every Britney Spears, a Diana Krall. (Well... maybe not for every... there are a lot of Britney types... poor example. )


    How about an example of your singing? One audio clip is often worth many thousands of words. (Or you might just want to take this to the aforementioned Singer's Forum. I'm the Songwriting forum mod and can move this thread there for you, if you'd like, or you can simply leave this one here and start a similar one in the Singer's Forum. [Sometimes folks object to 'double-posting' but in this case, I'm sure it would be OK.]


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    • #3
      I can't think of any examples of where it's convincing. I recently I heard Renee Fleming doing some jazz standards, and she's about as close as it gets -- but I'd rather hear her use her pipes for opera or art song.

      Even going from rock to standards can be tough as heard in Rod Stewart. His rock stuff is classic, but his interpretation of jazz standards can be all over the map in terms of quality and listenability.

      I'd still write in those genres that aren't suited to your voice, but I'd just get comfortable with your voice and accept its strengths and limitations.

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      • #4
        his interpretation of jazz standards can be all over the map in terms of quality and listenability.
        I haven't heard all his efforts in the standards vein, but I'd say you're being awfully generous.

        One gal who I think who has crossed over several genre lines with considerable grace is Linda Rondstadt. She went from folk to rock (not too hard, of course, many others have), to Mexican standards, to pop standards. And she'd done a little light opera and such, too.

        Another guy who seems to be able to shift gears quite radically is Andy Bey. He's no household name, of course, but having been familiar with his jazz standards work I was pretty shocked to hear some of his R&B pop stuff. Not only did he cross genre lines, he switched (convincingly) from a jazz baritone to a falsetto R&B voice not stylistically far from Marvin Gaye.


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        • #5
          Apparently classical sort of singer Sarah Brightman went from pure pop to musicals like Phantom of the Opera etc, and I think did some more pop after that too...but I must admit I've never heard her pop voice and can't really imagine what it must sound like.

          I can think of more women than men in terms of a classical-professionally-trained-sounding voice suiting popular music...there was some song ages ago (like the mid 90s I think) from some girl...can't even remember her name as I think it was a one hit wonder...but her voice had a quite classical quality to it...at the end of the song she did this singing that could've belonged in an opera or classical type musical. (I think the song was called Pray...she was blonde. That's all I know. lol)

          Charlotte Church, didn't she do pop stuff?

          Also there's this Australian singer who is classically trained in opera and she's moved into sort of mainstream...but I don't like it actually. I was very disappointed in the album I bought of her's. I'd heard a few songs from her and liked them (live performances) and she seemed to combine her more breathy, meek pop voice with her more classically trained very different opera voice, which was cool. But on her pop album it was ALL that pop voice, and it didn't have any interest to me. BORING. You'd assume she wasn't that good a singer based on that voice...light, pop fluff, breathy, blegh.

          In my eyes (or ears), the classical voices have more of a head-based tone, are more resonant in terms of getting their full sound up higher in the note spectrum, they tend to have a very balanced or maybe too-prominent vibrato, and they pronounce their words clearer and more precise, and they also sing the notes precisely...no sliding up or down to them...no affectations as such...

          Whereas for pop singing, it's less about the technical abilities and more the tone and sound and effects. Most pop singers slide up and down to various notes, some use rapid-fire vibrato and others don't ever use vibrato at all...the pronounciation of words can be anywhere and everywhere...there's way more room for the singer's own personality than in more classical singing I think. But having said that, and as I said above, this type of singing (the classical type I mean) can fit in with pop or even maybe rock...just cause someone's voice sounds pretty or classical doesn't mean they CAN'T do pop singing or their classical voice can't fit really well with a pop or rock background or song.

          In terms of guys...I dunno much about that. I can't think of anyone like Pavarotti or what's his name, the other guys...doing rock songs! I just can't hear it. They'd have to sing in a totally different way somehow...and you probably wouldn't even recognise their voices if they did.''

          The jazzy, swingy type singers can do it, like Michael Buble, or the other one...Jamie Cullen or something? They're mainstream but they're still not pop or rock at all...well, not rock anyway.

          I've forgotten what I was saying now. lol
          All things must pass...

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          • #6
            Thanks for the replies guys and gals, I think that you're right. A good portion of this probably belongs on the singers forum. But maybe I could get some suggestions on rock and pop piano and the songwriting aspect for this thread then. I know what 9th, 11th, 13th, and sus chords are, but I still don't know what creates that "contemporary" sound (by contemporary, I probably mean 70's, 80's, and 90's, like Billy Joel, Rush, Journey, Foreigner,REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Michael Mcdonald, etc. I'm not too crazy about a lot of the stuff I've been hearing on the radio lately). I also know that modern music isn't too concerned with voice leading or "forbidden parallels!" (oh my goodness!) like classical music.

            But then again, a lot of stuff that I write comes out sounding too classical or like it came straight out of a musical....Has anyone looked into those rock keyboard books? Are they any good? I've gotten a hold of some of the pop/rock sheet music from my favorite bands, but it sounds corny and forced. Maybe it's because the original music is for rhythm and lead guitar a lot of the time and doesn't translate well to piano. I've had more success with the likes of Billy Joel and Elton John. Maybe I'm just picking up the wrong sheet music for the wrong people more often than not. But even the sheet music for Billy and Elton tends to seem like a "simplified for normal people" type version of the original. I have the technique, I just need to know how to create the sound. I've also had more success with the transcribed scores, and have just gotten one for Billy Joel, Queen, and an anthology that has a score of all the Beatles songs, but I haven't looked into them too much. Any other suggestions?

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            • #7
              I am training as a pianist and composer in the classical tradition and as a vocalist in the musical theater tradition, but I would also like to learn to sing, play, and write in pop and rock styles as well. I love the music that I am learning and want to continue in it, but I also want to be a little more versatile. Does anyone have any suggestions on how I could learn to pull off these styles without sounding like a total suck-wad? The piano might be easier to pull off, but the vocals are a little more difficult. I've heard singers try to cross from more classically oriented styles to more popular kinds of music and pop/rock singers try to sing classical songs and it kinda blows both ways around. In fact, I've rarely heard anything more horrible than these pathetic attempts and I REALLY don't want to be THAT guy. I am really hoping that the reason these failed attempts were so absolutely horrible is because of a lack of training and practice in those styles, but I don't know. What do you think?

              Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can do this? Everything that I sing sounds like it belongs in a musical and I don't know if it's my tone, vibrato, over-pronunciation, or maybe a combination? Please no comments that are too vague. I've listened to pop and rock my whole life and I've tried to imitate them, but it just comes across as a bad imitation and nothing more. So the suggestion of,"just listen to your favorite singers and try to sound like them....do what they do" doesn't really help me much. There's something that I just don't seem to grasp. Some nuance or consideration that I'm not aware of and I don't know were to find the answer.


              Rufus Wainwright? Josh Groban? Meatloaf? Are those guys "THAT GUY"?

              Not a singing expert, but yeah, less vibrato, less careful pronunciation, looser phrasing should get you closer to a rock sound.

              As far as piano, it is tough to get good solo piano arrangements of popular rock songs because, well, most of them aren't written for piano. Maybe try a Coldplay song with just a head voice?
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              • #8
                So...yeah, what differentiates a classical piano piece from a modern / rock piano piece...?

                What jumps to mind is in a classical piece, it tends to be either very twinkly / twiddly / complicated dancing over the keys...very light...and very pretty...or it's sort of forceful but still tending towards the twiddly...

                On rock piano songs...I notice it's more about a strong beat or rhythm. There's some sort of beat going on that's not there in the classical so much (or not to me anyway)...the piano can be its own rhythm or it goes along with other things like a bassline, drums, etc. And also I notice 3 other things. One, rock piano pieces are much more repetitive than classical ones. They're catchy. Two, sometimes or usually the piano isn't playing the melody - the singer or another main instrument like a guitar is doing that. The piano may lead the song in terms of being the main or only instrument, but generally the vocal and lyrics either totally complement it (and also continue to steer it more in the rock / modern way by singing in a rocky way) or support it or whatever you want to call it. And three, I notice a lot of modern people use block chords. They seem to be sort of almost bashing at the keyboard in this cool kinda almost bluesy / rocky way. Using block chords as a method of playing leads to the piano sounding more its own rhythm and beat too I think...

                I really don't know if this makes any sense at all though.

                And I just realised my thumb is bleeding all over the keyboard. How delightful.
                All things must pass...

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                • #9
                  Here's some really good advice? Listen to my stuff? Emulate it? And you'll be in like Flint... Don't copy it exactly mind you? I have the whole pop-rock thing "down cold..." Welcome and good luck. I envy people who have careers in music... My career is in Engineering. I would give my left nut, hell my right one too? For a career in music...

                  HOT NUTS! GET YOUR HOT NUTS RIGHT HERE!
                  We do this because we love music in a way that others may never understand...

                  www.reverbnation.com/rockinrobby

                  Dukie? Don't step in it? Don't touch it? Don't smell it? Avoid it at all costs... It's poo? And who want's to be associated with poo? Not me...

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                  • #10
                    What would you have to do to shift yourself from engineering to music??
                    All things must pass...

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                    • #11
                      Thanks for the replies guys and gals, I think that you're right. A good portion of this probably belongs on the singers forum. But maybe I could get some suggestions on rock and pop piano and the songwriting aspect for this thread then. I know what 9th, 11th, 13th, and sus chords are, but I still don't know what creates that "contemporary" sound (by contemporary, I probably mean 70's, 80's, and 90's, like Billy Joel, Rush, Journey, Foreigner,REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Michael Mcdonald, etc. I'm not too crazy about a lot of the stuff I've been hearing on the radio lately). I also know that modern music isn't too concerned with voice leading or "forbidden parallels!" (oh my goodness!) like classical music.

                      But then again, a lot of stuff that I write comes out sounding too classical or like it came straight out of a musical....Has anyone looked into those rock keyboard books? Are they any good? I've gotten a hold of some of the pop/rock sheet music from my favorite bands, but it sounds corny and forced. Maybe it's because the original music is for rhythm and lead guitar a lot of the time and doesn't translate well to piano. I've had more success with the likes of Billy Joel and Elton John. Maybe I'm just picking up the wrong sheet music for the wrong people more often than not. But even the sheet music for Billy and Elton tends to seem like a "simplified for normal people" type version of the original. I have the technique, I just need to know how to create the sound. I've also had more success with the transcribed scores, and have just gotten one for Billy Joel, Queen, and an anthology that has a score of all the Beatles songs, but I haven't looked into them too much. Any other suggestions?

                      The folks you're citing as contemporary did their key work in the 1970's. 1970 was forty years ago. That would have been like me saying that Rudy Vallee singing through a cone megaphone was contemporary back when I was just starting out (in 1970). [Strangely enough, Rudy Vallee and his wife used to come visit our next door neighbors (in our solidly middle class neighborhood) every once in a while back then. At the time I knew him mostly from his representation in creaky old black and white cartoon parodies. I never met him, unfortunately -- I really appreciate his comic acting now -- but I remember seeing his car, with vanity plates phonetically spelling his name in the driveway next door. Uh... where was I...? ]

                      Now, there's nothing wrong with going back to that music. And there are still plenty of fans of that music, although they tend, of course, to be older. But it's my thinking you should make the music you love and feel, not what you think is 'commercial.'

                      (And, unless you're prepared to tour, it's my thinking that keep the day job is good advice for most musicians these days, young or old. The alternative is cover bands, and, in some markets, that can work out for a while, but it's a life style and career choice that often leaves musicians high and dry in their 40s or 50s, often with few prospects. Of course, the same can certainly be said of the touring life style -- unless it's killed you off first.)

                      So, my advice is open your eyes wide, let all that reality sink in, and then be who you are and make the music you love and don't be ashamed about it.

                      If you do, it will be genuine and you will enjoy it. People respond to those qualities.

                      We're fortunate in many ways today that there is more respect for the music of the past in the broader audience. When I was a kid, virtually no young people listened to big band swing or hot jazz. I was pretty much the only person I knew who loved scratchy old 78's. (I'll admit, it was often the corniness and the time-machine aspects to it all, but the more I heard, the more I learned how to separate the Ellingtons and Goodmans from the Glenn Millers and Freddy Martins. Er, not that there's anything wrong with Glenn Miller or Freddy Martin. It's all good.)

                      But today's musically aware young people (I'm not talking about your Britney and Ashley fans, of course) often do have a grasp on the 'classic' pop of the past.


                      It's funny, just last night in the 3DW I was talking to a friend who grew up singing in church and sang in a lot of stage musicals when he was young. He's in his 40s now but he was initially drawn to the vocal harmony pop bands of the 70s and 80s like Journey and such [not my thing by a couple million miles, but, hey] and later ended up in rap rock bands when that was hot in the early 90s. So it's not like one can't make almost any transition he really feels.


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                      • #12
                        Yes, there's ZERO market now for new music that resembles 70s and 80s softer rock. The only market is the ones who already made their name back then. Baby boomers love that ****************, but they don't like someone "new" who sounds like their favorite artists from 40 years ago. The world moves forward. Don't look back.

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                        • #13
                          I know that the music that I'm referring to was done many years ago, but when you spend the majority of your time working in the world of classical music (that was written centuries ago) it can be quite contemporary in comparison. I can see how most pop and rock musicians that spend their time working with music that was made this year or last year would find that kinda strange. Sorry if my word choice is a little weird.

                          Also, I don't want to sound like a carbon copy of some singer from the 80's, but it really is the music that I love as far as rock/pop goes. The stuff I hear recently I can't get into and don't know that I ever really will. Some of it is O.K. in my opinion, but nothing that I really care for all that much. I want to learn to sing in a style closer to the 70's/80's/90's rock and pop, and then when I've gotten somewhat comfortable with the style and can sound fairly authentic, then I'd like to incorporate my classical/musical theater training and create a style of my own. I know it may not be as popular and marketable, but I don't really care because it's the stuff that I really love. I kinda want to learn how to do what they do and incorporate it into what I do. I also personally feel that in order to appreciate where we are, you really have to appreciate where we came from (maybe it's from many of my classical teachers pounding that point in again and again, but I do find it to be very true). Besides, I've heard many singers that are the movers and shakers of the music world say that most of their inspiration came from their favorite singer from decades before whose music they grew up listening to and singing along to before they developed a style all of their own.

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                          • #14
                            I know that the music that I'm referring to was done many years ago, but when you spend the majority of your time working in the world of classical music (that was written centuries ago) it can be quite contemporary in comparison. I can see how most pop and rock musicians that spend their time working with music that was made this year or last year would find that kinda strange. Sorry if my word choice is a little weird.

                            Also, I don't want to sound like a carbon copy of some singer from the 80's, but it really is the music that I love as far as rock/pop goes. The stuff I hear recently I can't get into and don't know that I ever really will. Some of it is O.K. in my opinion, but nothing that I really care for all that much. I want to learn to sing in a style closer to the 70's/80's/90's rock and pop, and then when I've gotten somewhat comfortable with the style and can sound fairly authentic, then I'd like to incorporate my classical/musical theater training and create a style of my own. I know it may not be as popular and marketable, but I don't really care because it's the stuff that I really love. I kinda want to learn how to do what they do and incorporate it into what I do. I also personally feel that in order to appreciate where we are, you really have to appreciate where we came from (maybe it's from many of my classical teachers pounding that point in again and again, but I do find it to be very true). Besides, I've heard many singers that are the movers and shakers of the music world say that most of their inspiration came from their favorite singer from decades before whose music they grew up listening to and singing along to before they developed a style all of their own.


                            ok that's cool, so do it.

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                            • #15
                              ok that's cool, so do it.


                              XD That's what I'm trying to do and that's why I created this thread. But I want some advice on how to write in those rock/pop styles because I'm having a hard time overcoming my previous training and adjusting to the other styles.

                              I understand how to write and read TAB and I hope to start learning some guitar soon. But how do I write rock and pop (albeit the softer type of rock) without sounding like some classically trained dork that's trying WAY too hard. I've made a number of attempts, but I end up scrapping the ideas because they kinda suck and come out sounding all wrong. Some of the best song writers (IMO) came from a classical background and/or have a degree from a reputable college or university, but how in the crap do they make the transition? I guess I'll just have to keep studying and trying to understand it. I think that part of the problem is that I play the piano, so maybe it's the timbral difference that's holding me up. Maybe my songs will sound a little more rock when I've learned some guitar. I mean, that's really a big part of what makes rock what it is, right? Things probably naturally sound a little more musical/classical when played on the piano.

                              In your experience, has the rock/pop music that you buy from the store been pretty good when it's written for guitar? Maybe if I start my guitar playing with some music from that style right as I'm starting out, it will help me really get a feel for how it works. I also ordered one of those rock piano instructional books from amazon. Does anyone know if they're any good or are they just a complete waste of time?

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