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What is the definition of classical singing? When people refer to themselves as singing using classical technique what do they mean?

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I think there is a lot of ambiguity to the word "classical" in our modern language. People use the term "classical music" for lots of music that is not actually "classical". But I digress...

There is a difference between a "classical singer" and being "classically trained". Calling one's self a classical singer is simply a generic term that implies you sing music that is classical, baroque, opera, choral, etc...

Being classically trained means you've gone through formal instruction at a school of music or conservatory which covers subjects beyond just breathing and vocalizing. You will learn ear-training, rhythms, harmonies, music theory, and more. It's possible you can get this training from a private teacher, but it's unlikely they provide the full scope of instruction to be considered classically trained.

Most singers who are classically trained wouldn't say they are classical singers. Instead, they would use a more specific term for what type of singer they are. For example, I'd say I was a "bass-baritone operatic singer" or a "bass choral singer" depending on the conversation.

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  • I wouldn't find it unreasonable to call a singer who has been taught classical singing technique "classically trained," even without a full course of instruction in ear training, theory, and so on.
    – phoog
    May 19 at 3:21
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I know I'm quite late to this party, but I was searching for something totally unrelated and this came up.

So, I'm a "classical" singer. It's pretty much a meaningless term since you can see, even with the tiny sample size of this thread, there's no agreement as to what that actually means.

Yes, you could be a classically trained rock or pop singer (Kip Winger, Geoff Tate), but that doesn't mean you have the chops to go a couple of acts with Verdi or Wagner.

Frequently you will hear Broadway singers call themselves classically trained, and I have no doubt that they are. Even with microphones, singing 8 shows a week would shred your voice pretty quickly if you didn't have some decent technique behind it.

Then there are singers in the "classical" world, and really in the end they break down to 2 major types. Choral and Solo. Of course within those 2 types there are dozens of sub groups, and then those sub groups split off as well. I'm personally a High Lyric Baritone who can double as a Dramatic/Spinto Tenor in a pinch...And that's how OPERA singers will refer to themselves around other opera singers, and maybe orchestral instrumentalists. Generally we'll just say "I sing Opera" and if anyone is interested beyond that point, we're more than happy to talk more about ourselves, lol.

For choral singers, they generally will cite their voice part, and sometimes if they're a soloist as well. There is a lot of choral music that you'd think was opera (Oratorios like The Messiah).

You could absolutely be in a pretty good choir and not be "classically trained". You could do broadway and not be classically trained. You would not make it very far in the opera world with no training. Imagine being a natural athlete and stepping into the ring with Mike Tyson at his prime. You've had no formal training in boxing, and no coach...you're going to get destroyed.

I actually think boxing is a really good metaphor for singing opera. It looks like one thing on the surface (beautiful music performed beautifully/a brutal fight where 2 people give each other brain damage) but really they're both all about conditioning. Both mental and physical.

Singing in a classical style (specifically opera or art song of any language) is kind of a zen-like mindful experience. You have to be SO in tune with your body, making tiny adjustments to your breathing, the position of your larynx/soft palate/nasal exchange/stomach muscles/lip shape etc to change the color of the tone, or if you're not feeling that well, or if the pianist is playing too loudly...any of these. I was also a student athlete and stepping into the batters box, or up onto a stage require a similar amount of focus.

Finally, you can't really call yourself "classically trained" if you've only worked on your voice - even with the best voice teacher ever. You're not classically trained until you've had music theory, music history, ear training, an additional instrument, a couple of languages, art history, general history from in and around where this music was being made. It sounds snobby, but that's real classical training. Classically trained classical musicians have a deep appreciation for how it all fits together, the culture, the theory, the political environment at the time of composition...all of it adds to the performance.

So...short answer...if someone tells you they're a "classical singer"...they're either not...English is not comfortable for them...or they're just blowing you off and they don't want to get into it.

Sorry, I'm sure I got a little rambly there....I like to talk about this stuff.

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My best guess is, that completion of a classical singers training, likely even involving a degree is intended here. Classical is due to the fact, that in the sector of classical music this is a strong requirement and not replaceable by any amount of other practice.

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  • After having lessons from a classical teacher I can tell you this: it is very focused on the connection between speaking and sing....but only when you speak with a bigger voice with great articulation, ie how I read a text to an audience. Pop is not really closer to speech than classical singing. Isn't classical technique(s) a lot about articulation? This is where pop (or even jazz singing) singing differ?
    – user20754
    May 28 '19 at 9:42
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Classical singing is usually referring to the idea of choral works performed in a classical style. We wouldn't consider Bruno Mars to be a classical singer, for example. Not even Elvis. Opera, I believe, is another area of classical singing. Classical singing generally has a strong emphasis on homogenous technique and tone, where modern/contemporary styles tend to eschew those values, instead going for whatever works. Classical singing also tends to be accompanied by classical music, unsurprisingly. If you grab a group of ten classical singers of the same voice type and ask them to sing the same thing, it should be hard to tell them apart. Ten pop singers w(sh)ould not sound so identical.

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    That seems different from my family's experience with opera singing. My brother has noticed that loads more people sing on talent shows with an operatic style than you might think, and based on listening to those contestants, I suspect this is because those operatic singers sing with a non-homogeneous tone that is forgiving when it comes to nailing pitches and inclusive when it comes to vibrato.
    – Dekkadeci
    May 28 '19 at 5:05
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    Yeah, that heavy vibrato does make it a lot easier to be perceived as having hit the pitch. By homogenous tone, I meant that a lot of the time, classical singing focuses on getting one's voice to sound like other's voices, especially in ensembles such as choirs, where they focus on blending a lot.
    – user45266
    May 28 '19 at 5:09
  • @Dekkadeci Classical technique and classical style are separate things. A vocal coach will teach you the classical singing technique, but you can then apply it to any style. If those contestants sound operatic it's probably because they haven't fully mastered the technique, and instead imitate the style. May 28 '19 at 12:14
  • There's tons of classical vocal music that is entirely devoid of choruses.
    – phoog
    May 19 at 3:22

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