Believe it or not, the holiday season is upon us. In a year when the passage of time has seemed to move in slow gear, and that 2020 would never end, all of a sudden only six weeks remain. If you are a holiday gift giver, and haven’t really started, I have a suggestion for you.

Give the gift of vocal training to a family member, friend, co-worker, or fellow singers in your life. To sweeten the offer, when you buy one for someone as a gift—you’ll get the gift of one for yourself at 50% off!

Here are the details of this BOGO offer:

  • Offer ends on December 31, 2020.
  • A gift session is 45 minutes long and costs $40.
  • A gift certificate will be sent electronically to the gift giver to print to enclose in a card or as a stocking stuffer.
  • Contact wilds4estill@gmail.com to purchase.

One more thought. In this most-unusual year, one which has suspended most singing activities, giving the gift of some personal attention to the voice could well be the perfect gift this year.

Singing is about making choices. The singer must determine a number of things before making a sound. What quality of sound will best enable the story-song to be told? What dynamic level, as well as quality of phrasing, diction, and articulation, will achieve the goal? If you are a singer who lives singularly in one vocal quality, the choosing process goes quickly. You might say that the preferred voice quality resides as a default setting which makes access literally automatic.

For those who dabble in a variety of qualities, success may require a careful cognitive approach in order to achieve the desired quality every time. In Estill Voice, the various voice qualities are the result of mixing together multiple ingredients, i.e., vocal structures, much like following a recipe. This is why there is a distinguishable difference between the qualities widely associated with opera, Broadway, country-western, pop, and rock.

The concept of choice as it relates to choosing a voice quality—the result of choosing the appropriate structures of the voice to combine to make the quality—is easy enough to to grasp. But there is another level of choice to consider.

Because the vocal mechanism is so intricately connected, the choice of one structure can trigger or activate another. Sometime this is a welcome reaction. Other times, it is wholly unwanted. Let’s consider a few examples:

  • Raise your tongue to a high position. Say the word “email.” Say it again and hold the the first syllable. Notice how high your tongue lives in your mouth. Repeat and notice if your larynx rises.
  • Draw your tongue downward into a low position. Think you’re hiding you’re tongue behind your lower teeth. Repeat and notice if your larynx lowers.

These two examples were chosen because they focus on laryngeal positioning, which is a major influencer of vocal color. A higher larynx promotes a brighter sound while a lower laryngeal position fosters more warmth. It’s simply about adjusting the length of the vocal tract to garner the desired color.

Consider the two examples. For most singers, a high tongue position will encourage the larynx to sit higher. This is not to say one cannot sing an “ee” vowel while coaxing a lower larynx. You absolutely can. The point is a high tongue position naturally triggers the larynx to lift. In contrast, the second example shows that a low tongue dramatically drops the larynx. This is critical information for any singer who chronically fixates the tongue in a flat and retracted position—an ill-advised form of anchoring or supporting. What if, for example, a singer wants to sing with a high laryngeal sound but can’t let go of a low tongue position? Here is an example of how an understanding of potential vocal triggers can deliver relief to a frustrating situation.

The fact that these and other vocal triggers exist should not cause alarm. None of us are strangers to the concept that choices have consequences. We all learned this the first time we stuck a finger into a live flame. Experience is a great teacher—as is a Estill Voice trainer like me. If you would to know more about identifying vocal triggers, or any other aspect of singing, please contact me.

This past week, those in the northern hemisphere paused to observe the arrival of the autumnal equinox on Tuesday, September 22. It is hard to fathom that “normal life,” as we like to call it, went into suspension around six months ago due to a novel coronavirus. What began around the vernal equinox on March 19, continues to deeply effect every aspect of our lives. For those who work in the performing arts, as well as those those who support them and their work, the last six months have been devastating. It was also this past week that scientists declared the arrival of a new normal may not come until November 2021.

As numbing as that information is, we must not become paralyzed. We must keep making art. The impulse to do so is strong. We must listen to it even when our creative outlets are temporarily shuttered. They will return. Think of the next few months as that season of time you’ve wished for so that you could embark on a self-improvement project—perhaps one related to your voice. If so, please contact me.

Lastly, per John Osebold1 below, making art is important beyond practicing to improve your craft. it is incumbent upon all of us to make art ”just because you’re alive and you’re contributing to the masterpiece of humanity.”

1 John Osebold is a Seattle-based musician, theatre director, writer, actor, composer, and sound designer.

I grew up in a home with Reader’s Digest, the monthly, pocket-sized magazine celebrating its centennial in 2022. The founders’ publishing goal was to provide readers with a collection of “the best stories from a vast array of publications.”1 All the stories were in condensed form, to aid the busy consumer, and sprinkled between them were general-interest columns. One I remember always looking for was, “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” a vocabulary builder.

This past week I was helping a student with a series of exercises related to a particular structure of the voice. When we were done I told him we were building his “vocal vocabulary.“ It was an in-the-moment statement that sounded good and seemed correct, but I’ve been mentally massaging it ever since. What did I mean by “vocal vocabulary?”

Simply speaking, a vocabulary is a means of human expression and communication. Related to a particular language, it is a body of words a person uses. Vocabularies are fluid things. New words get added as life evolves. Some words are retired because they are deemed no longer fashionable or proper. Vocabularies can become stagnate or even erode. Maintaining a robust vocabulary in part promises having the right word in the right place at the right time2, which yields success as a communicator via the spoken or written word.

I would argue that singers need to develop a vocal vocabulary for the same reason: To have the right VOICE in the right place at the right time. Here, the use of the modifier, “right,” in relation to the voice is not about stylistic preference or aesthetic bias. Rather, I am arguing for “the right VOCAL VOCABULARY in the right place at the right time.” This vocabulary is formed as a singer acquires a proficiency of the structures of the voice, ex., onset/offset, body-cover, laryngeal positioning, velum control. Just like having the right word on the tip of your tongue or your pen, every singer should have a robust vocal vocabulary at his/her/their disposal.

If you would like to build your vocal vocabulary, please contact me.

Lastly, as a sidebar, during my mental meanderings I was fascinated to discover the etymology of the word vocabulary and its rootedness to the voice.

vocabulary (n.) — 1530s, “list of words with explanations,” from Medieval Latin vocabularium “a list of words,” from Latin vocabulum “word, name, noun,” from vocare “to name, call,” which is related to vox (genitive vocis) “voice” (from PIE root *wekw– “to speak”).3

1 rd.com

2 an homage to William Safire’s book, The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time.

3 etymonline.com

I had the privilege of working with two new students this week. I always ask a new student a series of questions so I can understand his/her/their vocal journey. My closing question is usually, “What is something you wish you could do with your voice that you can’t do today?” As I expected, both students mentioned singing better high notes.

Unlocking the upper voice is a common request. So common that it makes me wonder why it plagues most singers. With so many feeling thwarted, I think it’s time to ask some fundamental questions. Firstly, if successfully singing higher on a regular basis appears so “out of reach,” is it a reasonable, i.e., doable, goal? Secondly, if it is deemed doable but success is elusive, is the approach wrong?

Inflection, the ability to vary pitch, is a basic characteristic of the human voice. This change in intonation for expressive purposes is achieved as the length and tension of the true vocal folds change. The shorter the folds, the lower the pitch, and vice versa. As a guide, just visualize the strings inside a piano or on a guitar. The voice’s ability to inflect is so natural that we take it for granted.

So, pitch raising and lowering is doable because it is in the design of the vocal mechanism. Then what makes singing higher, as opposed to lower, so much harder? I would contend that the average student struggles with higher notes because the approach is wrong—because there is a misunderstanding of the mechanics at play. Understanding how pitch is varied in the voice, as described above, is the first step to success.

In addition, I find students often fall prey to unhelpful, and potentially unhealthy, comparisons between phonation and everyday life. To illustrate this, I want you to imagine filling a tea kettle with water and placing it on the stove. If you want your cup of tea, that kettle must sing. As the water begins to boil, you hear the pitch of the whistle rise. As you remove the kettle from the stove, you hear the whistle pitch quickly slide downward. From this everyday event, it would be easy to determine that higher pitch requires higher pressure. But humans don’t sing like tea kettles.

Overexertion, whether by overblowing or pressurizing the breath, or by pressing or pushing at the vocal fold level, has been tried, with little or no success, as a way to access and secure the upper voice. Consider also that if any success is achieved, it handicaps the singer as access to higher notes comes with a high dynamic level. This approach promotes limitations, not possibilities.

So, it is reasonable for singers to desire a reliable upper voice. Accessing it is made easier with good mechanics and a correct approach. Yes, there are challenges but nothing that cannot be met with knowledge and practice. If you would like help with your upper voice, please contact me.

The human voice fascinates me. There are many reasons for this but let’s focus on one aspect: the uniqueness of every human voice. This is a particular marvel when you consider that human beings share similar vocal anatomy. Simply put, humans have nearly identical hardware but produce one-of-a-kind vocal signatures.

Consider the sound of human speech. In your mind, hear the difference between native speakers from France, Egypt, and Russia. Closer to home, compare the sound of American voices from the borough of Queens, the Mississippi delta, and the open plains of Oklahoma. What makes each so unique? Clearly, the choice of and use of language is at play, but is there something else?

Defined simply, the human voice, for both speech and song, consists of three parts: power, source, and filter. The movement of the breath provides the primary power. The source of the sound is seated in the larynx, the cartilaginous house for the vocal folds. The raw sound from the source then travels through the filter and is transformed into what we call one’s “voice.” Think back on the voices I asked you to hear earlier in the blog. Filtering is playing a major role in producing the unique sounds you are hearing.

Every human has their so-called ”everyday” voices for speech and for song. Think of them as the go-to or default voices. But we’ve all done vocal imitations, pretending to be from a different locale or mimicking a style of singing outside our comfort zone. How did you do that? Filtering was at play.

Estill Voice Training takes its cue from the power-source-filter paradigm. Learning the anatomy responsible for filtering and practicing the various positions possible for each and their effect on vocal sound is an essential and invaluable tool.

If you would like to know more about how one filters the voice, please contact me.

The inspiration for my weekly blog comes from my study of singing and my takeaways from lessons with students. This week, notions about breathing warranted some discussion and clarification.

Based on my experiences as a teacher, I can tell you that the role of the breath in the act of singing is widely misunderstood. I find this curious given its simplicity. Phonation is the result of the breath leaving the lungs, passing through the trachea and between the vocal folds causing them to vibrate. The exhaled breath is the power for phonation. We experience this organized sequence of events every time we speak, and rarely do we give it a second thought.

At its simplest level, singing is sustained speech. The same anatomical parts function to produce both the speaking voice and singing voice. So why, when the singing begins, do singers often look for a “new way” to breathe?

I credit the confusion to the discipline of voice teaching which has fixated on breathing technique and all its subcategories: management, control, support. This fixation has falsely credited the breath as having excessive sway over one’s voice. Breathing is often seen as the source of all problems and the seat of all solutions. This has lead singers to feel clueless and powerless. The natural act of inhalation and exhalation should never have been deconstructed to the point that singers begin to distrust the respiratory function. This has caused more harm than good.

Now, in case it appears I am swinging the pendulum too far the other way, I want to state the following so as not to be seen as a heretic. I recognize that singing, because of its sustained nature, requires an increased level of awareness of the overall breathing process. I affirm that the quality of one’s inhalations and exhalations—influenced by the way one engages the body with the breath—dramatically determines the quality of the sound. But I would argue that this overall breath awareness must take its cues from the familiar, natural respiratory process.

I argue this because I am struck by the number of students who reveal that they think they must manipulate the breath to achieve certain results, ex., pitch and volume. NOTE: There is no scientific evidence that the breath is the control center for pitch and volume. That being said, too little or too much breath can tarnish the frequency or dynamic level desired. But that is totally different from believing that a singer controls pitch and volume with the breath. Such a notion leads to vocal frustration and potential abuse.

If you would like to know more about breathing and singing, please contact me.

Voice training is weird. Really. Think about it. Of all the instruments that can be trained, name another one you can’t see or touch? Perhaps this explains why voice training sometimes takes on mystical overtones. Teachers or trainers are seen as guides to the unknown. This notion may seem a bit dramatic, but in a real sense, the trainer IS guiding the singer in his/her/their understanding of what can’t be seen or touched.

Oddly enough, another complication is the fact that most every human has a functioning vocal mechanism. It arrived, factory-installed and seems to be working fine. What more could I possibly need to know? Well, I would argue, a lot.

Based on my own experience and years of teaching, I can report the following: Most singers can’t tell you, with much accuracy, how their instrument works. Most will struggle with basic facts like: How does one sing louder and softer? How does one sing higher and lower pitches?

Now, if singing in the shower or along with your favorite singer is your only goal, you may not care about knowing more and that is fine. However, if you are experiencing any limitation in your singing, maybe you need to know more about how the voice works so that you can stop doing things that are impeding your potential, success, and enjoyment.

When getting to know a new student, I always ask, “What is something you wish you could do with your voice that you can’t at this time?” The limitation is usually caused by the presence of misinformation about how the voice works. Although well-intentioned, the singer’s choices and actions are the impediment because they are not working with the design and function of the vocal anatomy and mechanism.

Often I am asked, “What do you do in a voice lesson?” My standard response is this: “I help people get out of their way.”

Listed first as one of many benefits of Estill Voice Training is “replaces mystery with knowledge.” It would be my pleasure you help you do that.

I am writing you from Flagler Beach, FL where I have recently moved. Flagler Beach is located equidistant between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. This relocation was up-coming due to my membership in Beach Street Repertory Theatre, a new theatre company opening summer 2021, in Daytona Beach. Slated for the company’s first summer season are My Fair Lady, Working: The Musical, and Waitress. Circumstances were such that it made sense to proceed with the move now rather than in a few months. I am also taking advantage of contacts in this part of the state to help me find work at a time of substantial hardship for professional artists in this country.

As I wait for the inaugural season at Beach Street Repertory to commence, I continue my work as a voice trainer. Please keep in mind:

FIRSTLY, I continue to teach students virtually and will continue to do so, even past the time of COVID-19. After months of teaching virtually online, I am convinced it works well for vocal training. Neither my students or myself have been disappointed with the results. Please contact me when in need of vocal training.

SECONDLY, if you have family/friends/colleagues in the NE region of Florida who might want vocal training, please let them know I am teaching via The Parlor: Acting, Vocal, and Corporate Training Studio (www.theparlorspace.com) in Daytona Beach.

One of my classmates from Westminster Choir College recently posted a Kurt Vonnegut quote that I wanted to share with my wilds4estill followers:

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

— Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

As an artist/teacher living during the time of COVID-19, I have felt the effects of the pandemic on the arts. It’s been devastating. I hope to see a return to lively artistic activity very soon. Artists need it for financial and creative survival. The world needs the medicine the arts provide.

At a time of such uncertainty, I have struggled with making an argument for vocal training at a time like this. I think Vonnegut makes it for me.

If you are ready to nurture your singing skills, and your soul, please contact me. I’d be happy to help you.