Leading Vocal Coach Anne-Marie Speed reveals essential principles of voice support, hydration, posture and more…
Anne-Marie Speed is a world-class vocal coach who teaches singers and actors & works as a vocal consultant for Sony Records, Universal and others.
In 2011, she was asked to be the vocal coach on Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor and also worked on BGT in 2012.
She is also one of the world’s most experienced Estill teachers and one of the lucky few to have worked with Jo Estill herself. This detailed research on the voice has changed the landscape of voice training for singers of all genres.
In this exclusive interview for VoiceCouncil she explains her teaching philosophies and sets the record straight on technique myths.
For the regular pop/rock singer, who may do a couple of small gigs of a weekend, what core factors do you recommend they master and embody?
Understand that abdominal pumping is not support and too much air pressure is actually harmful to efficient voice production. Understand the importance of being able to produce clear tone, that is, voice without any breathiness in it as an indicator of both vocal health and efficiency of voice production. It is useful practice to make sounds that are completely clear after performances that are breathy. Breathiness is perfectly alright, just not all the time and not if that is all you can do.
What is the one piece of advice you find yourself giving to singers time and again?
Hydrate! Most singers do not drink enough water or in time for it to benefit the voice. It can take up to four hours for water that you drink to reach the larynx so a quick swig before a gig is too little too late. Singers should be sipping up to two liters of water throughout the day. Steaming is also excellent practice but without adding anything to it and you should leave about 20 minutes between steaming and performing.
And stay away from ALL celebrity endorsed throat sweets. They are really terrible for the voice. They are often highly mentholated which is very harsh to the soft tissue that lines the throat. They can also irritate the larynx. If you must have something, have a fruit pastille. Or a sip of water. (Sorry, that’s TWO pieces of advice …)
From your observations, what are the most commonly practiced bad habits or techniques in singers?
Far too high air pressure and poor head and neck posture. The two of these together create a double whammy of unhelpful behavior for the larynx which then has to try to function with air blowing the true vocal folds apart while being pulled out of alignment and with asymmetry usually thrown in for good measure. It is rare that I don’t have to address either or both in any lesson.
I know you work a lot on text and diction. Do you think this is an overlooked aspect of voice training?
Unquestionably. For me, diction is so much more than simply clarity of speech, as important as this is. I also think of lot of teachers are uncertain how to teach it now. So much interpretation comes from the text or lyric. A singer has to understand how to make the lyric work for them, how it informs character choices and assists in the expression of the emotion and drama of the song. Good Diction properly understood, practiced and applied is inseparable from ‘good’ singing as far as the audience is concerned. Voice and lyric come together to create a seamless whole.
There are some unusual vocal styles in the pop charts these days. What would you say to a student who was determined to sound like their favorite pop star?
Imitation is the way we learn but every singer needs help finding their own sound. If you don’t then you will always be a pale imitation of the original and why have that when the real thing is so accessible? Commercial music is about individuality and novelty to a certain extent. Everyone is always on the lookout for the next new thing. So developing your own sound and style is essential if you want to work in that field. This applies to all singing of course but it is particularly true in commercial music. It can really work for you and is the only way forward if you want to be a recording artist.
Who are your favorite singers? Can you name one male and female singer and explain what it is about each one’s vocal work that you find meaningful?
There are certain singers I always come back to, depending on my mood but I love Frank Sinatra, the Swing era, especially his collaboration with Nelson Riddle. Two geniuses coming together in a glorious moment of serendipity. Sinatra makes it sound so easy but it is tremendously skilled. He traveled with his lyrics written on small cards so he could work on them easily. Shirley Bassey is another favorite. What’s not to love???
Rock music is infamous for excessive lifestyles and burnt out voices. Do you think contemporary genres could learn from classical or theatre performers who may be more aware of their health and technique?
Well once again I think that many more singers are eschewing the supposedly typical rock star life because they know it isn’t sustainable. My clients are all pretty clean living and highly disciplined because they want to perform well and to have longevity. They know that they have to look after themselves because the scheduling is often absolutely crazy with travel, promo and performances. But this isn’t good copy for the newspapers of course.
Studying the Estill Voice Model is quite an intense and eye opening journey! Can you describe your journey? What was it like to learn directly from Jo Estill?
It was and continues to be an extraordinary journey, one I feel enormously privileged to be on. Jo was my mentor, teacher and friend. She taught me as much about teaching as she did about voice. I truly believe that she was a genius. She would have pooh-poohed that but to be able to identify the key elements of voice production so clearly and then develop exercises to help everyone understand and use their voice better with such simplicity is unique. She became one of the greatest voice researchers of the twentieth century while also being a singer of great beauty and artistry.
Were there any Estill philosophies you initially disbelieved or found hard to grasp?
I remember on my first course being completely overwhelmed as I didn’t come from a scientific background; I was an actor who sang a bit who had just completed my training as a voice teacher at the Central School of Speech and Drama. And although there was so much I didn’t understand let alone could attempt to perform, I connected with her as a person and with what she was talking about. It just made sense to me. At the time, the work was only presented within the context of teaching singing but I knew that it could apply to the training of the actor’s voice so I set out trying to find out how. Subsequently, I have worked in applying it to both the actor and singer across a range of genres and performance media, and it has never let me down.
Do you think there is resistance to modern voice research amongst singers?
Actually I think that many more teachers are curious about voice research and are willing and eager to use what they can in their own practise but so much of it still seems irrelevant in the voice studio or teaching room. Most research is academic without guidance as to how to use it or why it even matters. There are exceptions but it is still difficult for a teacher without a scientific background to know to apply the research or how to pick out what is important.
I keep hearing that you’re working on a book, how will it be different from other vocal books?
Yes I am working on a book – this is my project for the rest of the year! I hope it will be a synthesis of the most important elements of the work I do in all of my teaching, both in the studio and working with artists in the recording studio, theater and film. It will be my approach which takes in not just the anatomy & physiology, particularly as described in the Estill Model, but also approaches to learning and practice, diction of course, while also addressing certain key psychological aspects in learning and performing. My objective at the outset was to write the book that I wanted when I was training as a voice teacher, that gave me concrete answers to questions that seemed impossible to find; why is posture so important, what is resonance and how do we practice it, how do I know what my true range is, what is support and if people are breathing already, why do we need to teach it? Something along those lines.
Anne-Marie has been working as a voice teacher to actors and singing teacher for 20 years. Her varied and extensive practice includes working with classical actors, international film stars, artists in national theater companies, leads in West End musicals, actors in film and television and platinum selling pop artists.
You can learn about courses and workshops run by Anne-Marie by visiting www.thevoiceexplained.com