Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Vocal Study Products: List One


Some parents/students have asked me to summarize the various vocal training methods I have been considering. So, I have generated two lists. The first are the major home study products. These are the first-rate-celebrity vocal coaches that have come out with training materials (apparently) intended to be an all-in –one program. The second list will be additional components, or lesser known products aimed at being supplementary material for students currently enrolled in voice lessons. These lists are in no way intended to be a review of any kind, the only goal here is to inform consumers of what is available. It is strongly suggested that you view the product summaries on the seller’s webpage directly.

List One: Major Players in Home Vocal Study Products


 Singing Success – Brett Manning


This is the only program out of the bunch (meaning this first list) with which I have had first-hand experience. I managed to procure a copy of the program while I was looking for materials for students and was very taken with the method. It had made an impression so much so that I actually recommended the program in a past blog.  In truth, the best vocal study product I have come across so far is the “Mastering the Mix” program (also by Brett Manning) which was billed as something of a follow-up to the Singing Success CDs. There is no specific time-frame for the course, the student is simply supposed to work through it at their own pace (it took me the better part of a year to complete the Singing Success CDs). To summarize the approach; essentially, it is a step by step series of vocal strengthening sessions in order to make the voice more pliable and virtuosic. Singing Success used to offer a payment plan, but I have been unable to verify if they still do this.

Physical Version (Singing Success) $199.95 + $10.00 Shipping Download Version 199.95
Physical Version (Mastering the Mix) $249.99 Download Version $249.99





Ken Tamplin is an absolute legend in the Christian rock genre, and his high note chops are first rate. It is actually his own skill that is the major selling point for this program as can be seen from his many “how to sing like…” videos on YouTube. I reviewed his “e-book” publication in an earlier blog which garnished me some degree of ridicule from Tamplin supporters.  Regarding the program; there are three levels total. The first two are (I am told) designed to form a foundation for correct singing whereas the last is supposed to be advanced training. I have not used Tamplin’s series and therefore cannot comment on its effectiveness, however; there are many singers out there who stand by the program.

Physical Version $319.00 Download Version $299.00




This program seems to be the only one out of the bunch that is completely video-based.  A total of four DVDs comprise issues such as generating more power with your voice, singing in tune, increasing your range, and finally; breathing.  Again, there doesn’t seem to be any set schedule for using the lessons, although it is conceivable that one could spend a week with each video.

Physical Version $177.00 Download Version $147.00





I looked around, fairly hard (much harder than I wanted to for this blog) to find who the author for this program was. Sadly I was unable to uncover that bit of data, so any of you readers who know the answer please feel free to drop a comment letting us all know. This program comprises 28 lessons, and from the looks of it, this is the only program to have a theoretical component to it. Meaning that you get all the breathing, pitch and range work, and also solfege, meter and scale theory, this is worth mentioning. Of course, if you already have a theoretical basis (such as, if you took piano lessons) this might not be quite the draw I am making it out to be. Aside from this there are also practical segments such as; how to sing with a band, and audition advice.

Pysical Version $299.95 Download Version $99.95





Vocal Release is an eight week program that on the surface is indistinguishable from the others. What is really nice here is the apparent step-by-step approach of clearing the voice of “bad habits” and then applying the exercises. The idea (seems to be) that the singer will cycle through the program every two months checking in with the audio files and making sure no bad habits develop along with keeping everything humming. Eric Frey is also a gifted vocalist worth hearing if you are a fan of rock-vocals.

Physical Version Not Available Download Version $97

Vocal Study Product: Singer's Advantage by Seth Riggs

I understand the desire to capitalize off of the American Idol brand. But attempting to get singers to embrace their own unique sound all the while carrying the label of the single most conformist (artistically speaking) program to ever be on the air puts me off just a bit. That being said, I have not yet run across a vocal training product that was worthless. Indeed, most things I review are usually quite useful. I wrote a few quick observations for Amazon.com and decided to re-post them here, just in case you wanted to read. 






The pros first:

There is a male and a female version, something that I really wish existed in other SLS products. The exercise routines are fast-paced and provide a fairly gentile but at the same time challenging routine. Its much more affordable than other products but for what you get (the four CD's are almost identical) it should really cost half of what it does. If the cost were to drop in half, I would highly recommend this product to every singer to keep and have in their arsenal, when they need a quick vocal workout. 

The cons:

There is no explanation of how to access the "head voice" the way Brett Manning's course teaches - therefore; it might be very frustrating for a singer who is unfamiliar with "damping" their vocal chords. Supposedly, each routine is selected based on a self-diagnosis, but truthfully 90% of each track is the same as the previous rendering the diagnosis sadly superfluous. Last, the extra CD's containing an "intro to SLS" is really more of an infomercial with next to no theory explaining how it works, and "5 Secrets to mastering any song" are "secrets" only if you have been living in a cave your whole life. 


All in all, the singing community does owe a lot to Mr. Riggs - he really was the first to bring out a method for teaching contemporary vocals, but he seems to have developed very little beyond his original findings. A fact which renders SLS as really just a high-priced brand-franchise, which is a shame, because I think that if it developed further, it would really have a lot to offer the vocal pedagogy world as it is today.

If you would like to purchase the product, you can visit Amazon.com and type "Singer's Advantage" in the search query

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Response to Ken Tamplin's E-Book: Singing Lessons & Voice Training With Vocal Coach Ken Tamplin


Tamplin, Ken. "EBooks - Singing Lessons & Voice Training With Vocal Coach Ken Tamplin." Singing Lessons | How To Sing | Vocal Coach Ken Tamplin. Ken Tamplin Vocal Academy, 2011. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. .Free with e-mail signup.

I remember being a voice student in the early 1990’s. At that time I had a coach who would record each lesson. Her expectation was that we would go home and practice along with the cassette tape every day in order to progress. For the most part, I would say her approach worked. But I often thought that life would be easier if I had just a recorded bunch of exercises, which had explanations, but without a whole bunch of talking, just a vocal workout. In short, what I really wanted was a home-study course.

Times have changed greatly over the last few decades. Now it seems as though the modern voice student has nothing but options in terms of vocal-study materials. From the free YouTube tutorials done by amateurs to the fairly costly studio produced products, one wonders if voice teachers are really necessary any more.

One such product is Ken Tamplin’s “How to Sing Better Than Anyone Else” series. Right off the bat, I want to say that I have not used Mr. Tamplin’s product, and an attempt to review its effectiveness is far beyond the scope of this short article. However; while researching vocal-study-methods I ran across his free “e-book” which I downloaded (by giving my e-mail address) and read. It is, as you might expect, a lengthy advertisement for his vocal study products. But, the text is really more of an informal essay, or even a pamphlet than it is a book, nonetheless it did spark some thoughts and I wanted to make a few comments.

In the first section of the text we are introduced to Ken Tamplin, he writes about his experience and his own journey in bettering his singing voice. From there, he goes on to report on a series of fairly unrelated assumptions about the reader and their development along with other current vocal instructors. It is very hard to tell whether or not he is exclusively bashing the “Singing Success” program of Brett Manning or other SLS-type products. But one thing is for sure, he seems to have little or no appreciation for his colleagues in vocal instruction.

Tamplin writes outright that

…there are SO many vocal teachers out there that  either; Can’t Sing, Can’t Sing Like You Want To Sing, Don’t Want To Teach You Enough To Be Self-Sufficient, Or – are just plain charlatans in the first place (this one probably has the biggest group. (p. 2)

From there, Mr. Tamplin goes on to make the claim that all current vocal products make. This is that they have the “secret” to unlocking the vocal potential of the client that no other program possesses. Ken Tamplin writes that regardless of chosen genre, this program will work, and if it doesn’t, the guarantee of a complete refund is in place (this is actually something I really appreciate, and if it is genuine, then it is the only guarantee I have heard of that is honored 100% of the time).  

From page 3:

I’m blowing the lid off of every other vocal coach out there who doesn’t believe in teaching people to be self-sufficient. I’m sick and tired of watching good people spend their heard earned cash only to be taught scales. Scales help, but that will not make you a good singer on their own.

At this point, I would really appreciate knowing exactly who these voice teachers are that “only teach scales” so that I may also warn people about them. It is a little bit of a weasel word on Tamplin’s part to say: these people exist, but I’m not going to name them. As a voice teacher myself, I can say that scales and scale-patterns play a big part of musical study, and they should. After all; scales (or more exactly, perhaps; modes) and intervals are the raw material from which we derive our melodies. By mastering both in a methodical way we are better prepared to tackle phrases set out in songs we learn.

The book then goes on to draw parallels between singing and other types of performers in order to punctuate how some teachers move slowly with students. This is an interesting thing to write, as earlier he criticized claims of instructors who make grandiose promises of rapid improvement (and, once again; did not outright name them).  Tamplin himself says that progress cannot happen overnight and that true skill is going to take time. So I have a hard time understanding why his is so concerned with instructors who dole out information in easily digestible bite-sized chunks.

Tamplin sums up this section by writing that his tricks really amount to using the right technique (which, of course, he possesses). Again, this is a statement that I find curious. I seriously doubt that Mr. Tamplin is getting a whole bunch of students who are singers of Pansori, or Beijing Opera. How many Ghazal singers have signed up for lessons at KTVA? There are an almost infinite number of musical styles the world over, all with their own history of pedagogy. Simply put, the correct way to sing a Maori chant is not the way one would render a Ukrainian work-song.  So, the claim that there is just one, universal technique to end all others seems a little bombastic.  

At this point in the book, there is an attempt to answer the question: “Can Anyone Sing?” which is the part of the document that I appreciate more than any other. Tamplin mentions progress and hard work, but really, this part of the book is more concerned with embracing your unique voice. He cites examples such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Louis Armstrong (all of whom didn’t have conventionally beautifully voices) and their mark on the music world. These are important things to keep in mind, and in our age of conformity (as punctuated by shows such as American Idol, The Voice…etc.) and it is really nice that a prominent instructor is pointing this out.

The final section of the book deals with KTVA’s home study course in minor detail (that is, after reiterating his fairly conspiratorial ideas about “charlatan” vocal coaches). Tamplin is thankfully forthcoming about timeframe for success and makes no claims about an overnight change in the voice. There are three levels to his program, the first two are for less experienced singers and are meant to set the stage for more advanced development, whereas the last level is said to be the most strenuous and the most demanding. Although I do take issue with one of the sections in this area of the text; most problematic to me is the slight contempt Tamplin seems to have for educated terminology: 

What you’re not going to hear from me as a teacher, Well the pharyngeal larynx valve with the dual farbage valve and you times that by the square root of your social security number‟ crap (p. 6)

I would like to know why Tamplin is so against the use of terminology for the voice. Does he believe his audience isn’t educated/intelligent enough to understand? I have always thought that learning the physiology of the voice is very empowering to the student. I often recommend they read the section in “The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults” By James McKinney about the laryngeal mechanism. When they do this, it is much easier for them to understand what is happening in their own bodies.


Before we wrap this up, I feel inclined to restate that this article is not intended to be a review of any kind regarding Ken Tamplin's singing course or lessons. A quick search over the internet, singing forums and blog-sites like this one, will contain hundreds of positive testimonials. I simply felt that as a voice instructor, some of the statements made in his publication needed a response.  

In the final analysis, I’m glad I read Tamplin’s book. And, it isn’t that hard to believe that his course is fairly effective. In truth, I would very much like to try it (but with my studio needing so much in the way of materials and instruments, it is not likely I will have $300 to spend anytime soon). My problem is that rather than asserting himself as a component in the vocal instruction world, Ken Tamplin seems bent on separating himself from it. I find that sad, as there are so many of us who are NATS and MTNA members working very hard to improve our studios and have devoted hours upon hours to our students with little or no financial gain. And after all of this; to be accused of being interested only in taking students’ money is quite insulting. For my part, I teach many students for free (or almost for free) so long as they state a financial need. I would like to know if KTVA offers any low-income students scholarships (bully for him if he does!). All in all, the educational world does much better with greater communication and if there are people out there scamming students, we should know who they are by name. 


To learn more about Ken Tamplin, visit his website here

Friday, January 20, 2012

Arts Advocacy; a Backward Approach?


When I went back to school in order to finish my Bachelor’s Degree, I enrolled myself in a general music/piano pedagogy course as a way to learn more about being an effective private music instructor. One of the things that we discussed was music, and more generally; arts advocacy. At that time I was (like so many other music teachers) reading literature on the subject of why it is best to keep arts in the public schools. The arguments are old ones: music helps with math, music helps young people socialize, music makes the brain more efficient… etc. I don’t mean to say that these are not valid points, I genuinely believe them to be true. The problem with these arguments is that it seems to affirm the notion that the arts are of secondary importance – it is as if to say that if music didn’t make children better in math, that it wouldn’t be worth having in the classroom.

No other subjects face this criticism. I firmly believe that all children should have a high mathematical ability, but how many of us actually use algebra on a daily basis (to say nothing of calculus)? The truth is; only the top tier of engineering or other sciences really require those skills on a regular basis. Still, we as a society have deemed them important, and I say good for us for doing so.

The fact that we can’t see being educated as a reward unto itself shows just how far we have to go as a culture. Yes, it is true that a more educated population will turn out more innovation. Likewise a more educated population will most likely make better decisions politically and socially. And it is fair to assume that a more educated population will almost certainly be able to approach problem-solving more methodically and rationally.  But my question is; if these things stopped happening, does that make the point of education void?

Because that is where we are going. Sure, it is easy to see the total disinterest in the arts and cry out that we are the ones being injured. But the truth is; we have devalued education (in general) to the point that we are becoming ineffectual, and then pointing at the educational system and saying; “see, it doesn’t work… I guess we should stop wasting money on things that don’t work.” Meanwhile, charter schools cropping up all over the country are pulling resources from traditional public schools, which mean that our whole scholastic system is becoming fractured beyond repair.

In the end, we have to stop advocating arts based on how they help students on other subjects and start to acknowledging them part of a complete education. Music (and dance, theater, painting… etc) should stand side-by-side with mathematics, not subordinate to it. Only then are we in a position to genuinely advocate for the arts and preservation of our culture. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Overcoming Ego for Musicians

What do we mean by the word “ego?” I would venture to say that if you asked most people (especially young people) they would tell you that having an “ego” would be on-par with being arrogant or a “know-it-all.” This is a fair assessment, but it doesn’t paint the entire picture for which we are looking. The truth is, the word is not without its baggage. If we were to take a Freudian look at it, we might define ego as: "a set of psychic functions such as judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defence, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory." (Wikipedia). If we took a more philosophical approach, we might say that: "The ego is often associated with mind and the sense of time, which compulsively thinks in order to be assured of its future existence, rather than simply knowing its own self and the present." (also from Wikipedia).

For the purposes of this posting, though, we will use the word “ego” to refer to that part of you consciousness that tells you; you are worth only as much as you succeed or possess. Additionally, your ego may make you feel that if you don’t own the most current trends in fashion or electronics, you are somehow lesser, or the belief that you are defined by what other people think of you. In short; your ego is the part of you that makes you feel continually incomplete. Of course, the shedding of the ego (especially for musicians) is quite possibly one of the most difficult tasks that we may complete. I wanted to nonetheless share my own techniques for getting rid of this pesky nuisance below.



  • Stop comparing yourself with other musicians (and this includes your peers). OK, I wanted to get the big one out of the way from the get-go. No more reading about Sarah Chang or Van Cliburn and feeling old before your time. Yes, the world is taken with “prodigies,” they are impressive, and because they are so rare, they make for great press. But understand this: if you are able to play a piece of transcendent (meaning truly masterful playing) at age 25 or at age 50, people will take note. To be perfectly blunt: it is the sound that matters, not the vessel from which the sound comes. Therefore (and this is going to sound strange to those of us living in the western world) don’t rush, you have time to be great!



  • This one is kind of tied to the first: band together with your fellow musicians. I know, this is another tough one, especially for young people. I can’t tell you how many times I, as a teenager, sat in my student recitals comparing myself with my fellow singers/pianists hoping that they sang/played worse than I did. Really, what I should have been doing was appreciating them and cheering them on. In the long run this would have opened my mind up to what they were doing right – and provided me with an opportunity to learn from them, and vice-versa. In short, do your best to be likeable. There is nothing wrong with having allies and if you can keep these allies as you grow older, your chances of success will be much greater.



  • Do not judge yourself while you are performing. This includes performing for your instructor and in class in front of your classmates. Save all your evaluations until you are finished. Sometimes self-judgment seems like an involuntary occurrence, but the truth is; you have control over it. During your performance, for better or worse, just power through – improvise if you forget or lose your place, sing “la” instead of words… Do whatever you have to do to finish the performance with confidence and don’t let the audience ever see that you were shaken. Remember, the audience (for the most part) tends to take away the good things much more than the bad. If you fumble on a note, or forget a word but the rest of the performance is brilliant, than one error won’t even be a distant memory. And if you have a serious problem during your performance, but you keep your cool and you finish un-fazed; chances are that the audience will see you a pro who just had a bad night.

Finally, remember that keeping the ego in check is much more than just maintaining a level head, it is about knowing you are complete without praise, without fame and without doubt. Having no ego isn’t the defeat of self-esteem, it is the affirmation of it combined with the knowledge that you still have everything to learn, which is a good thing. It is also there to remind us that our abilities come with the great price of a monumental amount of time spent honing them. Remember: we should not let our egos grow into areas that could be taken up by knowledge. 

Overcoming Writer's Block for Composers


It is something that used to plague me, sitting in front of my manuscript paper (or later, the computer screen) trying to force something to materialize that wouldn’t make me scream. I used to have a terrible habit of not allowing myself any sleep whatsoever until I composed at least an idea with which I could be happy.  Needless to say, this generated more than one sleepless night.

First things first, let us try to examine just what “writers’ block” really is before we go about attempting to make suggestions about its treatment. To be completely honest; There really is no such thing as “writer’s block,” when you think about it – you can go to your manuscript paper and doodle notes down into melody and harmony all you want, all day, every day.  There is only the condition: “I’m not writing anything that I am happy with,” and the best way to get over this, is just to accept it and move on (or power though). But this may not be totally realistic for many composers or songwriters. So I wanted to list some additional ways to cope, just in case.

I would like to expand on our first suggestion, that being to power through and just write something you don’t like, or are not happy with. I know, it seems like you would be inviting a great deal of punishment for doing this, but the truth is – virtually every piece I have generated in this manner, (after I came back to it) there was at least something I appreciated in it. It’s funny how time and distance from a creation will give you a fresh perspective.

Something else you might want to consider is shifting gears. Instead of trying to compose something fresh, turn to arranging, or orchestrating. For instance; try harmonizing a Gregorian chant or medieval song – or orchestrating a Bach Fugue or even a Chorale. You could read about instruments you aren’t familiar with and arrange for those so that you get to know them.  In short, don’t worry about generating new material at all. Another thing you might try is to focus on doing strict theory or counterpoint exercises. Practice writing hymns or writing melodies over a cantus firmus. If you come up with something you like you can always adapt it into a new piece.

Part of dealing with writer’s block is to avoid it all together in the first place. One of the best ways to do this is to get involved in composition lessons, having an instructor who will give you weekly assignments tends to motivate students much more than just writing in your bedroom. Plus, a good instructor will try to coax certain skills out of you that you might not realize you are lacking.


 A video series I made for my beginning composition students. 
If you would like to study music composition at a distance,
 please visit http://www.michaelwheelerstudios.com for more information.                                                                                           

Finally, and this is the most important - Let go of the idea that “genius just springs forth,” the truth is that composing music (especially good music) takes work – and it takes years of hard work. So, stay focused and you will get there.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

When Purchasing Instruments From Abroad, it is Best to Demand UPS, NOT FedEx

I wanted to warn the community about FedEx and their tactics for denying claims for instruments damaged in transit. I ordered a Dilruba from India (I have ordered 8 instruments from India, all shipped through UPS without incident) this one was shipped FedEx, the skin was torn during the trip which (as you all know) makes the instrument worthless. I filed a claim with FedEx which dropped into a black hole for a couple of weeks before I called for an update. I was promptly told that the claim was denied. Needless to say I was frustrated regarding the whole ordeal especially after watching videos like this:



There are many more videos like this, but many of them feature swearing which I don't want to expose my readers to. I suppose in the final analysis, this company believes that it can get away with anything - but for my part, I will always ask for UPS, not FedEx.