In the first part of my interview with Seth Riggs, which you can read here →, we discussed many of the techniques and he uses as part of his Speech Level Singing program. In this second part we talk about some of the students he has worked with and his career over the years.
RB: You worked with a lot of famous Pop Singers, Actors, and stars. What kind of challenge does that present?
SR: Usually and artistic person has been around some music as opposed to the usual person, so there may be more of a natural inclination towards singing. When McCauley Calkin was in Home Alone, the vocal coach on the film could not get him to sing on pitch. They called me, and after doing lp trills and tongue trills, it made him less intimidated by singing. Those exercises made him comfortable making singing tones and pitch so he could match pitch when he had to sing in a choir in the film.
RB: Is there more pressure working with stars because of unrealistic expectations?
SR: Not at all. Stars are the easiest to work with because they are so appreciative. They know they can act, but they don’t think they can sing. They’re very upset about it and want it dubbed. Kim Basinger came to me and said, “I can’t sing, I have a hole in the middle of my voice.” But in the Marrying Man, particularly the song “Why Can’t You Behave” from Kiss Me Kate, she never misses. She fixed those holes through our connecting exercises.
RB: Do their egos come into play?
SR: No. When I worked with Whoopi Goldberg and Val Kilmer, they were so appreciative that they could make a singing sound. All the live singing in The Doors was Val (the voice over was Jim Morrison), and he was so happy that he was able to learn to do it, as was Whoopi Goldberg in the film Sister Act.
RB: What about working with a person like Stevie Wonder?
SR: Well, Stevie came to me when he was around nineteen. He’s now around fifty years old and we’ve been together all this time. What he had to do was learn to sing differently because he had nodules from pulling chest too hard. He started off talking an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. After ten days his voice was pretty well together, and he’s never lost his voice since then. As time went on, we kept developing his pharyngeal sound up to E above tenor high C. Stevie’s really been a student of the voice, and he understands what he’s doing. The only problem he has is that he occasionally sings nasally, which I have to get him away from.
RB: A lot of your female students have a thick, chesty sound rather high in their voice. Is that a belt?
SR: So many times, women are asked to bring their chest voice up way high to belt. When this is done, the larynx rises and everything goes out of whack. Everything becomes unbalanced and the whole thing comes apart. What we want for that sound is a heavier coordination of the cords without the larynx rising. It’s not necessarily louder but it’s deeper in its connection and timbre than pure head. It’s a blend of chest and head and never gives way to falsetto.
RB: What do you mean by falsetto?
SR: There’s no compression in falsetto and a discernible flip out of chest when this happens. In addition, the dampening process is eliminated.
RB: I’m not aware of any objective evidence supporting this dampening process you discuss except very high in the voice, and then it’s discussed as a form of falsetto. Where do you get this?
SR: It’s derived from Caesari’s Voice of the Mind. It’s based on the expert analysis of sensation. I’m not a big advocate of voice science in the teaching of singing, but if someone is aware of laryngeal sensation when he sings (as he should be), it feels as if this is going on. I believe in the explanation, and it has worked very well for my students and me.
RB: You were kicked out of NATS. Why?
SR: There’s a rule in NATS that if a student has left a teacher and comes to you within six months to a year, you are supposed to call that teacher and inform him or her that the student has come to you and see if there is an outstanding balance with the previous teacher. Of course, very few teachers follow this guideline of calling the previous instructor and, in a situation where the student had not been with the previous teacher for eighteen months. I had no cause to do so. It was truly a politically motivated situation. I was at odds with other voice teachers over pedagogy. I was still a relatively young teacher and would be very vocal concerning what I thought about what I saw as shortcomings in what was being taught. I did my best to be respectful by waiting at [NATS] meetings until the more senior members voiced their opinions, and then I would voice mine. I would imitate what their students were doing and then prescribe, in an extremely concise manner, very accurate fixes for the problems by using a different coordination. I showed them up in a sense. The president cam up to me after a meeting and said; “Now I see why they hate you. I have never seen any teacher use his voice like that before, where he imitated what the student did incorrectly and then demonstrated a better way in such an efficient manner.” Plus, when I would see people singing very poorly, cracking through the bridges and splattering vowels on top, I would talk to other teachers about this on break. They thought I was being sarcastic, but I thought we were there to engage in such issues and help people. I also made an issue of the fact that they were really taking in a lot of vocal repertoire coaches as members who were masquerading as voice technique teachers. I made enemies, and when they had a chance to get rid of me, they did, on a technicality.
RB: Why the attitude towards many voice teachers?
SR: Because they are not teaching a pedagogy that is conducive towards the student meeting their goals. Most young people have absolutely no interest in opera. They are fed a line that if you can sing opera, you can sing anything. What a load. If a female engrains a low muddy mix into her central nervous system and cannon get out of an extended chest register without a break, she has little or no chance in the non-classical world, and that’s what most of the world wants to hear, non-classical singing. It’s unethical for teachers to impose their goals on students and teach them a way of singing that makes them less able to survive in the area of singing the students wish to pursue than before they walked through the studio door.
RB: You teach vowel modification a lot, which is not something most people would associate with non-classical singing.
SR: When a singer pulls chest too high, the vowel tends to go horizontal and it splats. When you narrow the vowel, you get a more blended, vertical sound. For example, if you sing /o/ and don’t modify, it goes very wide and really doesn’t sound like /o/ anymore. To maintain a pure quality of the vowel and induce a mix, you need to make sure /o/ goes towards /u/ as you go higher. It induces the folds to lengthen and damp; it pulls the resonance more towards the head and alleviates the excessive subglottal pressure of pulled up chest. The singer feels this as being vertical.
RB: What do you mean by vertical?
SR: That the voice seems to go behind the soft palate and into the head.
RB: Roger Love has a book out now that says pretty much what you’re saying and claims it as his. Any comments?
SR: I’ve taught Roger since he was fourteen through age twenty-two. You can answer that question yourself.
RB: What about belting technique as taught by people like Jo Estill?
SR: Well, belting can involve a heightened larynx, but we have a better way. Jo is an absolutely charming lady with whom I totally disagree. She has a lot of research behind her, but all that means she has catalogued behaviors, which is nice, but it doesn’t mean those behaviors are necessarily healthy or pleasant to listen to. My documentation is my success and track record, I don’t believe has been matched, I don’t really care about vocal science and such research. It’s nice, but it doesn’t necessarily produce better singers. I have witnessed many vocal scientists who are just horrible singers, so obviously that scientific knowledge hasn’t helped their physical process of singing.
RB: Well, thank you for your time. It’s been very interesting and enlightening.
SR: Thank you for the opportunity.