Speech Level Singing

There is a trend in the voice teaching of pop, rock, and Broadway styles of singing today that many call speech level singing. What does this term mean and what is the true story behind this movement toward speech level singing?  In actual truth, speech level singing is a contradictory term. Healthy singing requires much more opening of the acoustical space than speaking. Opposite to what many book publishers would like you to think, there is NO grid of exercises that will solve all the vocal issues of any individual singer.


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Responsible professional teachers can tell you that every singer needs individualized instruction and there is no formula to fix vocal problems. Nor is there one formula that will help someone become a polished singer using learning media. Some media is more effective than others, but any good teacher will tell you that nothing replaces an excellent vocal professional.

Every individual uses different levels of correct or incorrect speech patterns in the act of language expression. Therefore, basing an entire technique on speech level is only as effective as the correct speaking habits of that individual singer or amateur. Admittedly, there can be benefits in approaching the belt voice with this concept for the simple reason that it lessens the pressure on the larynx. Defining speech level singing is easy, it is really simply words on pitch, but this does not constitute a complete technique for healthy singing. Considering the incorrect speaking habits of many individuals and the fact that speech requires less acoustical space than singing, it only makes clear sense that this approach can have some large missing pieces of instruction.

Historical Background:

Speech level singing is an approach that has actually existed for years in private teaching studios in New York, but today’s marketing experts have given it a name or label and many have benefited financially from this label, a label that insinuates THE correct way of approaching singing or THE vocal knowledge.  This is a great marketing ploy and it really fools many people into thinking this is THE way to approach contemporary styles of singing. If you look at singers from the 1950’s, most of them used what today is called speech level singing. From Sinatra to Elvis to Ella Fitzgerald, these singers used a contemporary style without using tremendous pressure on the larynx. Definitely lyricism of style invited a lighter approach in using chest register. However, in the 1960’s when the rock musicals came to Broadway, the heavy belting began to develop as a trend; one that cost many singers their vocal health AND their careers. The result was a tremendous amount of business for the throat doctors.

In truth, speech level singing has been around as long as theater stage singing has existed to one degree or another. What defines the concept of speech level singing and what are the pitfalls and the benefits? First of all, it is CRITICALLY important to investigate deeply before seeking any type of instruction? What are the benefits, BUT even more importantly, what are the DANGERS? It is a safe training, or can there negative damaging effects?

Benefits and Drawbacks

Learning speech level singing is a technique of instruction where the singer is instructed to use less vocal energy in approaching the act of singing (especially belting), an approach from which many belting singers may benefit. Singing is often compared to the energy and lightness of speaking and if a singer has a history of heavy belting or of placing tremendous breath pressure and/or muscular tension on the larynx while singing, this approach can lessen the tension. This lighter approach to belting helps to develop an approach that encourages less vocal cord mass. At this point, the singer can learn to mix more head voice into his/her production. This lessens the wear and tear on the voice considerably, although it does not create enough acoustical space to fully protect the throat. The operative term in using this approach is “damage control”.

What Constitutes Real Talent?

I have a student whose family runs a summer theater company, a full season presenting both musical theater and one or two operas per year. Like many theater companies, they come to New York to audition young actors and singers.  Their main complaint: a LACK of true talent, musicianship, control of the voice, and the acting/performing connection. Many singers still think that if they sing loud enough and speak the true word high enough, they will get the job.  Needless to say, we hear a lot of throaty sound in the pop, rock, and Broadway worlds. Perhaps it is because we live in a ‘bigger is better society’: a mindset that fosters the concept that louder is better. The fact is that most music theater is over-amplified by the sound system, making it almost impossible for the singer to USE their voice. So the concept of loud singing is no longer necessary.

It only takes a click of the television channel to watch a very popular TV show that is a singing contest. If you watch this program, you will hear a lot of screamed ugly sound. Most of the singers are taking the ‘high and loud’ approach. Singing all one level of intensity or dynamic is hugely boring to any audience. Most of these contestants sing long phrases at the very top of their range with a closed throat. The result is that there are few contest singers who perform with beauty of tone, nuance, musicianship or phrasing. The judges have about as much musical taste as a moose. Control, beauty of tone, and nuance are all fundamental abilities that should be taught in all genres. It is unfortunate that the people in the position of hiring often don’t know what they want, so the performer is at a loss of what to give them; thus the ‘bigger and louder’ mentality takes over out of insecurity.

So why is nuance not being taught to young talent? I am sure in many environments it IS being taught, but it is not a mainstream way of approaching singing. Culturally speaking, artistry and beauty of sound seem to be the last priority in most contemporary singing. One major reason for this lack musicianship is the lack of classical musical education in the schools. Whether you believe it or not, classical musical training is the basis from which pop, rock, and other forms of contemporary music derive. Sadly, music is usually the last program to be funded by public schools, yet it is proven that young people who study music in depth do better in academic subjects as well.

One saving grace in all of this is that some crossover singers are using a more legitimate approach that is getting some beautiful tone on the airways and on recordings. What is amazing is that there is a HUGE market for beautiful singing. These artists make tremendous careers using what might be an old fashioned method; singing sensitively with beauty of tone and melody. Most of these crossover artists have classical training as their background and it shows in their musicality and control of the voice.

Is Speaking (Speech Level) a Way of Singing?

Does the speech level approach constitute an entire approach to teaching singing? There are benefits, but this approach is absolutely incomplete. (See article on “Balance in the Teaching of Singing”) One large hole in speech level instruction is that fact that it denies the need for enough throat space or alteration of the vowels as the singer approaches the upper passaggio and higher range. Any responsible vocal professional can tell you that using a speech approach for the high voice is insufficient. First of all, MOST individuals do not learn healthy speaking habits. How many times have you heard individuals speak with a raspy and/or unhealthy vocal production in speaking? Vocal abuse in speaking is a major societal problem and it is one reason that our speech therapists are kept so busy today. While I certainly agree that application of speech energy to singing can lessen the pressure on the larynx, there is NO denying that the increase in acoustical space, the laryngeal tilt in the middle voice, and the expansion of intensity of tone, space, and energy as a singer goes higher in pitch is the ONLY basis for a free high voice. Music Theater Sopranos have been achieving this for years and years.  For a heavy Broadway belter, the speech level approach can be healthier, but it is nothing new. Like I said before, this approach to teaching the belt voice has been around for years and years. If a young singer wishes to become a versatile artist (singing many styles), the speech level approach is extremely limited and can present quite damaging results in the upper register or high voice.

Imbalance in Registration: One general cause of vocal problems in contemporary singing is an imbalance in registration. This can be caused by too much breath pressure, or by bringing the lower register too high in the scale with a large amount of vocal weight (thicker cord mass). Attempting to take the speaking mechanism higher and higher without accommodating the upper register (mixing) with more acoustical space is an abusive practice. Some of the dangers are general swelling of the vocal cords, pre-polyp swelling, ballooning of capillaries on the surface of the vocal cords, or vocal nodules. A high-larynxed approach to the high voice taught by a speech level singing instructor who does not listen appropriately can lead to one or ALL of these vocal disorders.

Can you belt without hurting your voice? Yes, but ONLY if you counter the wear on the voice by using exercises that get to the thin edge function of the vocal folds and strengthen the head voice. Opening the acoustical space or pharynx in the high range accomplishes a great deal of this. Getting to the thin edge function of the folds can only be achieved by vocalizing with a legitimate approach; an approach that opens the acoustical space and strengthens the head register.  The open throat represents a ‘shock absorber’ for the vocal cords and the pressure on the larynx is minimized when the throat space is open. Yes, speech level function with a high soft palate can be used in the middle register and even a little bit higher, but for true head voice to exist healthily, the throat must open much more and head mechanism must be allowed to function. In order to accomplish this, the vowels must be altered to open the throat in the higher range. If the singer keeps the true vowel with the tongue position as the vowel is allowed to alter in the throat, then the audience will hear the true vowel sound.

One need only study the singing of Elaine Page and Barbara Cook to hear singers who produce sound on a vocal protection.  (see article on “The Vocal Protection”) These singers have learned to be wise and careful in their approach to Broadway style. About 2 years ago, there was a program aired on PBS about Elaine Page and her vocal instruction. During the program, it was shown how Ms. Paige vocalized on a daily basis.  Her teacher was interviewed and it became extremely obvious that she was singing in the soprano range with a legitimate production in order to counter the negative effects of belting.

Case Study:#1: Broadway Tenor: Approximately one year ago, a Broadway Tenor come to me for sessions after reading this web site.  He had performed “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and had been studying with a famous Broadway speech level teacher.  When he got to my studio, he knew little or nothing about breath or breath management.  The voice suffered from slight hoarseness and a vocal wobble (wide vibrato). This singer had studied in the speech level studio for 4 years and had virtually learned nothing about healthy vocal technique in approaching the high range. The vocal folds were thick and his upper range was beginning to deteriorate. THIS was a direct result of this teacher having him SPEAK THE WORDS ON SPEECH LEVEL IN THE HIGH RANGE!!!!!! Obviously this teacher knew little or nothing about vocalizing healthily in the upper range. Over time, this singer had suffered vocal abuse and had developed vocal difficulties from this type of approach to the upper voice. He had ordered my instructional CD, “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones” which is available at www.onesoulrecords.com. When he began to feel his voice relax and open, then he came to my New York Studio to begin an in depth study of this technique. His high range expanded to the E-flat above high C and he sings concerts with great success today, including Carnegie Hall performances.

Case Study #2: Broadway Tenor: Only a few weeks ago, another Broadway tenor came to me from this same speech level teacher. He is 22 years of age and had majored in Musical Theater at his University training. His voice teacher in undergraduate school gave him a good classical background and he had an easy high range.  He had been studying speech level singing for 5 months and had lost the interval of a full 4th on the upper range of his voice. He finally confronted this teacher, saying that he could NOT audition at this point because he had lost his upper range. She made no attempt to explain, but blamed the singer for not ‘doing it correctly’. His confidence was destroyed by this limited and damaging approach to the high voice. By the laws of acoustics, NO ONE can use speech level to pronounce text in the high range above the staff without eventually choking. I immediately put him on the Lindquest vocal exercises and by the end of the hour he could reach his high C once again. This is an example of how speech level singing, when taken into the upper range, IS a damaging practice.

Case Study #3: Broadway/Jazz Singer: Many years ago, a singer come to my NY Studio after she had been cast in the Musical “Beehive”. Previously, she had always enjoyed a tremendously wide and easy range. Because she was required to belt heavily in this show, she lost most of the range of her voice in 4 weeks of performances. Her vocal damage consisted of 3 swollen capillaries on the right cord and 4 on the left cord, 2 nodule sites and she suffered from a pre-polyp swelling.  This singer was a candidate for surgery. Before coming to my studio, she had gone to a speech level instructor. Her condition did not improve. When she could not accomplish what the teacher wanted, the instructor would scream at her. (See article: “Psychological Abuse in the Voice Studio”) The speech level approach did not use enough head voice connection to begin the healing process of the voice. (See article on “The Cuperto Function” at www.voiceteacher.com)

When this singer came to my studio, I began the process of head voice development. After vocalizing her for 6 months on the Lindquest vocal exercises, especially using the cuperto function, the swelling on her cords had been reduced to almost nothing, the capillaries were reduced and the nodule sites were gone.  She avoided vocal cord surgery by using a therapeutic approach to vocalization. By using the cuperto exercise (tiny 'u') this kind of vocalization awakened the thin edge function of the vocal cords. The singer could then resume her professional career and currently she still sustains a high level career.

Case Study #4: Female Rock Singer: Several years ago, a rock singer came to my studio with limited range.  She was originally from England and we immediately began her training on the cuperto function. At first the singer had difficulty getting into the upper range because she was only using the acoustical space for the middle voice when she went up, a speech level approach.  We later worked on Italian Songs and a classical vocal warm up, using an open throat. The development of this voice was truly amazing. After approximately one year, she could sing Opera arias and rock songs.  When I went to hear her perform, there was NO sign of a classical sound in her singing, but she always warmed up her voice on the Lindquest exercises. She learned to made appropriate adjustments for the rock sound. After a short time, she became so good at switching style that she could sing a loud rock song and suddenly switch style, sounding like Janet Baker in “Cara Sposa”. This was always a shock to the listener because most are of the opinion that classical training makes a singer sound like an opera singer.  This is NOT true. Style considerations make this an extremely healthy approach for the rock, pop, or Broadway singer. This student has become quite a successful rock singer performing on world tours and is now a voice teacher as well, helping other rock singers who suffer vocal fatigue.

Case Study #5: Female Broadway Singer: I recently taught a female Broadway singer who came to my NY Voice Studio. Even though the voice was healthy, it sounded somewhat incomplete. At first, the singer could make a large belted sound or a light squeezed sound. After several minutes of vocalization, the problem proved to be the lack of straight backspace behind the tongue. This is NOT a concept taught in speech level instruction, especially in the middle voice. In this singer’s case, the voice became fuller in the head voice register and lighter in the chest register: what many calling blending the registers. The experience is one of many that prove that an open and healthy singing sound depends upon not only a high soft palate, but also an open back wall of the pharynx, behind the root of the tongue. After vocalizing on a pharyngeal vowel stretch, she could sing any style with much more color and resonance and beauty of tone.

The Vocal Protection

Defining the vocal protection is simple.  It consists of an open acoustical space that reduces the stress on the vocal cords, resulting in true ring in the voice. After this ring is developed, the singer can sing for longer periods of time without fatigue. Developing an open acoustical space is a fundamental result of responsible teaching. The concept of vocal protection is sometimes called the vocal cover, a term I do not use in my teaching. But the result is a protection of the vocal cords, increased stamina, and a development of beauty of tone. I use the term ‘acoustical protection’. This protection can offer singers the ability to sing long rehearsals and performances without vocal problems.

Speech Level Book: Marketed Vocal Abuse?

There is a famous book on speech level singing, by a famous teacher, that is selling internationally. This book contains a CD of vocal exercises.  These exercises are absolute vocal abuse, yet this book is selling in tremendous numbers. The teacher was wise enough to hire young singers to perform these exercises. They sound relatively good because the practice of singing high on a closed throat has not yet damaged their voices. However, the vowels are distorted because of the closing of the throat and if one listens carefully, it is obvious that the appropriate acoustical space is NOT created as the singer goes higher and higher. The teacher speaks of lowering the larynx, yet demands that the singer make sounds that make a low larynx impossible. These young singers will suffer the frustration over time of lost vocal function.

In closing, I MUST to say to all singers who study speech level singing, BE CAREFUL! Every singer needs to open the throat in order for the high range to develop properly. Squeezing the spoken word function high in the upper range can put tremendous pressure on the larynx, making this production a haven for the development of vocal damage. It takes time to develop a healthy vocal technique and it involves a lot of hard work and time.


Please direct questions to David L. Jones at info@voiceteacher.com.

© 2005 by David L. Jones