Recent television programs featuring vocal artists remind us that vocal musicians run the gamut.

From amazing belters to those who have operatic power, the ability to phonate on pitch can be thrilling no matter the genre of music performed.

However, there are still some crunchy definitions to work out when comparing vocalists vs. singers and opinions will vary widely!

Vocalist vs Singer: Explained By A Pro Voice Teacher

The Type of Music Matters

As a general rule, when comparing the term “singer” and “vocalist” the primary difference between the two types of musicians is that singers perform classical music and vocalists sing pop or show tunes.

Of course, the term “classical music” covers pretty much anything that is not in English, rather than music only from the classical period.

However, the musical period does matter when learning to sing. Historical musical periods are usually defined by the years they encompass:

The Medieval Period, from 1150 – 1400. The earliest notation of western music precedes this; the very early notations of Guido Arezzo come from 1025 AD.

The Renaissance Period, from 1400 – 1600 saw the generation of part-singing books. Folks who could read words could end their suppers by singing together in harmony.

The Baroque Period, from 1600 – 1750 greatly expanded the power of a single skilled singer to take center stage. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is considered the first great opera written and was premiered in 1607.

During this period, professional musicians moved from the church and from the employ of royals in castles to the stage. Like Baroque design, a lot of Baroque vocal music was quite florid and highly ornamented.

The Classical Period, from 1750 – 1820 saw a break with the extremely florid vocal styles of the Baroque. While many operatic storylines held onto the classic themes, ordinary people became characters in opera during this time. For example, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart featured a maid and a manservant.

(If you think you would never listen to or enjoy opera, remember The Shawshank Redemption. Nicely done, conductor Karl Bohm and sopranos Gundula Janowitz and Edith Mathis!)

The Romantic Period, from 1820 – 1900 saw a great expansion in size. Voices, orchestras, and concert halls all got bigger. Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner are three of the big composers of the era, and all of them wrote for highly skilled and specialized singers who could sing over an orchestra with no amplification.

The 20th Century and 21st Century, from 1900 – Current requires a great deal of classically trained singers. Not only do these professionals need to be able to carry over an orchestra, but modern compositional trends include atonal music and extreme ranges.

Modern singers need a terrific sense of pitch, a large range, and the ability to sing through some long operas; Nixon in China by John Adams is 3 hours and 30 minutes long.

Portrait of young woman recording a song in a professional studio

Different Types of Training

It’s said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. If you’re interested in singing, the key is to start.

You can start singing with a teacher if you can’t match pitch, but if you can carry a tune, it’s a good idea to find a choir and sit beside a strong singer.

A strong singer in a choir setting can serve as an umbrella. If you’re not sure you have the right pitch or if you’re uncertain about hitting the high note, you can sneak in beside a strong singer until you know you’ve got it.

For parents who have a child interested in singing, a good children’s choir is an ideal start. Time in an excellent children’s choir can teach them

  • excellent pitch matching skills
  • healthy, child-sized vocal production
  • wonderful rehearsal hygiene

Rehearsal hygiene means getting to rehearsal on time, bringing your music and a pencil, listening to the stage manager and conductor, and not talking when rehearsal stops for notes.

The sooner your child picks up these skills, the more successful a performer they will be.

In addition to singing, a child with a passion for music needs to study other instruments. Piano and violin are a great start; not only will they learn music theory and reading skills, but they will learn to practice on a daily basis and expand their musical exposure.

As an aside, most choir members are not paid, but the accompanist nearly always is. If your child wants to study music and you don’t have the funds to support them as they look for singing gigs, get a piano.

Group Of School Children Singing In Choir Together

What To Do When You Want To Specialize

Both classical singers and pop vocalists can work with the same teacher to start. The goal is to build a healthy foundation.

However, there are skills and tools that will make each vocal musician more effective in their art.

For example, someone interested in classical voice will need to study languages while a pop vocalist may want to study dance and movement.

A healthy body is critical for all singers. The historical view of classical singers as folks who are grossly obese and in terrible shape is not accurate.

As a general rule, classical singers do have a larger bone structure; the skull may be larger and they may be larger through the ribs and across the shoulders.

If you intend to build your dancing and movement skills as a vocal professional, do take the time to add a cardio routine to your workout.

male singer with headphones and microphone singing song at sound recording studio over festive lights

About Breathing

Vocal musicians talk a lot about learning to breathe from the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the big muscle that separates the chest cavity from the stomach cavity and is the muscle that works in controlled inhalation.

Muscles function most effectively in the contraction stage. To flex your bicep, you get the most bulge for your efforts when you draw up the fist and bend the elbow.

To enjoy an effective, controlled inhalation, you need to consciously contract the diaphragm and release the big muscle that holds in the tummy, the rectus abdominis.

Then someone who wants to sing tightens the rectus abdominis. This abs muscle contracts while the diaphragm releases. The goal for singers is to

  • release the rectus abdominis deeply; this muscle actually attaches to the pelvis
  • relax as the rectus abdominis settles back into stasis
  • maintain a healthy posture through the entire inhalation and exhalation

These two muscles work as a bellows. If you want to learn diaphragmatic breathing, lay down on a flat surface and put a book on your navel. Inhale and focus on moving the book toward the ceiling. Release air and let the book drop.

BONUS TIP: Hiccups are a contraction of the diaphragm. As you strengthen this muscle, hiccups can hurt! To get rid of them quickly, draw the rectus abdominis in as tight as you can and do 10 quick breaths in and out. If that doesn’t work, release the rectus abdominis, close your eyes and press very lightly on the eyelids through 10 deep breaths in and out.

Breathing diagram: diaphragm contracts and relaxes
Breathing diagram: diaphragm contracts and relaxes

Crossover Should Be Encouraged!

Competition between vocalists and singers is rather silly. Musicals such as Phantom of the Opera remind us that operatic production can be extremely helpful for vocalists and there are a lot of operas that include parties and require singers to dance.

One point of contention between singers and vocalists is the use of microphones and audio enhancement.

As a classical vocalist, I was terrified of working with a microphone because I had no skills with it. As a voice teacher, I encouraged all my students to learn to sing with amplification.

It’s a completely different way of listening to yourself and those around you. It’s a very useful skill.

young woman vocalist holding a microphone

Focus On The Long Term

Often, children are represented as “opera prodigies.” This phrase is incredibly destructive!

Operatic vocal production in a child is not healthy because operatic vocal production requires that the singer complete puberty. Unless a child has a serious glandular disorder, they are not an opera prodigy.

It is easy for a singer to expand a part of their vocal range and it’s possible to train a young singer to manufacture vibrato. However, these enhancements are neither safe over the long term nor beneficial to the child.

As a young singer ages, the vocal musculature builds up. When under pressure, the vocal musculature relaxes and vibrato is produced.

A teacher who is focused on vocal health will not train vibrato; instead, they listen for it and encourage the student to remember the feeling.

Once a student is trained to use a manufactured vibrato, the naturally occurring vibrato will sound and feel like an aberration to the student.

Singers and vocalists who push for too much too soon will eventually cause damage. Early vocal training needs to be about listening, learning to read music, and healthy production.

If a 10-year-old sounds like a 20-year-old, that 20-year-old may suffer damage and may not even be able to sing at all by the time they turn 40.

If you have a child that truly wants to sing bigger works or perform more, introduce them to shows that feature children singing healthily. The Secret Garden and Billy Elliott both feature children’s roles that don’t require high-pressure vocals.

young girl singing with a blue microphone

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