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Image: The Melismatics from Lehigh University, via

Imagine you’re a classically trained singer and educator taking on the responsibility of teaching vocal students and directing vocal performance groups – but they’re all singing popular music, and you feel like you’re out of your depth in trying to reconcile cantatas and contemporary music. Maybe you don’t have to imagine, because that’s where you are right now. You’re not alone – when Dr. Erin Hackel joined a contemporary music program at CU Boulder in 2003, she learned how to balance the two sides and combine them with her Spectrum Singing method. Now she directs several contemporary a cappella groups, including the award-winning Lark, and she has a lot to say about teaching ensemble pop singing.

Understand the Difference

Classical singing and “pop” singing – particularly belting – are different, but “one is not any better than the other”, according to Dr. Hackel. The vocal folds move in different ways, and while classical singing typically involves a lowered larynx, belting requires a higher larynx. There are tangible physical differences that can be understood and taught, as Hackel herself learned when she started teaching herself how to belt. She developed the ability to sing across genres and communicate with her students no matter where they found themselves on the stylistic spectrum. In the last 50 years, more and more singers, educators, and vocal health experts have found that popular singing is not unhealthy, but just based in different techniques.

Hygiene, Hygiene, and Hygiene

Good vocal hygiene is crucial no matter what kind of music you sing. Teach your students to maintain their health; even vocalists who know their needs and their limits can still hurt their voices through neglect, carelessness, or overexertion. The assumption that pop music is “easier” to sing can lead to harmful side effects if your students don’t stay on top of their vocal health.

  • Stay hydrated.
  • Don’t overexert your voice, even when screaming at football games.
  • Treat your allergies and acid reflux proactively, not just after you’re affected.
  • See an ENT if you think something is wrong. Years of vocal trouble and thousands of dollars in medical bills can be prevented or offset by a simple checkup.

Don’t Be Vague

We all have “vocal-isms” – the phrases we use without fully understanding the context. You can sing from your diaphragm, but can you explain the physiology to a student in a practical way? If you’re explaining technique, do it in a concrete, replicable way. Below, Dr. Hackel talks about the mythos of “support” in the vocal world.

Learn Your Students’ Voices

Just because a singer can sing Soprano 1 in every arrangement doesn’t mean she should. Learn your students’ comfortable ranges. J.D. Frizzell, director of Briarcrest’s award-winning high school group OneVoice, keeps specific notes on each of his students’ ranges, vocal qualities, and timbres to find the best solos and parts for each one.

Give Your Students Agency

Marking – cutting your volume by 50-75% to save your voice during rehearsal – is common in the operatic world, but very rare in the popular music scene. Communicate to your students that you trust them to know their voices, and if they need to mark their parts to prevent vocal pain or damage, they can be empowered to make that decision. In Dr. Hackel’s words, “Would you work so hard that you can’t even walk out of the gym?” Besides keeping their voices healthy, this kind of permission builds trust and confidence between you and your students.

Do you want to learn the details of understanding and teaching popular vocal styles? As an AEA member, you can download our Spectrum Singing guide for free! Contact us to learn more about teaching contemporary vocal styles.

Do you want free arrangements, expert advice, and access to professional a cappella events? You can have all of that and more by becoming a member of the A Cappella Education Association. Join us today and help shape the future of a cappella.