great many experiences and studies have gone into my
technique for speech and singing, but my real strength lies in being
able to put it all together in
analysing your voice.
For decades I was a masterclass junkie, either attending or
participating in every opportunity I could find to learn more about
singing and how the voice works (and piano & composition etc).
Every now and then I recall another workshop or performance where I
found some new pearl of wisdom. For example, a vocal health seminar by a speech pathologist, or a singing masterclass by a
visiting world-class performer such as Jane Manning.
Would I recommend you become a masterclass junkie like me? Absolutely.
On one hand, all that information, some of it contradictory, could be
confusing and you'll need good judgement to know what to use and how to
use it. On the other hand, the sooner you start developing that good
judgement, the sooner you'll have it.
One piece of advice: there is considerable confusion about terminology,
and many teachers use vague and imprecise language, and all sorts of
weird and wonderful imagery. Try to stick to the
facts and get to the heart of the matter. Imagery is certainly very
important and I use it with my students, but please don't talk about
'singing from your stomach' or 'breathing into your stomach'. Think
about it--your voice starts in your larynx and if you get air in your
stomach you'll be burping, not singing. If you're a teacher, say what
you mean and mean what you say, otherwise your students will be
Nearly 30 years ago, in the
late 1980s, I first learnt
some of the vocal control manoeuvres developed by Jo Estill. I
this through being a 'guinea pig' myself in one of Estill's workshops
Perth and attending her other classes.
Estill was a successful opera singer
becoming a major figure in voice science. She then developed a very
detailed approach to vocal pedagogy that identified the precise
muscular requirements for each singing style and put the various
manoeuvres together in different combinations as a kind of 'style
She called the six basic voice qualities speech,
falsetto, sob/cry, twang (two
types), opera, and belting. Note that speech quality
singing has no relation to speech level singing (it's a completely
different idea, see below), and belt
is also known as Broadway belt. Belt is used by singers in many styles
other than 'Broadway' or musical theatre.
In 1990 I went to a weekend workshop on Estill's
techniques run in Adelaide by another singing teacher (Helen Tiller) and a speech
Bagnall). A 16 minute video of my own vocal folds in motion was
made at the workshop. They had put a video camera up my nose and down
the other side!
Extra Estill Study
And in 1997/98 I did six months of extra study and
revision in Estill's work with Ros Barnes, an accredited teacher of
the Estill method. (Note, however, that I am NOT an Estill
Choirs: A Very Tricky Situation
Of course, in my early days doing a Bachelor of Music
(composition) at the University of Western Australia I sang in all
the choirs around the place. I had the great privilege to work under
many wonderful choral conductors, such as Rodney Eichenberger and
Margaret Pride. Decades ago I was one of the first three or four people
in Western Australia to join the Australian Choral Conductors'
Association, before it became the Australian National Choral
1989 I founded the Perth Discovery Choir and
for five years, and in 2001 I founded and conducted Girls, Guys &
Others: the GGO Quire (I was one of the 'others'). All the singers in
these adult community choirs had a few individual lessons with me so I
could fully understand each voice
and know how to properly assign them to their vocal roles (such as
high, low, medium). This also helped me develop my approach
to vocal blending, so important in choirs.
This has given me a detailed
understanding of the important differences between choral and solo
singing, and how to manage this complex situation. I remember
times when undergraduate singing students were forbidden to sing in
choirs because it was seriously affecting their voices, whilst choral
singing was compulsory for their instrumental classmates. (I have some
special techniques for choral singing which I
don't usually teach to my solo singing students, unless they are also
in a choir.)
The Most Important Learning
In the mid-1980s while still singing in choirs at Uni I
lost my voice. I
mute, speechless. This lead me to have
weeks of speech therapy (with Thea Peterson). Now THAT was a useful experience.
what I learnt there every day.
In retrospect it was easy to see why I lost my voice. It was due to
several factors which had existed for a long time but which had not
previously all occurred simultaneously, plus some new things happening
around the same time which became the 'straw that broke the camel's
back'. This experience really
understand how the voice (singing and speaking) really works, how
it all together, what the danger signs are, and how to avoid
progressing to full-blown dysphonia.
ANATS committee, seminars
In the mid to late 1980s the Australian National
Teachers of Singing was forming, and I became the Secretary/Treasurer
of the WA Chapter (taking over from the wonderful singer, Megan
Sutton). In that year I helped to organise
several events for our members and their students. Over the years I
have attended (and in the early years helped to organise) many ANATS
presentations from speech pathologists, an ENT specialist, language
teachers, and many others.
Private Study & A Fresh One
On my own I have spent countless hours pouring over (as
studying) many important voice textbooks. I have
studied countless videos and diagrams of the larynx. Once, a student
who was a nurse at RPH, a teaching hospital, arranged for us both to
a collection of a dozen diseased larynxes kept in jars. While we were
looking at them the people in charge wheeled in a 'fresh one'. Use
your imagination! Using the surgical gloves they supplied us with we
dug around looking all through the vocal mechanism, trying to find
the actual vocal folds. We couldn't see them, even though the whole
vocal tract had been cut open. It seems you need to have a 'live' one
to see them because they really are folds, like folds of skin,
and they retract and disappear post mortem.
A couple of ideas have been borrowed from the
teacher, Seth Riggs. From his book and CD I learnt about speech level
singing, explained in a clearer way than I had encountered previously
(this has nothing to do with another important concept, 'speech quality
singing'). He also has a very useful technique for smoothing out
the register breaks. It works like a treat, though like any technique
can do it wrong and suffer the consequences. Tip: never
do the lip roll without using your fingers to push the cheek muscles
around your mouth or lips in onto the jaw or teeth, to disable those
muscles. If you do it without the fingers it creates great tension in
the mouth and jaw that
you seriously don't want. And don't do the lip roll if your vocal folds
are not in good health. Of course, I am not a "Seth Riggs teacher."
My Singing Teachers
I didn't start to learn solo singing until I landed
hours-a-week job playing piano for singing lessons in Sydney around
1984. After a week or so listening to Jean Callaghan
tuition to her many pupils, I was so impressed that I asked if I
could learn, too. In 1985 I moved back to Perth and to date I've had
regular lessons with six
wonderful singing teachers.
I haven't pursued a career in singing, though I did
take out a
number of first places in a local singing competition, the Fremantle
Eisteddfod, in 1992. (These days I'm more focused on composing and
playing classical piano, and teaching piano, singing and music theory.)
high school (a very long time ago, back in last
German for my TAE (year 12 exams). And I did a year of French in what
we called "First Year". When I took up learning to sing, in 1984, my
first teacher was absolutely brilliant at German and Italian, so
that's what I learnt for 18 months. After I returned to Perth in 1985
I studied Italian 110 (i.e. for beginners) at the Uni of WA. Along the
way I have had a few formal lessons in Putonghua (Mandarin
Chinese) and Bahasa Indonesia. And, of course, I also teach singing
This means I can teach singing in English, German, Italian
and Latin. I will teach in French and other languages provided the
student is already fluent in that language.