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Speech Level Singing vs. Ken Tamplin – Truth Revealed!!!

This is not a review on vocal training products, but a comparison on the singing methodologies of Speech Level Singing and Ken Tamplin.

Why compare SLS and Ken Tamplin in particular? This post is inspired by voice teacher Matt Ramsey’s article on Ken Tamplin. His post entitled “BUSTED: Ken Tamplin’s 5 Reasons Speech Level Singing (SLS) Doesn’t Work!” brought up some very good points that I’d like to explore here.

I thought it is a very important vocal topic that singers should look into, so I am going to model after Matt Ramsey’s original article and express my own viewpoints here in this post.

A video posted by acclaimed vocal coach Ken Tamplin on March 13, 2013 on Youtube ignited heated debates on whether or not the Speech Level Singing method developed by the legendary voice teacher Seth Riggs is an effective and valid vocal system.

Basically, Ken Tamplin made bold claims that Speech Level Singing does not work for singers, and he gave 5 major reasons for it. Let’s listen to what he said:

According to Ken Tamplin, the five major reasons why Speech Level Singing doesn’t not work is the following:

1. Speech Level Singing(SLS) is designed for speaking.

2. SLS doesn’t not teach the bright timbre sound to grow the voice.

3. SLS teaches early bridging which weakens the chest voice over time.

4. SLS doesn’t not teach the bright ping in the head voice to match the chest voice.

5. SLS is bogged down with vocal exercises with no practical application for singing.

I don’t know how Ken Tamplin came up with the 5 “reason” above, but I can tell you that every single one of them is NOT TRUE.

Ken Tamplin revealed that he himself studied SLS in his earlier years, and apparently it didn’t work for him.

However, for Ken Tamplin to make the claim that SLS does not work, is really an unfair statement against a singing system with an impeccable track record.

Why would anyone say that Speech Level Singing does not work? Truth revealed.

Well, Ken Templin teaches a singing methodology that’s almost entirely different and somewhat opposite of what SLS teaches.

By criticizing an established singing system like Speech Level Singing, it would create a very good marketing effect and get people’s attention. And it worked!

When you do a google search on “Speech Level Singing,” guess which post is ranked number 1? 

speech level singing

I must admit – it is brilliant marketing on Ken’s part!

Like any vocal system, Speech Level Singing is not perfect and has it weaknesses, but are the claims of Ken Tamplin true and fair about SLS?

I have studied for many years with one of the former master teachers of SLS for many years, so I can say that I know a little bit about the SLS methodology. 

Let’s examine each one of Ken’s major reasons why SLS “does not work.”

Reason #1 – Speech Level Singing is designed for Speaking, not Singing.

It’s called Speech Level Singing, not Speech Level “Speaking.”

I don’t know anyone who uses SLS technique for public speaking or speaking of any form. 

SLS uses exercises to take singers, male and female, up really high in their head voice. 

When was the last time you hear anyone speak in their head voice?

That’s some vocal range to be used JUST for SPEAKING!

So, I don’t know why Ken says that, but I have never heard anyone say that before.

Reason #2 – SLS doesn’t teach the bright timbre voice needed to grow the voice.

Really? One of the thing that annoys me the most about SLS and all the other Mix singing camp is the frequent use of pharyngeal exercises in their early years of development. Remember the nay-nay-nays?

Ken Tamplin teaches that the bright “aw” sound as in “law” is the only sound that can grow the voice in both power and range. I don’t know about actually growing the voice, but it does make the voice brighter and more focused.

SLS is “infamous” of using the pharyngeal exercises to quickly connect the vocal registers. They call it a kind of unfinished sound to fix cracks and flips.

So I don’t know what Ken Tamplin meant by saying SLS lacks the bright and pingy sound that grows the voice. It sounds pretty similar to me.

The only thing that’s different is that Ken leans more heavily on the bright and pingy sound in his training of students’ voices and SLS treats it as an unfinished sound.

Reason #3 – SLS teaches early bridging which weakens the chest voice over time.

Allow me to show off my voice a little here just to make a point. In the video below, I attempt to use the SLS or mix technique to sing a hard mix on a major C scale up to a tenor high C.

Does that sound like early bridging to you? Does that sound like my chest voice has atrophy and weakened over years of mix training?

I bet it sounds like chest voice all the way up to the High C. Doesn’t it?

It’s not a full chest voice but a harder kind of mix voice. If I were to pull chest voice up to that High C, I would have cracked because it’s too heavy.

The goal of SLS is to build one fully connected voice throughout the range through balance and coordination, not brute force.

Some inexperienced SLS teachers are too careful and scared to add more vocal weight in training the students’ voices, so many students end up with this light and floaty high mix that sounds like falsetto. That is true.

So I can understand why Ken is saying that, but early bridging won’t atrophy the chest voice. In fact, it’s safer compared to late bridging with pulled chest voice which could be harmful to the voice. 

Celebrity vocal coach(of Asian stars) Jodi Sellards of Los Angeles told me in 1999 during a voice lesson – “When in doubt when to bridge(during singing), choose to bridge early.”

Reason #4 – SLS doesn’t not teach the bright ping in the head voice to match the chest voice

What………

I don’t want to waste your time reading something redundant, so you can go back and read Reason #2

The bright ping, pharyngeal voice, and twang are more or less the same thing.

So many SLS singers drive me crazy because they are using the “bright ping” or pharyngeal voice to access their high notes.

It’s really not full voice, and it’s too bright and annoying!

Reason #5 – SLS is bogged down with vocal exercises with no practical application for singing.

NOT TRUE.

SLS has a very developed and detailed vocal system that explains the functions of almost every vowels, consonant, and unfinished sounds used in vocal exercises and the purposes they are trying to serve.

For example, since we are talking a lot about the bright and pingy sound here, SLS has a more complete and different explanation of the purpose of this sound, traditionally called it the “witchy sound” or pharyngeal voice.

One of the former master teachers of SLS, John Henny, explains very clearly the purpose of this witchy sound in his fabulous Contemporary Voice Teacher Acade​​​​​​​my which I’m enrolled in. Let me give you a sneak(y) peek. Heehee…

Speech level singing

Let’s look at another example – the purpose of consonants in vocal exercises is to regulate air flow and cord closure.

Morever, SLS breaks down consonants (as well as vowels) in groups that has slightly different functions. For example, hard consonants such as G(good), K(kite), B(book), and D(do) helps reduce air flow by short interruptions – Great for fixing breathy voices!

Speech level singing

Personally, I owe a lot to the SLS and mix training exercises for building a solid technical foundation to prepare me for the past 15 years of professional singing career.

Since Ken always says that “the proof is in the singing,” can I show off my own singing again? This is a clip of me singing at the National Recital Hall in Taipei, Taiwan. I’m using the SLS and Mix technique without any amplification.

Again, I can understand why Ken Tamplin says SLS uses exercises that are redundant and not practical.

SLS is such a big organization of so many teachers around the world. It’s very hard to keep the quality of teaching with every teacher.

I have taken lessons from inexperienced SLS teachers that didn’t use the exercises effectively.

However, incorrect use of the SLS exercises does not make it invalid. The exercises are very effective when done correctly.

“Bonus” Reason – We don’t see videos of SLS Teachers or their students singing.

Ken says SLS teachers don’t show themselves or their students singing on their websites.

Well, maybe they are bad with managing websites. Or, maybe some of them really don’t sound that good, because their instruments are not that great.

I really don’t understand this one. It’s true that voice teachers might not be as talented of their students.

SLS founder Seth Riggs doesn’t sound that good when he sings.

But let me tell you – it is normal for voice teachers to not have great instruments, or they’ll be singing all over the place instead of teaching.

Seth Riggs is famous for teaching superstar singers like Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Michael Bolton, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, and the list goes on…

I think Michael Bolton is a great enough singer to be shown as a student of SLS since 1982:

Ken Tamplin is a great singer. A tremendous talent. I understand that, but it is not necessary for voice teachers to all be as good as Ken. They just have to be good at teaching.

In fact, I know many great singers who are horrible teachers because they themselves cannot understand the problems their students are going through.

What about Ken Tamplin’s Vocal Method? My humble opinion…

Although I have tried Ken Tamplin’s very expensive singing program many years ago, and I have followed his videos on Youtube for a short while, I have to say I don’t know as deeply about Ken’s vocal system as SLS.

But, I will share with you what I think about some of the obvious things that he teaches. 

First, I mentioned earlier that Ken teaches that the bright and pingy “aw” sound is the only sound that’s going to grow the voice.

I don’t know where he got that from, but he is the only voice teacher I know that teaches that. 

SLS treats the bratty pharyngeal sound as an unfinished sound used for temporary purposes.

On the other hand, Ken seems to treat it as a major core component of a full sound.

From my impression of the Ken’s own singing, he teaches training the voice with low larynx positions and open-throat technique, but he himself very often sings with a high larynx in his higher registers, which is very hard on the throat.

It’s amazing that he could do that for so long without busting his voice.

Second, Ken advocates the traditional Italian practice of Appoggio, which is a very general term referring to the use of the diaphragmatic or abdominal “support” on the voice.

The true meaning of Appoggio has been widely debated, but I think in Ken’s teaching, he’s referring to taking low breath by allowing the abdominal areas to be push out by the air taken in and exert abdominal pressure while exhaling.

I do not use Appoggio, and I do not believe in exerting excessive abdominal pressure to “support” the voice.

In fact, excessive air pressure on the voice could even be harmful, because the vocal cords have to work so hard to block off the air being thrown at them.

Generally speaking, I think Ken’s vocal method is too heavy on the voice. I do not recommend it.

Listen to him sing and you’ll hear how talented he is – singing so heavy and still have a strong voice. Most people can’t do that.

Finally, My Conclusion on SLS and Ken Tamplin…

I want to reiterate that I do know a lot more about Speech Level Singing than Ken Tamplin’s vocal methods, so naturally my bias will lean more towards the SLS methodology.

Just from knowing about Ken’s singing methods on surface level and just listening to him sing, I would never use his vocal method if I were to start all over again as a singer.

No doubt Ken is an amazing singer, but to sing that heavy with so much air pressure thrown at the vocal cords, unless you have his voice, I would strongly advise against doing that.

If you really decide to use Ken’s system, I would ask you to please be careful not to use too much pressure on the vocal cords. Please be careful not to hurt yourself!

Ken’s Vocal Method is great for more extreme singing styles, but if you are into beautiful pop singing, jazz, classical, even pop rock, and all the other “normal” genres, SLS is your top choice.  

The sound that SLS or Mix singing produces is based on balance and coordination instead of excessive abdominal force. Therefore, it really is closer to beautiful singing or Bel Canto that Ken Tamplin is always talking about.

There are so many vocal courses that follows or comes out of the Mix tradition. 

They are so similar that you don’t really know the difference EXCEPT ONE-

Master Vocal Teacher John Henny’s fabulous vocal science training course for singers – The New Science of Singing 2.0 is my absolute favorite!!!

Through this course, John Henny not only trains the singer’s voice from the perspective of the latest vocal science, but also the singer’s ability to be their own voice teacher.

Ken Tamplin’s vocal method and SLS both have their strengths and weaknesses. I hope this article provides you with enough details to decide for yourself which technical path you will take, because they are almost entirely different.

If you have any question you would like to discuss, comment below. I’ll be happy to discuss with you.

To great singing,

Rex

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12 Comments

  1. “The bright ping, pharyngeal voice, and twang are more or less the same thing.”
    I’m not so sure about that. The kind of vocal closure SLS emphasizes is not exactly the same as this “ping” Ken is talking about. The difference? Hard to describe – I guess it’s a more chesty sounding thing.

    As someone who tried SS out I would argue that what you demonstrate in the first video can’t be learned by SLS methodology alone (or SS for that matter), but I may be wrong. All I know is that SS doesn’t even talk about breath support and vowel modifications without which you could never hit a C5 so beautifully and powerfully. The C5’s that are demonstrated in the SS exercises are clear and healthy but pretty weak and almost squeaky sounding (at least compared to what you have shown). That’s partly because SLS/SS tells you that vowels should stay pure from bottom to top which is supposedly best sounding.
    Ken teaches also singing with an “open throat”, something absolutely necessary to sing big and boomy.

    1. Toni,

      Yeah, there are a lot of discussions that can be done on what the ping really is. I can only say they are similar. No system is perfect. This I am certain. SLS has its weaknesses. It is also evolving. They are adding in breath support in their teaching from what I heard from my former SLS teacher. I totally understand where the criticisms are coming from. We are all learning and it’s important to keep an open mind for discussion and improvement, and even self-correction. I have learned over the years that we can be so wrong in a lot of the things we believe we are right on. So it’s important to stay humble and keep learning!

      Rex

  2. Let’s walk through Ken’s list:

    1. Speech Level Singing(SLS) is designed for speaking.
    *He is correct here. Most of the exercises in Riggs method comes from speech therapy. Lip bubbles, tongue rolls, Mum, Nay are all from speech therapists. Riggs simply put them to scales.

    2. SLS doesn’t not teach the bright timbre sound to grow the voice.
    *Ping and Twang are different sounds. Ken’s idea of a bright timbre incorporates a more open sound that includes middle and lower resonances. SLS bright timbre is mainly pharyngeal in nature and tends to sound too bright because it lacks any lower resonance.

    3. SLS teaches early bridging which weakens the chest voice over time.
    *This is also true. Many SLS professionals end up with polyps and nodes after many years of constant singing. Many lose their upper mix with age. This doesn’t happen as often with more operatically trained singers.

    4. SLS doesn’t not teach the bright ping in the head voice to match the chest voice.
    *This is depends on your definition of “chest voice”. SLS does lean toward a less deep sound than operatic methods. I personally find most SLS baritones far too bright in their lower ranges. Their voices lack depth past Middle C and their upper mixes are far too bright.

    5. SLS is bogged down with vocal exercises with no practical application for singing.
    *This goes back to #1. Riggs SLS Method does contain a lot of exercises that are not applicable to actual singing. How does a “lip bubble” relate to performance? Or a tongue trill? Nay Nay Nay? Lip bubbles and tongue trills are perfect for someone with a lot of vocal fold tension and inconsistent air flow, but they are unrelated to actual singing. Even “Mum Mum Mum” isn’t practical as it lacks any switch in vowel or consonant. Its great for someone with a high larynx in speech, but singing. Very limited.

    Ken makes a lot of bold statements, many of them unfounded and very biased, but so does Seth Riggs. Celebrity clients mean nothing for the average singer. Celebrities go to Riggs purely out of reputation. They are creatures of recommendation. They go to teachers, consultants clothing designers, hotels, personal assistants, restaurants etc., based on what other celebrities use them or say about them. They are “trendies” who will try every new fad that comes along. Not all, but many of them do.

    You mention John Henny a lot. Henny and Dave Stroud left the Riggs organization because Riggs refused to adapt to the times. But you never see these people sing. Why not? They are not singers or performers, they are teachers.

    Ken has the advantage of being a singer and performer. This gives him an insight into teaching voice that others do not from a lack of performing. But that doesn’t mean he’s got everything right either; just being a singer doesn’t mean you can be a great teacher. Despite all of his personal training, he’s very poor at explaining singing methodology that will work across all genres.

    I find this common among the majority of voice teachers today – non-performers who have latched onto teaching voice as a means to make money. Hence the expensive prices for their courses or resorting to “Reaction” videos on YouTube.

    No single teacher has all the answers, for a teacher to claim so is dishonest

    1. John,

      These are great insights. Thanks for taking the time to share! It will definitely provide a more balanced view with this topic. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding SLS and Mix – the worst thing is that different SLS and Mix teachers teach the method differently! But SLS has a lot of strengths that other methods don’t. My teacher Dean Kaelin taught me to maintain a low larynx at all times which significantly strengthened my voice, but I don’t many SLS and Mix teachers don’t teach that. I have personally benefited directly from the SLS exercises – they built balance, power, and finesse in my voice.

      On the other hand, I can see what Ken is saying with his criticisms, and they may be true from certain perspectives. But I can still see how students could hurt their voice if they misunderstood Ken’s teaching and don’t know what they are doing.

      I do see the problem of voice teachers not singing. I’m a professional singer and teacher myself, so I definitely think that voice teachers need to prove themselves through their own singing. However, that is not to say voice teachers have to be great singers to be able to teach.

      Thanks for your insights!

      Rex

  3. His course didn’t work for me. In the beginning I couldn’t do the exercises at all. When I started drinking throat tea, I could do the exercises easier. Some days I felt like I was improving, other days I would run out of breath while singing. I must’ve been doing something wrong that I didn’t know about. The courses that worked for me were 30DaySinger and SS.

  4. Hi Rex,
    I recently read your review on “the four pillars of singing” and it seems like it’s your favorite thing for an online training.
    Now I’m reading what u write here and I’m not sure what u like better.
    So if u can clarify which one u like better and why that would be a great help!!!!
    Ty in advance!!

    1. Mendy,

      I have a Mix and SLS background, but I came to realized that Mix has its limitations of belt and full voice training, so I have taken the position to respect and learn from all the different singing schools, even conflicting ones. This is not a war, but a collective effort in the singing community to search for the truth for singing. Nobody has all the answers when it comes to singing, not even masters like Seth Riggs or Ken Tamplin. Right now, my top recommendation would be Robert Lunte’s singing program because he is very well-rounded with both coordination training(crossing bridges) and strength building(belting).

      Hope this helps!

      Rex

      1. Rex,
        I just realized that I asked you my question in the wrong article. What I was really asking you was regarding Robert Lunte vs John Henny.
        Which one between the 2 do you find to be better?
        Because I noticed that you put both to be five stars and that they’re both very good.
        So what’s the difference between them and which do u prefer?
        Tnx in advance!!

        1. Mendy,

          They are very different methods and approaches. John Henny is training the voice with practical vocal science, which is cool because you get to understand the voice and be your own teacher. Robert Lunte is very intense on training and developing vocal strength and control.

          What are you looking for? What are some of the challenges you are facing vocally and are trying to fix? If you don’t mind, we could discuss them here.

          Rex

  5. I really like Ken Tamplins course. He demonstrates every warmup on video, and on audio tracks. He doesn’t just play the piano and tell you to sing like many “coaches” do. And I noticed a big difference the first day of practicing.

    1. Garrett,

      That’s great! Ken is an amazing singer, and he has a lot to contribute to the singing world.

      Rex

  6. Singing is like mix martial arts, you have to learn the tricks of the trade in order to reach the mastery of it. No matter whether it is pop, ballad, rock and roll, punk rock or even rap, there is always a room for improvement which you can learn from Ken, Riggs, Henry etc etc. The bottom line is a matter of interpretation of a certain piece by a singer or a performer and how that performance touches the audience aura and emotion. In other words, be opened, try anything that works for you. The sky is the limit.

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