Anne-Marie Speed on belting, Britain’s Got Talent and the Estill Model

Anne-Marie Speed is a leading vocal coach who has worked with top selling pop singers, West End musical stars and classical performers. She is also one of the world’s most experienced teachers of the Estill Model of singing training. She spoke to iSing’s LINE HILTON.

What is the Estill Model of voice training?

It’s a way of understanding and gaining control of the voice to make voice production predictable, reliable, sustainable and safe. This means there’s no more standing in the wings with your fingers crossed saying “here’s hoping”. The model is based on craft, artistry and metaphysics. The first one is craft. Let’s train the muscles, build techniques and build technical control. Then let’s look at artistry. How does the technical control serve artistry? How do we use the information? We have to engage with it creatively, imaginatively and artistically. Then the third element is what Jo Estill [the method’s founder] would call the metaphysics of performance. How do we get into the zone? How do we control nerves? In the sporting world this is already a huge business and now it is starting to happen in the singing world. How late are we to the party on this?

A lot of people are attracted to the Estill Model because you teach belting. Can you tell us more about the belt technique?

That’s the thing that made Jo Estill’s name in the 1980s in New York, because at that stage she was the only person who had researched it. Jo was a genius. To be able to identify the key elements of voice production and to present this information in an understandable form that delivers precise control is and was unique.

There are, of course, many ways to make loud sounds in musical theatre and contemporary music of which belting is one. But it is extreme, so we need to understand how to do it safely to ensure it is sustainable for the singer. With belting we look for this very bright sound. We want to make sure that the larynx is high, that we have thick vocal folds. We talk about tilting of the cricoid, which does tilt, and this sets up a yell posture. This is our starting point. From there, we take this into singing.

What attracted you to this work and the Estill Model?
Vocal and accent coach Anne-Marie Speed

I first encountered it when I was training as a student voice teacher at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I had issues with my own voice and couldn’t belt. I had seen teacher after teacher, but no one could teach me how to belt. In the end I was told “you have to be born to do it”. Then I met Jo at a workshop and what she was saying just made sense to me. That was in the early 1990s and I did the first course in 1992. That’s where I met Janice Chapman and Mary Hammond and all the big luminaries of the voice world. We’ve all known each other for a very long time now. To clarify, the Estill model is not the only thing I teach but it forms the core of my understanding and is the filter through which I put all other technical vocal information.

What are the controversies that surround this methodology?

As with many things, these come from a misunderstanding. I think sometimes people say that the Estill Model doesn’t deal with breathing. I think at the very beginning, Jo would say “I don’t know much about breathing”. This wasn’t true. What she was saying was that there wasn’t much research on breathing. She knew about breathing, but her point was that until we look at breathing in relation to voice, we can’t talk about breathing in relation to voice.

What we say in the Estill Model is that the breath has to be free to vary according to how the vocal folds are closing, or indeed opening – that’s pretty hard to argue with. Some people say it’s too technical, but I think it all depends on the teacher. You can’t blame the work for poorly-understood teaching. But equally for the teacher, it’s a tool. I use the language of the person coming into the room and what they need. I don’t insist that we use Estill language. The point is it informs my understanding and gives me very precise, accurate tools to help people with their voices, speaking or singing, and however they’re using them.

Can you tell us more about Estill teacher training courses? What are the various levels and how is this delivered?

It’s quite rigorous. One of the things you have to be able to do is model. You must be able to demonstrate what you’re asking people to do. The first stage is to pass a voice print exam, which is using a spectrogram to demonstrate conscious, voluntary control. You also have to pass a written exam to show you understand basic anatomy, acoustics, physiology and something about the history of the model.

Then you have to pass a more difficult voice print exam. Once you’ve done that, you’re observed teaching. Part of the process is to help people not just understand the model, but how to teach it. You don’t become an Estill master trainer until you have passed those exams, and then been observed teaching it in a variety of contexts.

Can a singer do some of the courses without necessarily going down the avenue of teaching?

Absolutely. Not the Estill master training courses – you commit a lot of time to do that – but any of the other courses are there for anyone who uses the voice, whether you’re an actor, a singer, amateur, professional or beginner. We also have a course on muscle tension dysphonia. The Estill Model is used by many clinicians in clinical practice, to help resolve issues of muscle tension dysphonia. I’m doing this with Ed Blake, who’s going to talk about some of the manual therapy that he does. Then we’re going to go through some of the exercises that we use to help ease that, and then get people back to normal voices.

What are the common issues that you’re seeing in singers today?

By the time they get to me, usually it’s issues of fatigue or imbalance. They’re working too hard or they’re tired or they’re having difficulties recovering from illness or suffering a loss of range. Perhaps they’ve been in one show using the voice in one way and they want to use the voice in another way. It’s about rebalancing breath, posture, muscularity, getting good contact and providing reassurance. If I’m concerned, I’ll refer them to an ENT. I also refer a lot of people to Ed Blake at Physio Ed for manual therapy. He’s changed things almost single-handedly. I’ve worked with Ed for almost 20 years now. I am so grateful for this professional association and how much we’ve informed each other.

Have you noticed any changes in recent years in the industry and the demands on singers?

The biggest difference is workload: the travel, and the demand for appearances and online content. A huge part of it is down to social media. When I did Britain’s Got Talent the first time in 2011 social media was just starting. The demand to feed those platforms means that the performers have very little time off. Some of the people that I’ve worked with are just exhausted. This is when having very strict routines, knowing how to warm up properly, how to cool down properly, hydration – what we would describe as vocal hygiene – is crucial. With more established artists, it’s a bit easier, because they can say no if they don’t want to do certain things.

On the subject of Britain’s Got Talent, what is your opinion of television singing competitions?

They can work very nicely for some people, but you need to know what you’re letting yourself in for. A show like Britain’s Got Talent can provide someone with the platform that they might not ordinarily have had. It can be totally life-changing. What people don’t see is that a lot of those people enjoy a boost to their career that continues for years.

What are your tips for singers who want to build a career?

Find a teacher who knows what they’re talking about, that you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. I think for singers the key thing is their teacher. Singers, especially classical singers, make a huge commitment to learning. It’s a huge investment in time and money, but also faith and trust.

It’s also important singers learn as much about their voice as possible and to take advice when it’s given. Understand the basics: technique, hydration, how to warm up and how to cool down. And learn to recognise the warning signs when you’ve been working too hard.

Website: voiceexplained.com