I’ve been working with a lot of singing teachers in the past few months. They teach in as many genres as you can name. Most have a performing background. A few have performed exclusively in CCM genres, most have had some classical training and/or performed as classical singers. On our recent Singing Teacher Training in Australia, we did a spot poll on how many teachers in the room teach solely classical music.
The answer? One.
In another of our presentations, we mentioned a piece of research by Marisa Lee that highlighted music consumption: according to the Nielsen database, in the US list of vocal music recordings purchased in 2016, only 1% was classical. So 99% of the vocal music bought, listened to and aspired to is “non-classical” – CCM, Rock, Pop, Gospel, Easy Listening, Folk, Jazz, World and all of their myriad subdivisions.
So why, when we work with singing teachers, are we hearing classical scales and arpeggios in warmups? Is there still a belief that classical is best, classical is the only technique, classical is the basis of everything, everyone should be learning classical?
Even I suffered from “classical superiority” as a young professional. I went to a music college that did not appreciate non-classical music. It took me a long time to feel that if I worked in Musical Theatre I wasn’t “wasting my talent”.
The odd thing is, when pressed, most classical teachers will say it takes years to learn to sing classical music well. So if I’m a 19-year-old Country & Western singer with a new recording contract, why am I learning to sing “O mio dolce ardor” when my producer is pressing me to record my new album? Can I not just learn the patterns and techniques that fit the genre I have chosen to work in and get to the studio?
Let’s get specific
Let’s talk using the classical scales and arpeggios in warmups. Classical scales based on the Ionian mode like the C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C) and arpeggio (C-E-G-C-G-E-C) don’t really occur in music that isn’t classical. Pentatonic scale patterns occur. Other modes like the Dorian, yes. Jazz scales, yes. Leaps, yes. Slides, yes.
So the question remains, why use classical scales and arpeggios with singers who are not singing classical music professionally?
The answer might be that the classical scale is so embedded in classical music that many teachers don’t realise it’s a classical scale at all. It’s just the scale, right? Think of the vocal music of Rossini, Handel, Mozart, Bellini. Packed with scale patterns, both in straight form (Mozart’s Marten Alle Arten) and twisting back on itself (Handel’s Rejoice Greatly). Scale exercises are ideal for this type of music as you can embed the patterns of the song/aria in your warmup. The Vaccai exercises are stunning examples of 19th Century vocalises that use the patterns of the (then) current music to create practice songs. And if I’m working with a soprano singing Rossini cadenzas, I will often use small sections of the cadenza pattern to create exercises – embedding the phrase/music shapes while we go.
So why aren’t we doing the same with contemporary singers or musical theatre singers? Using the patterns that already exist in the music as warmups or skill-based exercises? Why go with classical scales and arpeggios, or (my pet hate) Bella Signora?
Oh yes, can we talk Bella Signora for a moment? It’s a favourite of musical theatre MDs to end a warmup before a show. For those of you who have not come across it, the basic pattern is in this article’s main image above with a couple of variations shown below.
In its simplest form, Bella Signora is an arpeggio + a little turn + a straight scale downwards covering a ninth. Which is of course ideal for singing School of Rock or Miss Saigon or Wicked or Spring Awakening.
And it’s in Italian. Can you name any musicals where the cast sings in Italian or with an Italian accent? I can only think of one – Light In The Piazza. In Phantom of the Opera, Carlotta and Piangi sing with Italian accents, and Pirelli (Sweeney Todd) sings in cod-Italian for half his role but they are the only singers in each show to do so.
Ah, but the received wisdom is that Italian vowels are the best, the clearest, the most open. For classical singing, yes. But you don’t use Italian vowels in We Will Rock You, it wouldn’t work for your character’s background. Bonnie and Clyde didn’t speak with Italian vowels, so why warm up the cast with them?
I’m sure I’ll get pushback from this, but it does seem like I’m being the only graduate from The Royal School of the Bleedin’ Obvious. Why not embed the job you’re going to be doing that night and use the music and the vowel shapes of the characters or the geographical setting? Isn’t that more appropriate, more helpful, more professional?
In short, do not divorce your warmup from the task ahead – include the genre you’re about to sing, embrace it, build from it, create little sequences from it. After all, you don’t find athletes on the track 5 minutes before a sprint race warming up by playing rugby. Use your warmup from the start to prepare you for the specific task ahead.
PS When is a classical scale/arpeggio sequence right for a warmup? When you’re singing music with classical scales and arpeggios in it. Then it’s perfect.
PPS We talk in detail about what a warmup is and does, 3 different types of warmup, and six different areas of your voice that need warming up, in our bestselling online training Webinar “What’s In A Warmup“.