“A Description and Analysis of the Crossover Classical Vocalist Speech Community”
University of California, Irvine, 2017
prompt: using only your personal experience as a source, identify, document,
and analyze a speech community that you participate in as a part of your daily
life, per John J. Gumperz’s 1968 article “The Speech Community,” International Encyclopedia of the Social
Sciences. New York: Macmillan, pp.
“eeeeEEE ooOOO! Whoop! Whoop!
Bzzzzz… Zuh! roAR!”
Newcomers are often surprised by the cacophony
of vocalizations that greet them upon entering one of my community’s primary
domains. While strolling through orderly
rows of small, semi-soundproofed, glass-fronted enclosures, visitors may
observe a single subject lying on the floor, flopped in half like a ragdoll,
standing, arms raised in victory, or possibly manipulating the face: nose
pinched, tongue sticking out, cheeks smushed… This description clearly orients us in the jungle
of a musical community – specifically, a college practice room hall, filled
with budding singers.
This paper provides a basic description and
analysis of one sector of the larger musical arts and entertainment industry,
which I term the Crossover Classical Vocalist Community (CCVC). Despite close interaction with related
communities, I propose that the CCVC is a distinct speech community based on specialized
verbal repertoire, comprising dialectical
variation (especially in the form of technical jargon to express in-group
concepts) and superposed variation – namely, speech events that occur
exclusively within this group.
Crossover Classical Vocalists (CCVs) are singers trained in
and skilled at performing classical music as well as musical theatre and other
non-classical repertoire (crossover genre).
Kristin Chenoweth is one of the best-known examples of a CCV master. Training is essential for this group not
merely to develop vocal technique; it is also the primary way singers acquire
the language that makes them members of the speech community. CCVs will continue to use this language
throughout their careers in diverse speech events.
When considering shared, unique language usage and regular interaction
as the basis for a speech community (Gumperz), one realizes that the CCVC also
comprises members who are not CCVs (though CCVs form its core and are the focus
of this paper). Others, such as
conductors, vocal coaches, and enthusiasts, may indeed have sufficient training
in group concepts and language to actively use its verbal repertoire and to
participate in CCVC speech events. These
members occupy different roles within the community and may have limited
participation in certain speech events.
Conversely, there may be proficient singers who do not share significant
linguistic features of the group (e.g., self-taught, non-classically trained), and
thus would not be considered CCVC members.
Members often interact in ways that further a common goal: to develop skills
that enable CCVs to perform diverse material publicly. It is through language and practice that skill
is primarily achieved.
Membership is not limited by geographical boundaries, native
language, ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic conditions, though those
circumstances may affect a person’s access to the community. Geographically, CCVs are most prevalent where
there is a thriving musical theatre community: namely the USA and UK (though
Germany and the Netherlands also have significant musical theatre
opportunities). Musical theatre is one
of the most common crossover domains, since many musical theatre styles require
skill in or familiarity with classical technique (consider Phantom of the Opera, works by Sondheim or Rogers and Hammerstein). There is also significant demand for CCVs in
concert settings (including vocalists in some military bands, who are expected
to deliver excellent performances in a wide range of genres, often within the
The CCVC developed to meet the changing demands of the music
industry. Membership is most defined by
the training necessary to develop its specific skill set of vocal flexibility,
which has resulted in a distinct dialectical language variation. As classical music is arguably the most
technically and vocally demanding, it is common for a CCV to begin training as
a classical singer and then crossover to other genres. While members are often initiated into the
community in a similar way – private voice lessons in youth, followed by college
and/or advanced degrees in music performance – it is possible to enter the
community in other ways. What is
essential is exposure to and eventual fluency in the CCVC verbal repertoire and
mastery of technical skills so that one may participate in group speech events.
With their shared foundation in classical technique, the
CCVC is most closely related, especially linguistically, to the broader
community of classical singers. CCVs diverge
when they acquire additional skills and language from other communities, such
as those of musical theatre, jazz, and pop.
The crossover singing variety will likely have significant differences
in technique and jargon, and singers must learn and adapt to these new forms,
while still retaining their classical skills – and especially, be able to
switch between styles and verbal repertoire quickly. This breadth of interdisciplinary knowledge is
key in differentiating CCVs from members of other groups.
Much of the CCVC’s verbal repertoire belongs to the common
language, but has been appropriated to communicate something specific – often a
concept non-members would find difficult to interpret without significant
training, practice, and experience. Examples
are elaborated in the glossary.
The CCVC draws knowledge and terminology from various
domains (a variety of musical genres and more distantly-related communities
like acting and dance) to create an expansive verbal repertoire. While some of this terminology is unique and
exclusive to each source community, occasional overlap can create confusion. Additionally, some elements of classical
training may impede the understanding of certain crossover concepts, requiring
an alterative semantic approach to a crossover genre from that of a singer
native to the community. This results in
some conceptual modification, incorporating both classical and crossover-genre
terminology. All of these elements
combine to create the CCVC dialectical variation.
For example, “speak-singing” technique exists in both
classical and musical theatre genres – but indexes a completely different
meaning in each group. In musical
theatre, that direction points to a very “natural” delivery, little-to-no
vibrato, sound somewhat thrown away; in a classical context, it indicates a
“typical” full, supported sound, but greater flexibility for personal
interpretation of timing, and minimal accompaniment (as is common in operas and
oratorios in the form of recitativo and
Sprechgesang). The CCV is aware of both meanings and their
associated applications. Linguistic
variation appears in the concepts used to teach each technique. In this case, a new term is not invented; the
distinctions are understood based on the context.
As previously stated, training is the primary means of
acquiring CCVC language, which frequently takes the form of a speech event
called a private voice lesson. The
private instructor is one of the most influential figures in a singer’s growth;
singers frequently receive private training throughout the entire span of their
careers. It is vital that student and
teacher have compatible communication styles.
The voice cannot be approached like another instrument,
which can be seen or touched. Verbal
communication is paramount to vocal development, as visual imagery is the
primary means in which technique can be shared.
Nearly all singing technique is taught through expressions that guide a
student to desired physical sensations.
Variation in singing technique can be the most difficult
aspect to learn without a knowledgeable instructor, though the necessary stylistic
modifications are often simple to understand and produce. The most essential cross-genre elements of
technique are breath and placement (specific techniques vary). When teaching a student how to better manage
breath stamina and smoothness, an instructor may ask the student to “imagine
that the breath is a very long, silk thread that you continue to pull and pull
very slowly and evenly throughout the entire phrase.” Concepts stemming from financial advice like
“saving and spending” are also common: “You always want to save your breath
first to make sure you have enough to last through the phrase – then at the end
you can spend what’s left! If you spend
too much early on, you might not have any left later.” In terms of placement, a CCV instructor would
often refer to color variation and mouth shape – modifying the typical tall,
round mouth shape desirable in classical singing to a flatter, more closed
mouth for musical theatre and pop genres. Plugging the nose can assist with this
modification to accentuate forward placement.
The above concepts and many more foundational skills are
taught and reinforced in a private voice lesson. Skills relating to CCV technique (especially
the language used to convey particular instructions) are expected to be firmly
grasped before a CCV engages in other types of common speech events which may
be more formal in tone, including group rehearsals, private coachings, and
auditions. An opera director or choral
conductor may make artistic requests for “longer phrasing” or a “brighter
sound,” but would not anticipate needing to explain how to do this to the CCV (and may be unwilling or unable to do so). Similarly, a coaching is a private session
designed to work on artistic interpretation rather than technique, as the coach
is not required to have vocal-specific training.
CCV auditions (somewhat similar to a job interview) are often
crossover domain events: they take place in a source community (e.g., a musical
theatre, opera, or acting audition) – thus, CCVs need to pay careful attention
to norms and terminology of the specific community in which they are presently participating. Norms are not always clarified on an audition
posting; at a singing audition, a CCV must know the difference between singing
“16 bars” and a full song, and that it is inappropriate to ask an accompanist
to transpose a piece. Additionally, it
would not be acceptable to arrive at an audition involving dance without
specialized footwear and clothing, or to not know the difference between
“marking” and performing “full out.” Terms
from acting, including blocking and choices need to be understood and
accessible. Tech staff should not need
to explain their directions surrounding microphone checking and usage to a CCV
(though they may to a classical vocalist).
CCVs need to transition effortlessly between the many communities in
which they participate.
The CCVC holds a unique position in the broader musical arts
and entertainment industry. Its goal is
to prepare singers to perform in a demanding range of genres and contexts, and
linguistic elements play a vital role in achieving this goal.
Based on all of the preceding, I assert that the CCVC is a
unique speech community. CCVC members
interact frequently to perform a variety of activities, including but not
limited to speech events, such as those that promote training (voice and group
lessons) and those that refine music (rehearsals and coachings), culminating in
performances, where content is shared publicly.
They use common language aggregated (and sometimes modified) from various
source domains, to communicate group-specific concepts. The CCVC’s verbal repertoire is distinct
because those contributing domains contain subsets, but not the entirety, of
of the following are selections from common CCVC verbal repertoire, but as it
is the skill of classical singing that unites the group, I have chosen the majority
of these terms from that domain. Terms
1-11 would frequently be used in speech events such as private voice lessons,
though they may also be heard at group rehearsals for classical repertoire (e.g.,
operas, choral ensembles, etc.), in which another party who is well versed in
vocal technique instructs or directs a singer.
It would be unusual, though possible, to hear terms 1-10 in crossover
settings, such as musical theatre rehearsals.
Terms 12 and 13 would almost exclusively be heard in crossover, rather
than classical, settings.
“You need to support it!”
Refers to the breath, especially its
function in creating and sustaining the voice, which is foundational to healthy
singing. Training the body to support
the voice with the breath requires consistent and life-long practice. Mastery of this technique is essential for
performing classical repertoire, but also highly advantageous for crossover
situations, as it promotes greater stamina and vocal longevity.
Also refers to the breath, particularly
when sustaining a long note or singing a descending passage of notes. One must maintain and often increase energy in
the breath and tone, fighting the natural urge to relax, let go, and collapse
the openness of the ribs and chest cavity.
“Place it [higher]” or
“Put it in the mask.”
- Placement (noun; “place” and “put” are both used
as verbs to indicate placement):
Refers to where a certain pitch/es should
be produced in the skull for optimal resonance, ease of singing, and
effect/artistry. Since the voice is not
an instrument that can be seen or touched (like a piano), much visual imagery
is used to describe technique.
Area in the front of the face around the
nose and cheekbones, where many notes should be placed, or felt. Except for occasional artistic effect,
singers strive for “forward” placement (forward, referring to being “in the
“Pay attention to how you’re attacking that.”
The initiation of a note, or the
technique employed when one begins singing a note. This could include anatomical references (e.g.,
a glottal attack) or instructions regarding placement (as in pinpointing,
“Pinpoint the note.”
Refers to a placement strategy of
attacking a note, often a pitch that is high, quiet, and/or difficult to
sing. The singer imagines the note in one
tiny, specific area and initiates it very softly and precisely to establish
proper placement. Once placement has
been homed in, the singer can crescendo to the desired volume and more easily
and efficiently produce the note.
“Don’t let it drop.”
Allowing the placement of a sustained
note or connected passage of notes to change – particularly deteriorate (to get
“lazy,” similar to collapsing, due to lack of energy or concentration to
sustain the ideal placement).
“Create a consistent timbre.”
The unique sound quality of
an individual’s voice (also used to describe other instruments). One desires a consistent timbre across the
entire voice (as opposed to varying degrees of development in certain areas, such
as strong lower notes and under-developed higher notes).
“It’s in my passaggio.”
An area of transition between
vocal registers (areas of the voice, including “chest voice” and “head voice”).
Notes that lie in a passaggio area are
more difficult to produce and require additional practice to develop an even
top and the bottom.”
Refers to both breath and
placement technique to keep a consistent sound over a wide range of notes
(particularly when there is a large interval leap between notes in the same
“Try coloring that
differently. Give me a [tall/flat/round/open/dark/bright]
- Color (noun, verb) + [adjective]:
A tone’s color describes its affective
quality: a “dark” sound may convey age or sadness, while “brightness” could
denote youth or happiness. Coloring
relates to both artistry and placement, as variations are generally achieved by
altering mouth shape. The bracketed
adjectives above are examples of imagery used to create different vocal colors
(a “round” tone would sound more classical – or perhaps, pompous or proper – whereas
“flat” placement, which creates additional brightness relative to the degree of
flatness, would almost exclusively be used in musical theatre or other
“Try that again with a different choice.”
An artistic approach to presenting material;
the unique way a performer portrays a character. This may apply to delivering spoken dialogue,
a musical passage, or physical action. Frequently,
a director asks an actor to try contrasting approaches to see their range at
auditions or experiment with a scene at a rehearsal. One word alone (e.g., “Okay”) could be played
to convey love, disgust, eagerness, or fear, based on an actor’s choice. This particular terminology chiefly pertains
to the acting community and would rarely be heard in any classical music setting
(including opera). “It was a choice” is often
how actors jokingly describe an attempt that went poorly.
“From the top! A 5, 6, 7, 8…”
- “5, 6, 7, 8” used as a count in/cue (noun, verb):
Many performance communities use a form
of counting in (or counting down) as a cue to begin some action. The “5, 6, 7, 8” language of counting in applies
exclusively to dance, as dancers often group choreography in “counts” or
sections of 8.