Changing Styles from Opera to Pop: My Journey by Dena Murray
I would like to share with the singing public my own struggle with changing styles and sound from opera to pop.
I teach from my own experience. I may be an expert today, but I am never far from my client’s struggles and frustrations. It doesn’t matter who the singer is, everyone at some point in their career has struggled with their voice in some way. Early on, even someone as gifted as Celine Dion had her own fair share of struggle with a tongue that wouldn’t quit pulling back when singing, trapping her higher tones. (The culprit: her native language).
Then there are those famed artists who claim to never have taken a lesson. Yet they have been seen by the public taking lessons with the some of the best teachers around. For me the issue isn’t about who I teach. The issue is whether I can teach you how to sing, sing well, and without injuring yourself. Can I educate you well enough to become your own teacher? Yes.
I was one of those who came out of the womb with an extremely gifted classical voice. At 12, I was seen in a Beverly Hills Elementary school production of The Magic Flute. After that appearance, many teachers wanted to teach me but I was still very young, and not that interested. I knew I already had a gift. My thinking was, Why do I need lessons? Yet at 16, I noticed I couldn’t sing the songs I wanted to sing. My voice was too operatic for Pop, Pop/Rock, or Country. Now it was time for lessons.
It got very depressing. Whenever I tried singing other styles, I felt horribly embarrassed. I could never figure out how the Mariah Carey’s, Whitney Houston’s, or Celine Dion’s could belt like they did without choking! I sounded like a wannabe.
Back then, teachers mostly taught classically. Very few were teaching how to sing contemporary music. All of my teachers (3) were those who sang with the Met and the Los Angeles Opera and couldn’t teach me how to change styles. They told me it was best to stick with the classical training especially since my voice was a right fit, said I shouldn’t mess around with the beauty of my sound or I might lose it. They scared me.
Still hoping my voice would magically transform through lessons, I continued with the classical. Since technical perfection is a must when singing opera, there were times when if I didn’t sing it right, I’d walk away from lessons feeling not good enough, stupid, or that something was wrong with me. It certainly wasn’t helping me with the songs I so desired to be able to sing. It wasn’t fun anymore. My voice became a liability, a limitation, rather than a gift. So humiliating to sing anything but opera, I stopped singing songs for anyone. I didn’t want you to hear me attempt any other style while I still sounded like an opera singer for fear of what you’d think and say.
When I finally made the decision to become a teacher, I also made the decision to become the very best teacher I could possibly become. This meant I was going to have to learn how to change my sound and style. I wanted to be able to teach anyone, no matter the style.
Early on as a teacher I found out I had an extraordinarily gifted ear. It has become my greatest tool as an instructor and coach. They call it clairaudience. With my ears I am able to visualize exactly what’s happening inside the singer that keeps them from having their voice the way they desire to sing and be heard.
I went for lessons with two or three teachers as contemporary techniques became more popular. But after a couple of lessons and listening back to my tapes, I could hear things that the teachers weren’t. Because of this, I lost faith in their ears. I trusted mine more. Additionally, I still wasn’t getting what they were physically asking me to do to change my sound. This is when I came to a decision that wasn’t easy to make; a very scary and what felt like unsafe proposition: to train myself. If I was so good at training you, why not train me?
Out came the tapes and tape recorder. The recorder my student, and me, the teacher/guide. I treated those tapes as if I were listening to one of my students and began making the proper corrections. I probably read about 75 books and hordes of articles, internet and print, on vocal technique. I tried everything suggested and was obsessed with finding out what worked for me, what didn’t, and why. I soon realized that singing in different styles wasn’t so much about changing the sound of my voice as it was about changing the way I shaped the vowels, which also changes the placement. The process of changing sense-memorized habits was nothing short of grueling, but I was determined to never give up – no matter what. I wanted to be able to cover a spectrum of different styles.
Habits are usually subconscious. They are so ingrained that it’s not easy to ask someone to, for example, quit biting their nails or cracking their knuckles in an instant. Nope, not going to happen. To break a habit takes concentrated effort. Through this work I learned the true meaning of that word. Letting go of my own second-nature habits made me feel like my voice was at zero, as if I never had a gifted voice. I felt like many of my students do about their own voices when they come to me.
The first thing I had to do was learn to stop listening to myself. Okay, yeah, that’s like asking someone to leave his or her ego at the door – nearly impossible. But I transfered my awareness to listening from the outside, as if I were another person, and if it was wrong, I re-recorded until it was right. The tape never lies.
I used vocalises to change vowel shaping, placement, and ways of support to create new sense-memorized habits. All of these were different from those used for classical singing. Vocalises became my weapon, my voice the competition, and I was going to win.
Yes, I had my bed flailing days, days when I wanted to throw the tape and the recorder out the window. But nothing could ever stop me from continuing to try, continuing to practice, and continuing until I got it. After one of these breakdowns, I would be up in the morning practicing and right back at it again. I was relentless and determined. I don’t really think I knew how competitive I was until I went on this expansive journey.
Vocalises have now become my warm-ups. On any given day, just one vocalise can reveal where my voice is weak and needs work. Since the voice lives inside the body, you can never predict from day to day until you start exercising. Quickly discerning which area might need the most work, I can take an exercise and work that area until my voice opens up. Then I re-check by choosing a vocalise to sing through my entire range. What I’ve discovered is that by working in only one area, it often helps open all my registers. This is because I am practicing my new habits, and not my “sound” per se. A habit successfully changed in one area automatically changes it in another. Amazingly it is with this change of habits that a voice develops on its own. It’s an automatic end result.
Today, I don’t have to think about my voice when I sing. I do, however, still have to vocalize with exercises. Old habits have a way of sneaking back in when you least expect them. So I, for one, have to keep after them. As long as I am reminding myself with this form of repetition, I can sing the songs I love quite well and it makes me very, very happy. I can’t tell you how cool it is, when there were times I thought it would never happen.
For additional style, I learned to listen for specific pronunciation rather than to the perceived sound of someone else’s voice and trying to imitate it. I found pronunciation to be key to any given style. Imitating sound only kept me kept me pushing and forcing my voice. Again, very embarrassing.
To get what I have today, the new way had to become the only way second nature to me, like opera. I am still a technical singer because I love to play with tones, and to be on pitch. I don’t like the way I sound when I deviate into something that really isn’t me. In my mind there are two types of singers: the technical and the stylistically artistic, and both are good. Technical singers make great session artists and are in demand because of it. Stardom, in my opinion, comes to those who seem to have the gift of MAGIC on stage or recording, artistically, stylistically, and as a performer.
Some will still criticize me for sounding technical, not realizing that I prefer this for my own sound and style. It’s how I love to sing because I can – and not everyone can. I don’t need auto-tune. When I record a song, I can usually do it in an hour, and an a capella only takes 5 minutes. I’m proud that I can get it in one take.
I did become the teacher I always wanted to become. I have a lot of fun singing today, and even more fun teaching my methods to clients, from the gifted to those who have to work for every iimprovement. Yes, it was a difficult journey and one I’ve noticed seems to be harder than going the other direction: from pop to opera. There were many ups and downs along the way. But everyone I teach is so happy to be on the road and keep forging onward. Those who have stuck it out have great voices and careers today.