This post is a bit of a departure from my usual music blogging, but since I spent all of last week at an Estill Voice Training Course – and I am now really wiped out from the combination of intense concentration and a very long commute – it seems appropriate to review it, at least briefly, for anyone else who may be interested in attending.
(Edited to add: briefly, eh? I don’t think that word is actually in my repertoire…)
The first thing you need to know about Estill Voice Training is that it packs an *enormous* amount of information and work into a very short space of time. I was very glad to have an extra week off work after the end of it, because I was absolutely exhausted by the weekend – I spent Saturday and Sunday wandering around the place like a zombie, occasionally pausing to inform Andrew that he was using thyroid tilt when talking to the cats, and to inform the cats that they had *excellent* retraction. (Mystery has the low larynx characteristic of an opera singer, whereas Mayhem is more of a belter. Neither of them have any problem with anchoring, or with producing sounds that resonate very well in the 2000 to 4000 Hz range to which the human ear is preferentially attuned)
All of this is a bit nonsensical, of course, since I have no idea whether feline vocal anatomy is similar to that of humans (the bit about the resonance would be right, though, since it’s about human hearing, not feline voice production), but I must admit, I have been finding myself analysing the speaking voices of everyone I encounter, and I can hardly wait to hear what choristers sound like when in non-stop-talking-and-driving-the-conductor-mad mode.
This isn’t quite as much of a digression as it might seem, because Estill Voice training is very much about anatomy. Never in my life have I spent so much time looking at videos of people having laryngoscopies, and I doubt I ever will again. I can now identify at a glance the arytenoids, and I know what the apex of the vocal folds looks like, and the circumstances under which it can be seen. Actually, that’s a lie, because while I do know what the apex looks like, I’m not 100% sure I’ve remembered correctly what it is that pulls back enough to reveal it. Thyroid tilt, perhaps? (Edited to add: Yep, it is thyroid tilt, but it isn’t that the thyroid pulls back, it’s that it stretches the folds. Which I ought to have been able to figure out since I do know what tilt does to the voice)
Actually, this brings me to my one and only complaint about the course – I really think that it contains too much information to fit into five days. Five days certainly doesn’t give enough time to both grasp and digest the concepts discussed, and I would love to see this course presented weekly over a term or a semester, providing time in between for students to get their heads (or rather, throats) around each section before embarking on the next. This is not currently practical, due to the very small number of Estill teachers in Australia (and students, for that matter – a lot of my classmates came from interstate, from country Victoria, or even from overseas to attend, so an ongoing course would hardly be practical for them), but it is a pity. I found things got a bit blurred together for me, and the trade-off between time for answering questions and time for practice in small groups wasn’t always as balanced as it needed to be. Basically, the course just needed an extra day!
For me, too, I found that the amount of time spent on theory versus practice was too great; I frequently didn’t have time to figure out the physical exercises. Having said that, I should note that this is always the case for me when I attend a practical course – I’m faster than average at picking up theory and much slower at picking up physical things, so this is probably a personal issue rather than a fault of the course.
Ah yes, the course. Perhaps I should explain how it works. The Estill Voice Training Course that I attended was divided into two parts. Level 1 was delivered over the first three days and was technically the harder part, I think. Basically, we went over the entire vocal anatomy item by item – lips, tongue, vocal folds, velum, thyroid cartilage, etc – and for each part, we were taught a series of basic exercises, similar to the basic steps in ballet or figures in figure skating, designed to isolate what that particular part of the vocal anatomy did. In each exercise, the idea was to keep everything else in a neutral mode, while just moving the part in question. This is harder than it sounds, and most of us found that if we moved one part of the vocal anatomy, other parts wanted to come along for the ride. Not surprising, since most people, when they speak or sing, do not simply move their tongues while holding their lips and everything else perfectly still.
To me, the most interesting and useful thing about this part of the course was figuring out what things I normally do when I’m singing. Apparently, I sing with quite a low larynx, and am so accustomed to tilting my thyroid when I go into my upper register that it’s very difficult for me to do anything else! This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily (in fact, both these things are generally good practice in classical singing), but if it’s all I know how to do it will ultimately limit the sorts of sounds I can make. It was also interesting seeing which things I’d learned or been taught – tenor J clearly succeeded in teaching me how to make my vocal chords thicker when singing low notes, to get more resonance, and this is now something I do automatically if I’m singing ‘properly’, but I revert to tilting all the time if I’m just singing without effort. I haven’t got the retraction and twang that my current teacher is a big fan of quite so ingrained yet, but they are certainly becoming one of my vocal styles, particularly for higher pieces.
I also learned that I use body anchoring all the bloody time, including when I’m sitting at my desk at work, judging by the way I managed to give myself exactly the same backache I get from sitting at my desk all day by practicing anchoring a bit too intensively for half an hour. There are, I suspect, sound anatomical reasons why I do this, but it’s interesting to know which muscles have been causing me the backache. I may have to find other ways to achieve what I’m doing.
(Incidentally, I mostly figured out my natural style of singing by not being able to figure out whether I was doing the exercises right – generally, if I thought I wasn’t doing anything at all, I had the right configuration and it just happened to be something I did automatically.)
While this is all interesting in a navel-gazing sort of way, it’s also fairly useful in a practical sense. For one thing, knowing what I do naturally allows me to do specific and distinct things to change how my voice sounds in different circumstances (always assuming I can master those bloody exercises). More importantly, though, this sort of knowledge is useful on the simple level of not wrecking my voice when I’m doing dozens of carol services and descants – knowing what I’m doing and ways to change it to put less stress on my voice is a very good thing. And I’ve already noticed that if I concentrate on using good vocal technique, I can get through all my incense-and-descant-laden Christmas services better – my natural singing style is pleasant to listen to, but doesn’t have the stamina. It’s harder work mentally and physically, but more restful for my voice.
The last two days of the course were devoted to Level 2, which was, in my view the fun part. Having now been formally introduced to all our vocal bits and pieces, we were now taught how to combine them in different ways to achieve different sounds – opera, belt, falsetto, and several others. I enjoyed this part of the course a lot, despite finding it still very difficult to get outside my normal habits. The styles we were taught, incidentally, were considered very much as archetypes – very few people sing in those precise styles, nor do they want to, as it would sound rather boring if someone sang an entire piece with exactly the same vocal colour from start to end. For me, the hardest style was belting, since it’s pretty much the opposite of everything I do both naturally and by training. Mind you, it was heaps of fun on the two occasions when I achieved it! There’s something highly entertaining about making that much noise (the cats do not agree).
I found it both interesting and frustrating being taught styles in this fashion, piece by piece – I could, in some cases, get all my anatomy correctly configured by listening and imitating (not surprising, as most of my learning in singing has occurred this way), but if I went deliberately putting all the steps together, especially for something as counter-intuitive as belting, by the time I’d found all my vocal bits and pieces everyone else would be four bars on… Something to work on – and of course the advantage of knowing the step-by-step method is that while it may be slow now, I can at least put it together again at home.
The final afternoon of the course was devoted to a Masterclass for which students could bring in something to be workshopped. I’ve just started learning The Girl from 14G, and it’s totally counter to everything I normally do, and also has all these gear changes from opera to broadway to jazz to belt and from very high to very low, so it seemed like just the thing to bring to this class. I got some useful feedback, but it’s obviously a piece that will need a lot of work (which is rather the point of the exercise – I know, pretty much, what to do with Purcell or Handel or Rossini or Mozart. Music theatre and pretty much anything written after 1900 in any genre at all other than folk, not so much).
Then I got to listen to my other classmates, which was fun. One of the other students is a speech pathologist who started out as an actor, and she brought in one of Helena’s speeches from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which she dialled up to full melodrama to showcase all the different vocal styles we had learned. Aside from being brilliant fun to listen to, it was absolutely fascinating to hear these styles applied to the spoken word. We also got to hear a budding opera singer, who has this huge, dramatic mezzo-soprano voice that one would never suspect from her speaking voice. I’ll be interested to hear what she does in future.
All in all, I found this to be a really useful course to take, even though large parts of the practical side are still beyond my grasp. I probably won’t emulate some of my fellow students who have taken the course multiple times in order to master the trickier bits, but I will certainly be re-reading my workbooks, using my flashcards, and playing with the little cardboard larynx we all put together during Friday lunchtime under the amused supervision of one of the instructors (arts and crafts time at the kindergarten!). I have to admit, I haven’t been doing the warm-ups yet, but then, I’m still on holiday, and I’m not doing much of anything regular yet. I suspect that once I’m back in work mode, I’ll be more likely to make them part of my routine.
I would definitely recommend this course to anyone who wants to get a more conscious awareness of what they are doing with their voice. It’s very scientifically-oriented, which I think will make some people happier than others, but if that’s the way you like to learn, it will definitely suit you. It isn’t a cheap course, but the information provided is really useful, and in terms of content, we certainly got our money’s worth. This is a course that will help me use my voice safely in the future, and that’s pretty much priceless.
(And if you like a good laryngoscopy film, this is the course for you – it’s practically a film festival!)