Classical Technique vs Jazz Technique

By Karen Oleson and Timothy Strong

The genesis for this article comes from a workshop I was asked to present for a local chapter of NATS (National Assoc. of Teachers of Singing). It is only in very recent history, that performance studies in vocal jazz have been offered in academic settings. Prior to this if one wished to be a jazz singer they learned by listening to, following and copying other singers – and experimenting and performing at every opportunity. Now that jazz styles have been codified it is easier for modern educators to expose jazz singing to students at almost any age. It can be confusing for both student and teacher to try to translate the voice building techniques and exercises needed to produce desired results for both classical and jazz singing. The vocal choices one makes for singing jazz are quite different from a classical singer. My students love singing jazz and are thrilled when they are accepted into their jazz choir or ensemble but are challenged to bridge the differences between techniques. So what are these differences? Can we bridge these diverse techniques? Can they be compatible? Have we been allowing style differences to interrupt the goal of voice building?

The following chart suggests some of the presumed differences in vocal technique and style.

Classical Technique

Voice Quality:
Resonant, full bodied, clear.
Breath Management:
Fundamental building block for voice development. Opera singers need to sing for hours over symphony orchestra with no mic(rophone).
Articulation:
Pure vowels, clipped consonants, years of study in at least four languages
Range:
Wide range, 2 1/2 to three octaves, top notes of prime importance no matter what voice type.
Flexibility:
Desirable for keeping voice fresh and healthy. Necessary to negotiate challenging cadenzas.
Registers:
Blended, seamless connection between registers
Posture:
Very important consideration for breath management and voice projection.
Dynamics:
Requires large dynamic range from pp to ff. Messa di voce important study for voice building.
Vibrato:
Used extensively, integral part of the vocal quality.

Jazz Technique

Voice Quality:
Can be earthy or breathy. Close to speaking voice.
Breath Management:
Singers also required to sustain long phrases and scat. But since the sound doesn’t need to as resonant, or as powerful, learning nuances of mic technique becomes essential.Â
Articulation:
Very close to speaking voice. Diphthongs are used according to singers’ choice.
Range:
Ranges of more than an octave unnecessary but often desired. Vocal improv takes the singer to the extremes of the voice both low and high.
Flexibility:
Desirable for improvisation.
Registers:
Breaks in voice often dramatically emphasized.
Posture:
Appearance often cool, dispassionate
Dynamics:
Fewer vocal extremes required.
Vibrato:
Often used minimally and at end of phrases.

Classical Style

Pitch:
Often taught to come in on top of pitch, but to sing in middle of pitch.
Rhythm:
Precision is important. Runs done as meteronomically accurate as possible. Rubato done at specific places in music and according to era of music and composer.
Attack:
The onset of the pitch is executed gently. Letting the breath lead. The pitch needs to be precisely in tune.
Musical Accuracy:
Do not deviate from composers apparent intent. Sing rhythm and pitches according to what is written in the score.
Improvisation:
Improvisation is dictated according to current trends. Improv is allowed only in certain styles and periods of music
Other features:
Acting and presentation skills are important in classical singing. The quality of the sound, communicating the text and music are prime considerations.

Jazz Style

Pitch:
Sing on lower part of pitch. Enter or scoop from under pitch.
Rhythm:
Fluidity within the meter is allowed and desired. Sing against or after the beat. The pause is strictly kept by the drummer so that the rest of the group can ‘play’ with the rhythm.
Attack:
Sometimes hard onset in used, other times soft. Enter from below pitch, strong blues influence.
Musical Accuracy:
The whole point of singing jazz is to be a co-creator with the composer in that particular moment in time. Next time it will be different (hopefully).
Improvisation:
Scat syllables and improvisations are influenced by current trends. Improv is the name of the game.
Other features:
Presentation is secondary to listening and responding to other participants while performing. Everything is new, so that cultivating awareness of what’s going on around you is of primary importance. Being in the musical moment.

The chart shows how singers make choices about how they use their voices depending on the style of music. So how does this affect their training? How do we bridge these diverse techniques and can they be compatible in voice building?

Most music educators will agree that we want our students to sing well, no matter what the style. Breath management is an essential part of voice building and good singing. However, because classical singers sing without a mic and have to maintain a fuller resonance they are unable to play with the subtle vocal nuances that the jazz singers enjoy. The microphone assists the jazz singer in singing with a breathy tone, growling, and singing very lightly if they wish. Still, all of those choices need breath management.

Articulation is an important ingredient for both types of singing. The jazz singer can be more speech-like and casual in their approach. Ex. My = ma-i. They can play with diphthongs according to their will. Classical singers are more formal in their use of language most often stay longer on the first half vowel of a diphthong. Ex. My=mah-i. It might seem that clarity of text and understandability should have priority – but both classical and jazz singers may sacrifice this for a certain type of vocal sound.

Classical singers spend years learning to blend the natural occurring register breaks in the voice. Although somewhat important in the jazz singer, it is minimal. The mic can assist the jazz singer with this so that they are able to play with subtle qualities and ranges that wouldn’t be heard if a classical singer tried it.

Today when students enter my private studio, I ask them about their musical goals. As they are exposed to voice building techniques their goals may change but the important thing for us is to help them find their way efficiently. I’ve experienced having younger students wanting to be country singers develop into prize winning classical singers. I’ve also encountered classical trained singers who were relieved to find that there are other techniques that would help them sing musical theatre or jazz. If they are interested in both aspects of singing, the lesson time needs to be subtly managed to address different musical goals. They will need to educate their ear about pitch, vibrato, and the volume of sound and resonance of the voice. A classical singer needs to hear their voice in a natural acoustical environment without artificial support. Jazz singers needs to become accustomed to hearing themselves through amplification.

As pointed out in the chart, the use of vibrato, dynamics, pitch onset, voice coloring, rhythm, and many other aspects of these two diverse styles are for the most part at odds with one another. When these considerations are pointed out to the students, they have a better chance of making appropriate choices without confusion and with an appreciation of the differences.

Our studio has developed publications that present voice building exercises encompassing various musical styles.* In the example presented below, the purpose of the exercise is rich and deep: ear training, pitch accuracy, flexibility, and singing in contrasting styles. In my opinion, you get the best of both worlds here – a classical warm-up, learning to sing in a major and then a minor key (great ear training), and then scat improv in both major and minor keys. With this exercise, you have an opportunity to show off your classical voice and quickly switch to jazz. These contrasting styles require different ways of using your voice. The classical style requires a more fully resonant sound including vibrato, whereas in jazz vocals, a more speech like quality is appreciated.

In conclusion, clear and meaningful communication as to the differences in vocal usage and styles can make all the difference in your students’ abilities to enjoy and perform different styles of music. I have found that presenting them with practical models for bridging the gap can do wonders for their understanding and enjoyment of music making.

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