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
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
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 email@example.com.
© 2005 by David L. Jones