In many musical genres, like classical or musical theatre, taking singing lessons and working on technique is common, even mandatory. The enormous demands of both styles (no amplification and hours of rehearsals for classical singers, huge vocal versatility and eight shows a week for musical theatre singers) explains this trend. Even in rock music, more and more singers are taking lessons because they realise that the sounds required by the genre, like high screams and distorted sounds, need a lot of technical work (often years of training) to be healthily executed. Nonetheless, in some styles technique work is still uncommon, even feared. Pop music is probably the best illustration of that fear.
What characterises this genre the most is its emphasis on strong vocal identity. A singer should be easily recognisable from the song's first notes. Considering this challenge, it is easier to understand why singers would be wary of teachers or coaches who might want to "correct" some of the sounds that make up their identity. Some people also feel that classical training is the only way to get a healthy voice, which is simply not true. Pop singers advised to take classical lessons might become even more reluctant, fearing that they'll be led towards the wrong kind of sound.
However, pop singers need vocal technique as much as any other singer. Most pop stars have faced significant vocal troubles. There are numerous singers who have cancelled concerts because of severe vocal fatigue, have undergone surgery, or whose voices have just slowly deteriorated. To name just a few: Adele, Jessie J, Pink, Sam Smith, Christina Aguilera, Sia.... These performers are clearly iconic within pop music and unquestionably sound great. Nevertheless, their voices deteriorate with time. Why is that?
Vocal ill health in the pop world is largely due to the assumption that because something sounds good, it’s healthy. Unfortunately, this is not true, making pop music is a very difficult genre to sing healthily. The pursuit of a unique sound leads the singer to seek all sorts of effects that they often find instinctively. These effects often involve vocal cracks and breaks or the breathy tones that are very popular currently, the idea being to make the voice sound imperfect to convey emotions. However, they can all be executed in ways that hurt the voice in the long run, especially if you try to make them cohabit with belting and raspy sounds. But it can be hard for a singer to admit that they need to work on their technique when they already sound good.
Pop singers therefore need vocal technique coaches as much as other singer, and they need coaches who know their musical genre. Teachers specialising in classical music or jazz are abundant but might not be the most suitable to help a pop singer, just as teachers who specialise in pop music will probably not be the best for a classical or jazz singer. A pop singing teacher needs to understand the demand to find a recognisable sound - a goal to which all pop singers must aspire - and help him/her to find healthy ways to get the sounds the singer wants.
The singers named above certainly don't need to change the way they sound. But they can still find healthier ways to do what they already do, and develop healthy voices through efficient technical work. The human voice is extremely resilient, and damaging it beyond repair is almost impossible.
As with any instrument, vocal technical teaching has two purposes:
1) overcoming the difficulties that prevent us from singing the way we would like to.
2) finding the least trauma-causing strategies for the body (in other words, the healthiest) that will allow us to produce those sounds for several hours a day during a long career.
If both of these aims aren't met by the singer, vocal technique work is worth doing.
To recap, pop singers do need vocal coaches, but coaches who understand and really answer their needs (just like any other singer, in the end). In any style, the singer faces the challenge of getting all the sounds he/she wants, and of producing them healthily. This last goal is very important, even though singers usually don't think about it unless they are already experiencing vocal problems. Being able to sing for a long career should be one of their priorities though. Vocal problems can be overcome, often faster or more efficiently, with the help of a good coach, able to answer specific demands.
For the next article, I'll talk about vocal fatigue and those singers whose voices have deteriorated, as well as how to avoid that.