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Introduction to Speech Level Singing

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Hello All:

I thought that since I have not seen much on TMV regarding SLS or Speech Level Singing, which is the technique pioneered and taught by the master vocal teacher and one of my greatest teachers ever, Seth Riggs, I would post an introduction to the principles of SLS for everyone to read and learn from.

Introduction to Speech Level Singing

Overview

Speech Level Singing is not new. It is a technique devised and originated by Seth Riggs of Los Angeles, California that has produced over 100 Grammy winners and many Metropolitan Opera winners. Seth Riggs is the most renowned voice teacher and vocal technician in the industry of performing arts and teaches around the world.

Some names of famous singers who use this technique are Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Bryan Adams, Michael Bolton, Janet Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, Ricky Martin, Julie Andrews, Connie Stevens, Bernedette Peters, Natalie Cole and many, many others who are in the singing industry today. Some of the groups who have worked with SLS are Kiss, The Eurythmics, Chicago, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aerosmith, etc.

Speech Level Singing is a technique that allows a person to sing with a "free voice." The only muscles that are engaged when singing with this technique are the muscles attached to the vocal cords, inside the voice box (larynx), i.e., the muscles of speech, as well as keeping the larynx at the level of speech production, hence the term "Speech Level Singing." It allows you to sing freely and clearly anywhere in your range with all your words clearly understood. Since you are not learning what to sing but rather HOW to sing, you can apply this technique to ANY type of music.

Simply put, Speech Level Singing states that if the larynx stays down and the vocal cords stay together from the very bottom of the vocal range to the very top everything is fine. This also applies to all vowel and consonant combinations through out any phrase. If at any point the larynx jumps up or down or the tone becomes breathy then there is something wrong with the vocal process.

The larynx is the big bump in the middle of the neck just below the chin. This houses the vocal cords and controls the process of swallowing. When the larynx moves up, the muscles around the cords act as a sphincter and closes so as to prevent swallowing down the windpipe and into the lungs. This is a very important process when you need to swallow, but it is a very poor process when you are trying to sing. If you place your hand on your larynx and yawn, you will find that you can bring your larynx down as well. This is a good way to learn what it feels like to have the larynx stay down. The end goal here is to be able to keep the larynx from moving too far down as well as too far up. It should stay in a fairly stable and speech level position as you ascend and descend.

This is a very brief and condensed version of SLS, there is obviously a lot more to it. But, to give you an idea of what is correct, take these two ideas and while you are singing, monitor them. See if you can keep your larynx stable and your cords together. You will probably find that there is a certain area of your voice that is easy for you to accomplish this, and certain points of your voice that are more difficult. These harder areas are called bridges.

Breathing

Breathing for singing is a very relaxed process. When it is said that you can regulate it, what is meant is that you allow it to happen so that inhalation and exhalation are done in a way that best suits your musical needs. You do not have to work at breathing correctly unless you have poor posture or a tendency to raise your chest and shoulders and take shallow breaths. Your diaphragm, rib muscles and abdominal muscles are already strong enough for your needs as a singer.

If you maintain good posture when you sing, and are careful not to let your chest collapse as you exhale, your diaphragm is able to move freely and be regulated by your abdominal muscles automatically. There is no need to consciously exert tension in those muscles. If you do try to directly control your breathing muscles when you sing, the extra tension in your body will only cause your vocal cords to overtense and jam up.

Very little air is required to produce a good tone. Even for a loud tone, the amount of air you use need only be enough to support the vibration of your vocal cords no more, no less  so that your tone is produced without any effort or strain. Just as trying to control your breathing muscles directly will cause your vocal cords to jam up, so will using too much air. That's because when you sing, your cords are instinctively committed to holding back (or at least trying to hold back) any amount of air you send their way. And the more air you send them, the tighter your cords have to get to hold it back. Also, this is when the outer muscles around your larynx will assist the cords by pulling on and tightening around your larynx in order to hold back the excess of air blasted at your cords.

You know you have proper breath support when there is a balance between air and muscle. There will be a mutual and simultaneous coordination of the proper amount of air with the proper adjustment of your vocal cords.

Bridges

A bridge is a spot where resonation shifts from one area of your body to another (for example, from your chest to your head). Another term for a bridge is the Italian word for passage, passagie (passagio when plural). When you hear the word passagie, you are hearing a reference to a bridge.

Knowing where your bridges are can really help you smooth out the resonation from one area of your body to the next. Bridges take place in different spots for men and women, but they are fairly universal within a gender.

We will deal with four areas of resonation: the first is chest voice, the second is mix voice, the third is head voice, and the final is super head voice. All combine to create ONE FULL VOICE.

Men's Bridges

Men, with the exception of basses or dramatic baritones, start their first bridge at E-flat above a keyboard's middle C. This is the first note in the mixing or blending area of the voice (a blend of chest voice and head voice), and each chromatic move up will transition the voice toward a headier position and sound. The male vocalist will not feel completely in his head voice until an A or B-flat. This is where the second bridge is. This second bridge goes from A or B-flat above a keyboard's middle C to D above the keyboard's high C.

Women's Bridges

Women's bridges are similar to men's: they exist within approximately an augmented 4th interval. But they begin where a man's second bridge is. So, generally speaking, a woman's first bridge is on a A or B flat above the keyboard middle C. Below this is a woman's chest voice, and above this, up to a D, is mix voice. Once a female vocalist hits an E-flat (or sometimes an E), she is in head voice. Strictly on a technical level, a woman shouldn't sing completely in head voice until an E-flat. This area of resonation will continue up to an A or B-flat below a keyboard's double-high C. This third bridge puts the female singer in a super head voice, and she will stay in that until she reaches an E-flat above a keyboard's double-high C. When singing most songs, women don't need to go much past this fourth bridge, but there are a few more bridges beyond this fourth bridge. Once again, they are at intervals of an augmented fourth above the E-flat above a keyboard's double high C: the fifth bridge is on A, and the sixth is on the E-flat above that. These last two areas of resonation are known as the whistle range, and as I stated, most women don't use these areas, but they do exist and can be developed.

Crossing Bridges

You may have heard about vocal-cord adduction and the need to develop good cord closure. It is essential that the vocal cords stay together as a singer crosses the bridges. Your first bridge is the most critical. It's where the outer muscles (if they haven't done so already) are most likely to enter into the adjustment process. When they do, they pull on and tighten around the outside of the larynx in an effort to stretch the vocal cords to get the necessary tension for the pitch or volume level you require. Stretching your cords in this manner causes your entire singing mechanism tone and words to jam up! Fortunately, there is an easier and much better way to stretch your vocal cords to achieve the necessary tensions without disrupting your tone-making process or your word-making process.

The key is to do less in order to do more. To be specific, the higher you sing, the less air you should use. When you reduce the amount of air you send to your vocal cords, you make it possible for the muscles inside your larynx to stretch your vocal cords by themselves. Your outer muscles are less likely to interfere because there isn't as much air to hold back. Your outer muscles will interfere in the vibration process whenever you use more air than your vocal cords and the other muscles inside your larynx are able to handle.

As the pitch ascends, sound traveling from the vocal cords shifts paths. Chest voice travels to the hard palate and out of the mouth. As the pitch rises and goes over the first bridge, the sound begins to split, going behind the soft palate as well as to the hard palate. This is a balancing act of sorts. If too much sound is traveling in front of the soft palate and out of the mouth, the result will be a wide vowel and what is called pulled chest. A residual result will be a high larynx.

The right balance depends on which note within the mix is being sung. By the time you're completely in head voice, much of the sound will be traveling behind the soft palate before exiting the skull.

Each time a singer reaches a bridge, more sound must pass behind the soft palate and more resonation within the skull should take place.

Singers resist letting sound pass behind the soft palate for a couple of reasons: The first is that they hear the tone bouncing within the skull and feel that it sounds too ringy. They don't realize that the sound they're hearing is not what the audience is hearing. They're picking up this sound through the skull, not from within the room they're singing in. One way to deal with this is to record yourself passing into mix and head voice; then play back what you've recorded. You will hear the difference between how you really sounded and the sound you heard resonating in your head.

The second reason for resistance is that many singers get used to feeling that they have to muscle notes. As you learn to master the bridges, you'll feel very little pressure. There is compression from the diaphragm and resistance from the cords being held together, but there will not be any tightness in the neck or under the chin. This lack of pressure can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for many singers and even feel a bit precarious, especially if the strength in the mix is not quite there. Once again, recording an arpeggio that ascends into the head voice and playing it back can shed some light on the relationship between what a certain note sounds like and what it should feel like as you sing it.

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