Speech Level Singing vs. Estill Voice Training

Mika playing keyboard at V Festival 2007 in Weston Park, Staffordshire, by Seraphim Whipp under CC BY 2.5

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t think there’s any one right way to sing or any one method to get you there. If you listen to the singers out there, they’re producing a wide range of sounds, many of which are pleasing to the ear. Even when you listen to one particularly versatile person, she’s often able to produce a wide range of sounds: belting, classical head voice, breathy…you get the idea. Because I’m at the tail end of an Estill workshop, I thought I’d write a post comparing (and offering my two cents on) these two famous vocal systems, Speech Level Singing (SLS) and Estill Voice (EVT).

Speech Level Singing vs. Estill Voice Training

Speech Level Singing

Speech Level Singing, often abbreviated SLS, is a famous vocal method developed by Seth Riggs. It’s been around for a long time but seemed to hit its stride and become the party line among musical theatre and pop singers in the 1990’s and early aughts. In short, SLS epouses that the larynx should always remain in a neutral position and that if if the larynx rises or drops, or the voice becomes breathy, there’s something wrong happening. The training focuses on developing a smooth mixed voice from low to high, and much of the training revolves around evening out the passagi (or voice breaks).

What I Like About It

SLS is fast and relatively easy to learn. It creates a fairly standard vocal sound (that of balance and clarity, without a whole lot of variation from low to high), and it does it well and efficiently. It gives exercises meant to raise the larynx (nay nay nay) that, in Estillian terms, are narrowing the aryepiglottic sphincter. To balance those out, it gives exercises meant to lower the larynx (mum mum mum) that, in Estillian terms, are causing the thyroid to tilt. Blended together, these two actions create a rich, bright open sound.

My background growing up was in SLS, and I developed a bright Disney princess-quality sound with it. It kept my voice very healthy, and I still use it with beginning students who want pretty voices but don’t know which style they’re interested in learning. After all, it does fairly quickly create a healthy, balanced voice.

What I Don’t Like About It

SLS is severely limited. It makes the claim that there’s only one right way to sing (i.e. neutral larynx, no breathiness, no voice breaks, etc.) when any child can listen to music and point out all the different types of singing out there that you can’t produce with just one type of technique. SLS doesn’t usually produce an exciting belt, a rich, low-larynx opera sound, a breathy indie voice, or a character voice like Kristen Chenoweth’s in Wicked unless the singer’s voice verges on these qualities to begin with (i.e. has a natural chesty belt sound while maintaining a neutral larynx).

SLS also isn’t research based, and it’s only relatively recently that they’ve begun doing their own research on the voice. The claim that the larynx should be neutral at all costs is not only incorrect, but it can be damaging if taken too literally. The larynx can and must rise at least a little bit to reach the highest pitches. Luckily, SLS teachers don’t actually tend to enforce the completely neutral larynx claim in practice.

When I began teaching, I found myself getting more and more frustrated with the gap between what I believed to be “correct singing” and what I was hearing so many wonderful singers sound like. I quickly became disenchanted with SLS as the one true vocal method and started to develop my own techniques for producing other desirable sounds.

Estill Voice

Estill Voice was created by Jo Estill, an American singer who conducted a considerable amount of research on the voice, even using herself as a research subject and having needles inserted into her mouth and throat without anesthetic. Estill Voice is an incredible system that isolates individual muscles associated with the voice and identifies how they affect your overall sound. For example, tilting your cricoid produces a heavy belt sound, a dropped velum produces nasality, and a narrowed aryepiglottic sphincter produces twang. The system then identifies different vocal recipes (speech, twang, belt, sob, falsetto, and opera) and teaches you different ways to manipulate your muscles to create the desired recipe. This is not to say that these are the only recipes you can create with these muscles or that they’re the only way to create the recipes.

What I Like About It

I can’t say enough great things about Estill Voice. The system acknowledges that there isn’t just one way to learn to sing. In fact, with the number of combinations for using our vocal muscles, there are duodecillions of ways to put everything together and create different sounds (a particularly math-headed Estill student in the workshop figured out the number). Speech Level Singing, with its claims of being the be-all-end-all of vocal technique, really just produces one “recipe” among many.

I also appreciate the research-based nature of Estill’s work. She didn’t make claims that she hadn’t studied. Her vocal system may not be comprehensive, but she never claimed that it was and hoped the research would continue after she died.

What I don’t Like About It

The only real negative to Estill’s system is actually one of the things I appreciate about it: that it’s not really a vocal method. Instead, it’s a series of muscles you can use to create various vocal recipes. It’s incredibly technical and not an easy system to learn. Even knowing the various “recipes,” I’d still probably be more likely to draw from SLS with beginners who want to sound good fast. As with anything, when you choose one thing (or recipe) to focus on exclusively, you’ll probably be better at that one thing than if you try to do multiple recipes at once. Now let me be clear. There’s nothing about Estill’s system that suggests you need to work on all the recipes at once, but for beginners looking into it, it’s likely that they’d go on information overload.

Another drawback I can find is that the “recipes” in EVT are somewhat controversial. People disagree widely on what a belt should sound like and what characterizes speech quality. And certainly there are many, many different styles of opera.

Finally, while everything in EVT done correctly is healthy, some of it takes a considerable amount of work (and preferably the close eye of a qualified voice teacher) to do correctly. Because it can be used for more muscular sounds, like heavier belts and low-larynx opera work, singers need to be particularly attentive to signs of constriction.

Conclusion

Even though EVT does have its drawbacks, I’m much more impressed with the system than I am with SLS. I’m wary of any vocal method that claims that it’s the only way to sing correctly, and while I do like the bell-like clarity typically produced by SLS at its best, I’m much more in favor of a system that encourages you to play with the duodecillion beautiful sounds your voice can create.

3 Comments

  1. Joe

    Great article Molly;
    I would have to agree with you in large part. The only for exception that I see is teachers of a certain style, when they deviate from the original to create a more advanced system. For example, Brett Manning in The Singing Success series added a lot of techniques closely resembling EVT, that is exercises to help this singer practice in the high, mid, and low position. In the more stylistic part of his training, he went on to a lot of advanced pop and R&B techniques. While I am not a purist, this is one example of how styles can evolve. Keep up the awesome work.

    Reply
    • Molly Webb

      Hi Joe, thanks for the comment! I completely agree with you. I think that styles can evolve and that Brett Manning’s program is a great example of that. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
      • Joe

        Your welcome Molly and thank you for your response. From one voice teacher to another. You’re doing a great job. I also love EVT. It is rare that teachers are even taking the time to learn about the modern, revolutionary approaches to developing the voice. I know to many that limit their students to a curriculum that was made in the 17th century.

        My students are winning regional voice competitions, others have signed recording contracts and are enjoying very fulfilling careers. For the second straight year, We were rated as Pittsburgh’s number one voice studio by Thumbtack. I’m not really saying that I am that good, it’s just the difference between the modern and cutting edge science of singing mixed with the best stylistic training vs. a curriculum that is only good for what it was designed for. Nobody could expect to win the karate tournament by studying Judo. I have a profound respect for opera singing. It is every bit as legitimate. But as you and I know, to sound like the voices on the networks as todays youth are hoping for, they need a different playbook.

        Reply

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