‘Can you sing that again but be poppier?’

Rachel Lynes

Have you ever been asked this? 

Musical Theatre is changing. And, as it changes, the demands on performers change. When I was at college in the early 2000s we barely touched pop. Maybe we had a song or two ready for the odd panto audition but those songs sat in the dusty corners of our rep folder.

Yet, even then, it was starting… We Will Rock You had just opened, Boy George’s Taboo was a mega hit, and writers like Jason Robert Brown were introducing ‘pop’ influences that began the new wave of modern musicals like Waitress and Dear Evan Hanssen. 

Now, we have to face the truth. As Musical Theatre performers, you will stand more chance of a financially secure, and fulfilled career if you are as vocally diverse as the terrain in which you stand.

You may go in for Les Mis on a Monday and be asked to deliver a pop ballad on a Tuesday. 

So what does this mean, vocally? If you are not already a pop artist, how do you make yourself ‘sound poppier?’ And how do you do this without sacrificing your vocal health technique?

As we plan for our next season at Sing Space ‘100 Days of Pop’ I started to look at some of the common advice and whether or not it is helpful. 

NOTE: all these thoughts are super condensed and need a Masterclass or two to really tackle the subjects.


Common advice one: ‘more speech quality.’


We often perceive ‘pop,’ voices as a close match to the human speaking voice. More so than say, classically inspired singing or traditional Musical Theatre. Yet, in capturing the pop sound, are we aiming for speech quality or, is what we hear as ‘speech’ quality something else altogether?

The danger is, in an attempt to capture ‘speech quality,’ you may close the acoustic space. It may make you weigh heavily on consonants. It might de-energise you.

 It can be more helpful to lean into the tone, to play with vowels on, on relaxed ‘primal sounds’ like ‘nos,’ ‘mores,’ ‘heys,’ or ‘yeahs,’ which capture an acoustic sound that is more synonymous with the more modern sounds.


Common advice two: Less vibrato


Vibrato can certainly change the stylistic feel of a pop song into one that sounds ‘classical’ or ‘too Musical Theatre’. But is it vibrato in general or the way you use it? Is it at the end of a note? On the run up to a phrase or on the last note? Is it on the first or second syllable of a diphthong? How wide/loose/tight/fast.

Simply removing vibrato can create tension as we try to ‘hold’ a note straight. It can deflate our dynamic energy and pull the plug out of our tone and colour. 

Can we explore exchanging the vibrato with positive goals: letting the tone grow, or the vowels shift so we hear different acoustic colours? Can we use it to tie up a note or to add vibrancy? Can it become a play thing in our palate that we use with choice rather than habit. 

Listen to some of your favorite pop artists like Jessie J. Does she have virato? Yes! But she’s still firmly a pop artist. 


Common advice three: You act less in pop.


This is an interesting one and really depends. If you are singing a Spice Girls song the emphasis will certainly be more about creating a party that making your ‘zig a zig aah,’ feel naturalistic. Yet, with say, ‘Gravity,’ by Sara Barielles do we still shift our emphasis away from the narrative?

To me, the difference is that, with ‘pop’ we can be free from trying to capture our naturalistic spoken cadence. 

We are taking the story into our bodies and vowels, expressing the subtex through the tone not with the words. Try singing your pop song on ‘Na,’ or ‘La,’ and still telling your story. Transfer your energy into the melody rather than the words. See how that feels?


Common advice four: Be freer with the notes 


My favourite part of singing pop is our freedom from rules: the freedom to be an instrumentalist, using your body as your instrument. Forget precision. Exchange for new aims: to make fabulous sounds, to move people, to play with the colours in your voice… 

I am always surprised at how hard it is for Musical Theatre performers to break free of the walls that they didn’t know they had. Can we scoop? Yep. Slide? Yes! Riff, pulse, drop off a note? Yes, yes, yes! Be free. Be anarchic. Trust your instinct.  

Fun fact: Adele hits every note about an octave below the one we hear (sometimes more). This trick is almost imperceivable to the ear yet offers her, her trademark warmth as she scoops up her delicious bass and hugs it around the higher notes (yes, that is a non-technical description!)


Common advice five: Be more ‘you.’


I came to this one last as it’s such a big topic and one I struggle with myself. 

As a nearly 40 year old Musical Theatre trained singer, am I ‘cool’ enough to sing pop?  Is it easier for us to hide behind character and narrative, and to mimic the sounds associated with our familiar genre? 

But how much freedom will we find when we have full permission to start with our ‘self’. Your own voice, your own vibe, your own soul, your ‘you.’? To make choices from instinct and musicality, driven from your heart and soul

I’m so excited to start this season at Sing Space. We are dedicating 100 days to pop, to explore it to help you find vocal versatility, new techniques, new freedom, new colours, new material for your rep folder, and even to uncover a new side to yourself as an artist. 

Covering everything from mic technique to jazz, from riffing to pop belting, from punk-rock to country, we are joined by experts in this field from Kim Chandler to Heidi Krenn. 

100 Days of Pop is free for Sing Space members, or join the waiting list now to be first in line to join us when we open up membership on April 4th.