Kelly is an Estill EMCI, one of about a dozen in the United States. Her experience as a college professor, VoiceOver artist, and Pop Vocal Coach, gives her a unique perspective as a trainer.
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Keep Curiosity Alive

Jun 24, 2022

The process of trying to move from being a classically trained singer in college, to becoming a versatile contemporary/pop singer was not an easy path.  

After college, I took a music position in a church. Hey, I was in my "chosen field" of music. I should be happy!  

But underneath the surface, in addition to the pressure of working in a volunteer, non-profit organization, and all of the politics involved...  I didn't like my vocal sound, and I felt like I had moved from a world of classical training  in college that didn't feel like me, and got stuck with the music I was REQUIRED TO perform at work within the church.  Truth be told, sometimes I didn't even LIKE that style of music.       

It led to an "Identity Crisis" with a capital "I".  

After seven years in the church, and even being ordained as a woman,  I finally called it quits.  

I joined a band, and got a job at a local elementary school doing choral music.  Most people leave the club scene for the church, but I did it backwards.  It was a wild dynamic, teaching elementary school music during the day, and heading to band rehearsal and gigs at night.  

Looking back, I can see that the universe created the perfect circumstances to reignite my curiosity.   

The dictionary defines curiosity as a strong desire to know or learn something.  

 Curiosity is what drove me as a kid. It  led me to learn about the composers that I was playing on the piano,  to practice for hours, to go exploring in the canyons where I grew up, to ask questions, to learn music notation, to write songs, to paint, to explore and learn more.  

But as I began "adulting" and doing life's more "serious endeavors".  I felt like I had to  show that I was "knowledgeable", "educated" and "informed".  

In a perfect world: Curiosity leads to discovery.  Discovery leads to a change of perspective, and sometimes to wonder and awe.  Eventually discovery leads us back to humility.  Until once again, curiosity awakens within us a desire to discover more.

Instead, academia gave me a truckload of knowledge.  This knowledge was to be digested and memorized as undisputed fact. In my college environment, we had to know it all.  It was a twisted form of imposter syndrome.  What I didn't know I hid ferociously, even from myself.  

What’s even more embarrassing, is that when it came to singing, much of what I DID know wasn’t really the appropriate choice for modern stylizations In fact, it was downright, wrong information!   Here’s just a short sampling: 

  • Many of my classical habits, like breathing deeply and lowering my larynx in a yawn, actually limited my pop potential! 
  • I had no idea how to belt (I thought it was just “chest voice” taken higher) So I just “chested” down low and “sang loud” up high. 
  • Riffing felt like trying to understand a foreign language, and doing any of it terrified me.
  • Vocal hygiene meant drinking water and wearing a scarf when the weather was cold. I didn’t know how to take care of my voice and I was exhausted by the end of a show.
  • I didn’t know how to work with a microphone to create even greater colors, so I blasted away like I was in a concert hall. (Much to the annoyance of the studio engineers- hint, if they keep talking about how much power your voice has, it might not be a compliment
  • I didn’t know how often we need to shift color, texture, timbre, or emphasis to keep an audience engaged, so I bored my audience with consistent tone
  • I was told vibrato meant my voice was free…so I jiggled my way through pop songs in the name of "freedom"
  • I didn’t know there were healthy textures of sound, other than a choral texture, which could add interest and individuality.
  • I thought I had two different voices that I had to blend somewhere in the middle: “ chest and head”.  People who didn’t seem to have this problem were a mystery to me! 

The reason I am being SO vulnerable with what I didn’t know, is to help you realize you aren’t alone.   Even with a Bachelor's degree in Vocal Performance, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  

When I joined vocal society groups, I heard things like "why bother trying to figure out pop or any other style of singing, when you could just steer your students for more 'dignified' choices of repertoire."  This was just code language for "I don't know how to sing that way, so I will push you towards what I DO know, and I will manipulate you by asserting that what I know is SUPERIOR to your forms of music".  It was an unhealthy attitude that fostered all manner of disparity.  But if you didn't adapt that type of arrogance about western classical opera, then you were deemed "less than educated".  So, I went along with it all. 

By the time I graduated college, I had lost most of my curiosity.  And in the process, I began to lose my own soul.    

After spending seven years in the church, I left my position and started taking voice lessons again. I got two jobs teaching elementary school music during the day and gigging with professional band at night and weekends. I started asking questions again.

 My curiosity resurfaced, and I began trying to figure out what people were doing to make all of this contemporary singing happen. I must've read every book I could get my hands on.  I observed the "uneducated" singing professionals that I worked with, but honestly, I was envious of their vocal freedom.  

Meanwhile, the children that I taught at the elementary school were bundles of questions and curiosity.   They had that spark, that reminded me of the person I once was.  The person who fell in love with music.  

Then,  I met Jo Estill.  And my world entirely changed. The flicker of curiosity in me became a huge flame.   

I remember asking her a question about breath.  In those days, asking about breath was one of those questions that guaranteed a lengthy and informative response.  

Instead of telling me all the things she knew, she paused and said:  "I don't know.  The more I learn, the more I realize how complex it is to discuss this very simple task".   Years later, as I sifted through some of her papers, I was surprised that she had actually done a significant amount of research on breath. Why hadn't she answered me with the research she had done?  

I have observed an odd tension at times with researchers, especially pioneers.  There are moments of elation and near grandiosity when research suggests discovery and clarity, but then the pendulum swings and humility enters the room with the understanding that there is still so much MORE to know. Valid research is  downright humbling at times.    

I think I caught Jo at one of those moments.  

At times, she would be so excited and certain about a path of inquiry, and then say "but I leave it to you and future generations to figure that out.  That's going to be your task, not mine.  You might prove me wrong.  But PROVE it."  

That's the nature of science, it is fluid and ever-changing, as our understanding and perspective grows, we also begin to see what we don't know.   

My experience led me down more artistic paths, and not in the research lab.  But the lessons learned from Jo Estill stayed with me.  

Over the last few years, as I've been working on the curriculum for "The Singer's Style Lab", I have thought about the beauty of being able to admit what we don't know, and how that is foundational for developing curiosity.  

Until we admit we might not know something, we can't foster curiosity.  And if we aren't curious, we can't learn.    

Curiosity leads to discovery.  Discovery leads to a change of perspective, and sometimes to wonder and awe.  Eventually, true discovery leads us back to humility, because there's always more to learn.  Until once again, curiosity wakes us up and urges us to discover more.  

I will forever hold Jo Estill in a place of gratitude in my heart for reigniting my curiosity.   

I can say that that curiosity  has also has led to a lifetime of discovery.  These personal discoveries have compelled me to make some changes as a result.  

Here are my discoveries, and the changes that I have chosen as a result:

  1.  Every person has a unique voice, and with that voice, they will change and touch the lives around them.  I will respect YOUR unique sound, your musical heritage, your culture, and your story.  It’s part of your unique gift to the world. 
  2. I will give you options. Trying new things out typically falls  into one of three categories
    1. Great! I want to use this right away.
    2. Feels strange/sounds odd: this needs tweaking to be used artistically
    3. Nope! This isn’t for me with my personal sound. 

I’ll show you how to try things safely, and you get to try it out in your music and see if it really suits your voice. I will teach you what I understand about artistic expressions within genres of music. But,  at the end of the day, it is you who will need to hear the voice of both critics and fans and retain your identity and artistry.   

  1. We learn and create best when we are closest to feeling like a child at play.  This has something to do with curiosity.  Hence, The Style Lab is a SHAME FREE ZONE and a SAFE SPACE.  We all want to sound great on stage, in front of a live audience, and in the studio.  But is absolutely necessary to have the freedom to try things that might sound silly, awkward, or strange. Often, our most creative innovations are found in moments of play.   

 Along the way, I discovered these things,  and yes, I also learned how to belt, and riff, and stylize pop songs, and write music and do VoiceOver and a bunch of fun things too!

 Life is all about curiosity and discovery.   

I would love to take you down the same path that has helped so many other singers discover their unique sound, and protect your vocal health so that you can be singing for life!  

Like my mentor, Jo Estill, I believe that “Everyone has a beautiful voice”.   Let’s embrace what is unique about your voice, and go on a path of discovery to add to your list of colors and sounds. 

Ultimately, there is only one voice like yours.  Kindle your curiosity to find your voice, and use it to change your world. 






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