The Singer’s Library : Exploring the Estill Voice Model

The Singer’s Library : Exploring the Estill Voice Model

In the world of vocal pedagogy, Jo Estill is a prominent name. Frequently quoted in voice journals, at academic conferences, and among shop-talking colleagues, Estill was an early pioneer in bringing voice science to the voice studio—work she continued in her retirement until her death in 2010. Collaborating with researchers in medicine, voice, and speech science, she began with one primary question about singing: How am I doing this? The groundwork for answering that question is laid out in a new book, The Estill Voice Model: Theory & Translation.

Co-authors Kimberly Steinhauer and Mary McDonald Klimek are founding partners of Estill Voice International, for which they serve as president and vice-president, respectively. In these roles, they have traveled across the world teaching the Estill Voice Model, promoting its benefits to professional and avocational singers, and certifying voice teachers in Estill Voice Training.

While they say the new book will not teach readers to sing, per se, it does provide a guide to how the voice works, explaining “how the moving parts of the voice fit together and interact with one another.” As such, it serves as a detailed and comprehensive guide to supplement vocal study at any level.

In the conversation below, Steinhauer and Klimek elaborate on what they believe makes Estill Voice Training unique, how it applies to singing in multiple genres of music, and how they work to build upon the foundational work of Estill.

Early in the book you make it clear that The Estill Voice Model: Theory & Translation is not specifically an exploration of Estill Voice Training—or any specific pedagogical method—in part by saying, “This is a book about how the voice works, not a book about how to work the voice.” Could the information in the book be considered a precursor for Estill Voice Training? Is it necessary to know the information in order to begin EVT?

Mary McDonald Klimek: This book is not a prerequisite for courses in Estill Voice Training. All we ask of Estill Voice Training students is curiosity and an open mind.

Is this text used extensively as part of Estill Voice Training?

MMK: Estill Voice Training has been shifting the paradigm of vocal pedagogy and vocal rehabilitation since the early 1980s, long before the publication of this book. That said, many of the graphics in its early chapters were projected from transparencies while Estill was teaching. The Estill Voice Model and Estill Voice Training evolved concurrently as Estill conducted her research and beta tested her learning theories. Her courses were filled with science and with art.

Those who present our courses today have mastered the contents of this text—but from original source material, not this book. In some respects, the Estill Voice Model and Estill Voice Training are two sides of the same coin: Estill Voice Training is basically experiential; the Estill Voice Model is more conceptual. Our curriculum in Estill Voice Training offers avenues for all learning styles.

As described in the introductory pages, the book is intended for a wide audience, including actors, singing voice teachers, those who work with injured voices, those who coach public speakers, classical singers who want to learn to belt, and anyone looking to reach their full vocal potential, among others. What degree of understanding or mastery of the concepts covered in the book is necessary in order to benefit from the information?

Kimberly Steinhauer: In the motor acquisition and learning of any complex task—be it golf or singing, a clinician, a teacher, or a performer—can focus on the quick-fix or long-term solution. The depth of understanding depends upon the need of the individual. Both injured and healthy singers can benefit immediately from an implicit instruction to “laugh” or “cry” while singing the entire first phrase. The tone will sound clearer and stronger, but the expert singer desires both accuracy of the quick-fix and stability of the long-term solution. Estill Voice provides both the implicit prompts for a quick fix and the explicit instructions underlying the anatomy and physiology behind the long-term success of the “laugh” and “cry.” Most high-performing singers, dancers, and other athletes demand motor mastery and cognitive understanding of their special expertise to experience health and longevity throughout a career.

How did you go about creating a text that is equally applicable to, as indicated in the book, a singing voice teacher and someone who wants help learning to carry a tune? Were you concerned that the information would either be too broad or too specific to help all audiences?

MMK: The answer to your first question is “with great trepidation.” One of the issues that held Estill back from writing this book years ago was indecision about readership. Should she write the book for a fellow voice scientist, a fellow voice teacher, or the person she met in the deli who was afraid to sing? We have sections in each chapter that are directed to different demographics and we encourage readers to follow their own interests as they move through the book.

Linger with the introductory exercises and then jump to the closing section discussing applications. Take a pass on the acoustic discussions, but acknowledge that the ear and brain are reacting to different aspects of that acoustic signal. Go straight to the reference lists and track down the articles and book chapters to dig even deeper into the anatomy and physiology. Estill always scanned the references before she read the books and articles in her library.

It seems that a natural next step after reading the book would be to pursue Estill Voice Training. Can you tell us a bit about what that entails? How is it different from other voice training?

KS: To revisit the book quote in your initial question, if the Estill Voice Model describes “how the voice works,” then Estill Voice Training prescribes “how to work the voice.” EVT combines principles from vocal and athletic sciences to empower speakers and singers to gain conscious mastery of voice for any musical style. Students of EVT visit the “gym” daily to extend vocal range, strength, flexibility, and endurance via targeted exercises for 13 anatomic structures. Each of these 13 structures moves to produce changes in voice quality that can be heard, felt, and seen.

EVT is different from other voice training because it focuses on the craft of hearing, feeling, and seeing these voice Figures throughout the range without attending to music or accompaniment by a piano. A singer’s choice of Figure option will determine the final “mix” of voice quality [as addressed in the next question]. After the voice craft is mastered through focused and deliberate practice of the Figures, a performer possesses the vocal freedom to make artistic choices and comfortably meet the vocal demands in repertoire, from opera to pop.

Some methodologies seem to be known as much for what they do not advocate as for what they promote. Can you give some examples of something that may be commonly practiced by voice teachers and/or singers that is not considered part of Estill Voice Training?

MMK: We do not use vocal registers in Estill Voice Training, although we do attempt to translate what others call registers into Estill Voice Training terms. Estill replaces the concept of register with voice quality. Each quality has its own recipe of physiological components, making everything we do with our voices a different mixture, a different “mix.” In our text we offer theories relating to physiological behaviors that are stable—or unstable—in different pitch ranges.

We also address the history of aesthetic preferences in both pedagogy and research that have validated one “mix” over another in different pitch ranges. The voice is a very complex instrument and we celebrate its versatility and expressive range. One can sing in any “mix” at any pitch in one’s range, so long as “most comfortable vocal effort” is maintained. The results may not be aesthetically appropriate for a given dramatic or musical intent—but so long as the voice remains healthy, we remain willing to explore the possibilities.

In EVT, how do you strike the balance between following the specified protocol while still allowing for the flexibility and creativity of individualized teaching?

KS: You summarized the vocal education paradigm shift of Estill Voice Training perfectly. Once you practice vocal skill with the rigor of the basic EVT Figures, then you begin to creatively employ the principles in artistic contexts to solve specific vocal challenges. As a teacher of EVT, I am never bored because I am constantly individualizing the instruction for each student to meet their artistic needs. In fact, EVT empowers not only the teacher but also the student to create their own vocal warm-ups that integrate Figure principles into their specific song. The options are limitless, creativity abounds, and permanent and beneficial modification of vocal behavior is achieved because of the deliberate and personalized intent of each exercise and instruction during the lesson.

Is the main focus of EVT on CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music) and belt techniques or is it applicable to other styles of singing as well?

MMK: There is a generation of voice teachers (my generation, lest we think I am being ageist) who characterized Estill as the “Lady Who Belts.” They forget her decades of performing art songs, operatic arias, and selections from the [Great] American Songbook. She had a twinkle in her eye when she belted like Ethel Merman, but she put tears into mine as she sang German Lieder. Given her Italian heritage, her mix for opera is known for its squillo. One can use Estill Voice Model principles to analyze and re-create any voice quality for any style of singing and, I must say, as a speech-language pathologist, any style of speaking—including specific “mixes” that restore vocal health, avoid future injuries, and compensate for permanent losses of function.

Do Estill-based singers and voice teachers continue to engage in research and scientific studies to further Estill’s work? If so, how does the Estill Voice Training program incorporate new information as it comes available?

KS: The Estill Voice Model of 2017 has evolved from Estill’s original work as evidenced by our bibliography for the new book. We are constantly aware of current voice research and strive to incorporate the results of elegantly executed and scientifically rigorous studies into the model and into exercises in Estill Voice Training.

In the book, Estill’s approach is summed up by saying, “Her plan was to teach the world to sing through simple exercises built on physiology, acoustics, and perception.” For singers, is it enough to use the simple exercises to build their voices or do they also need to understand the physiology, acoustics, and perception behind the exercises?

KS: As addressed in a previous question, some singers may find that the “simple exercises” are all they need to learn and maintain their desired level of vocal skill. The level of understanding varies with the individual. However, experts such as the Olympic skater, prima ballerina, or Broadway actor benefit greatly from training with a highly educated team of advisors and coaches and soon begin to desire their same depth of knowledge in order to maintain a superior level of skill throughout a long career.

The Estill Voice Model and Training provide a continuum of both implicit and explicit knowledge and practice that can benefit clinicians, teachers, and performers of all ages and skill levels.

Search the Classical Singer archives for two previous articles about Estill Voice Training written by Lisa Golda in the July and August 2010 issues.

Book Review
The opening chapters of The Estill Voice Model: Theory & Translation provide an introduction to the Estill Voice Training method and a history of its origins and evolution. The majority of the text, however, focuses on the 13 anatomic structures of the Estill Voice Model. These structures (thyroid cartilage, larynx, tongue, jaw, etc.) are examined in individual chapters, each of which begins with an exploratory exercise to provide readers with a sensation or sound that corresponds to each structure. Chapters continue with “Overview & Orientation” sections to highlight the physical locations of the structures and their functions within the body, a translation for how structures are referred to in the Estill Voice Model, and sections on the anatomy, physiology, and acoustics related to the structures. Each chapter concludes with a “Theory to Practice” section where the functions of the structures are applied to everyday situations of “Vocal Living” contrasted with their functions within the demands of “Vocal Performance.”

Thoroughly referenced (as modern vocal pedagogy texts must be), each chapter lists the academic journals and presentations from which the preceding information was gathered. In fact, many of the published works cited include Jo Estill as either lead author or co-author, reinforcing that the book is a culmination of her life’s work.

Though the book is not intended as an exploration of Estill Voice Training in practice, its foundational principles are presented, allowing readers to receive glimpses of what further EVT may entail.

While Estill attempted several times to turn her method into a book (eventually completing an unpublished draft titled, Who Said You Couldn’t Sing?), co-authors Kimberly Steinhauer and Mary McDonald Klimek deserve immense credit for finishing the task. Even at age 82, Estill wrote that she would have preferred to wait and study more before writing the book, knowing that learning, research, and discovery are ongoing processes that constantly reveal new information. Ultimately, she hoped the book would stimulate research into new areas and inspire teachers to learn as much as they can about the voice.

Steinhauer and Klimek admirably incorporate Estill’s previously unpublished words alongside their own explanations of each element of the Estill Voice Model. The result is a text that is comprehensive in its depictions and descriptions of specific vocal function in a way that furthers the legacy of, and serves as loving tribute to, their beloved teacher and mentor.
Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /