Finally! – In The Mix! The Michael Jeffries Story… (Part I)
Blog-Professional Singer Learned-SLS Mixing-Sing Like The Starz Studios
Blog-Professional Singer Learns To Mix SLS-Sing Like The Starz Studios. How Michael Jeffries’ Learned SLS Mix, a prof’l story ‘w before & after music videos.
“Working with Alexys, I always felt the immense dedication he brings to teaching SLS. With that dedication, he was able to open the door for me!”
Note: Michael Jeffries is a professional vocalist who experienced vocal complications then learned to sing via the SLS Technique. His story has been documented in an article split between Part I and Part II. I hope you’ll find it worth your while in examining both parts.
Finally-In The Mix!–The Michael Jeffries Story-Part I
One Saturday afternoon, I was watching Soul Train at Studio 16 Hair Salon in Emeryville, California. It featured the salon’s owner, my friend Michael Jeffries.
Michael sang his R&B hit single Not Thru Being With You, written and produced by Jellybean Johnson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The song topped at No. 32 on Billboard’s hot 100 R&B chart.
Before chatting with legendary host, Don Cornelius about the success he was experiencing in the music industry, Michael performed with R&B songstress, Karyn White. He and White had appeared together on Jeff Lorber’s Private Passions album in 1989.
Michael stepped up to the microphone and into the spotlight when he joined Oakland’s powerhouse band, Tower of Power, as lead singer when Lenny Williams, and two other prior singers left the group. The soul/funk band is most famous for its unbelievable horn section. While in the group, Michael recorded 4 albums with them. He wrote several hit R&B singles including, Never Say Never, recorded by Deniece Williams. The song hit the No. 5 spot on the Billboard R&B chart.
The success that Michael enjoyed would soon wan. Years of touring, recording and bad vocal habits, began to take its toll on Michael’s voice. His career was in jeopardy because he could only sing 2 days a week. Suffering through hoarseness during his performances and other vocal complications caused Michael to lose his ability to sing high notes. As a naturally gifted tenor, he knew that it wasn’t a good sign. He would have to get back on track. The journey would take 25 years.
Today, Michael is in a healthy “free voice,” thanks to a technique called Speech Level Singing (SLS). This technique provided a bridge for Michael to sing freely and in an all new way. He’s written more songs and has an inspiring new video entitled, Don’t Forget 2 Say I Love U. The video, featuring his son and daughter is appropriately titled to reflect the reason why he abandoned his music career years ago to take care of them and his wife.
As in so many other successful careers, the Speech Level Singing Technique, (SLS) corrects what is termed “pulled chest” or in other words, those singers who tend to yell on pitch.
This important article is presented with conversations with Michael Jeffries and how his dedicated intense study of the SLS Technique, along with his persistence finally paid off. His major break-through occurred while working with SLS Instructor, Alexys Paris.
Also discussed in (part II – of this two part article) is an unusually creative listening device called “The Trainer,” (which Michael invented), and how it played a major role in Michael finally mixing, In SLS terminology this means, smoothly blending one’s chest voice and head voice.
Hopefully, this article is inspirational to others with similar problems. It should be noted that although Michael and I didn’t always agree during the process, we both agree on the importance of the SLS Technique and how others can reap the benefits from the art of mixing, in a relatively short time. We also agree that you, the vocalist, will find his experience a worthwhile and compelling read.
We will begin with some SLS terminology. The SLS technique is applied to all genres of music and seamlessly blends a singer’s various voices [chest, middle and head] into one voice, without breaks and with better tone.
Chest voice naturally occurs when we sing low notes. It is our speaking voice and it has a heavy tone, because the low musical notes physically resonate in the chest area while singing. Head voice is lighter than chest voice and should occur in the upper register of the singer’s range. Head voice physically resonates in the singer’s head and is connected to chest voice and creates a crystal clear tone, but it is free of the heavy weight that chest voice has and when performed properly is much safer, surprisingly easier, and has dynamic tonal presence. The first bridge is the part of the voice that sits in the middle of both chest voice and head voice and as the term implies, serves as the passageway from chest voice to head voice and back again. Most often, this area of the voice needs to be strengthened in order to blend chest voice and head voice as one connected voice. When a singer masters a balanced mixture of chest voice, head voice, the first bridge and, all the bridges in a singer’s range, this person sings in a mix. (A mix is a balanced blend of the chest, middle and head voices).
The following video is an example of singing with a “pulled-chest” when Michael was the lead singer for Tower of Power:
And now, here is an example of Michael singing in a better SLS “mix” some many years later:
On August 18, 2010, when I viewed Michael’s new video, Don’t Forget 2 Say I Love U, Michael asked his Facebook friends to check out his latest, and we communicated wall to wall with the following dialog:
Alexys: Congratulations. You’re vocals are mixing nicely.
Michael: Thanks in part to you! You opened up the door for me!
Alexys: Glad to do so. Sounds good. Definitely, you’re getting into your head voice. Nice,
We later scheduled an interview to share Michael’s experiences with other singers grappling with the same vocal barriers Michael dealt with. We would both relate how his strong determination to learn a better way of singing plus everything that assisted him in making the transition from a hard yelling-on-pitch chest puller to a now dynamic SLS Mixer.
Lenny Williams first told Michael about Seth Riggs and Speech Level Singing (SLS). For years Michael had abused his voice by yelling on pitch too hard and loud and got himself into trouble with swollen and hoarse vocal cords. Michael sought help from various SLS Instructors. In 1988, Michael started working with SLS Founder and Maestro Seth Riggs. He also studied with SLS IMT member Kathy Kennedy and Alexys Paris. At that time, Alexys was a Level One Instructor. Michael is not shy about voicing his concerns regarding how the technique is taught, because he feels there are things that can be done to move the student faster into the mix.
Michael adds, “I would like to stress that all of the SLS instructors that I have seen over the years were indeed very passionate and knowledgeable in their craft. They all truly wanted to help me. I came to them with a huge problem and I needed to be re-trained while still working! That’s a real tough order. Muscle memory is almost automatic. In order to change it you have to consistently re-direct it, you can’t afford to do any exercises incorrectly. For me using the trainer was the best way to perform the exercises with confidence. Over time, the new muscle memory takes over and the vocal chords get stronger (don’t need any help from the other muscles). I would also like to stress that the main reason that it took me so long to finally get it (the mix) is that it’s very difficult to change the way you sing while singing the old way everyday. I had to totally stop singing in the old way to allow the new approach to become second nature.”
Michael often reminisces, that for a long time he was practicing the SLS exercises incorrectly. I am completely empathetic and understand how Michael feels, because I was also a loud yell-on-pitch, chest puller which is the reason my path led me to SLS.
Further, in my personal SLS journey and as an SLS Instructor, I have observed that people who have a tendency to “pull chest” (which is basically yelling on pitch) often have a slower and more difficult time in progressing with the SLS Technique.
Although it took Michael Jeffries, a seasoned professional over 25 years to learn how to mix, I was able to learn the technique within 2 years. Those 2 years felt like an eternity. It was very painful! Yet, well worth the time and money!
I would say that many students who have struggled through the arduous process of learning SLS, and became successful in the technique, would attest that it is well worth the trials and tribulations. Everyone comes to SLS with different tendencies, however slight. But, the destination is the same. We are all going into “the mix”.
With all that was mentioned as our backdrop, I’d like to share the following interview I had with Michael and how we relived the “aha moment.”
Michael Jeffries Interview
The “aha moment.”
Michael: Something I’ve thought of, after hearing people say, ‘When you transfer over to singing with Speech Level, how the voice sounds to you, how it feels to you, will be different, and that you have to get use to that, and trust that. And, then being able to sing knowing that the listener doesn’t hear what you’re feeling’. I’m not sure others have caught on to that yet.
I’m saying this because this was the biggest drawback for me. I was singing pretty hard before. The feeling that you get is totally different from the one you should be getting and will get, when you’re using SLS.
Alexys: That’s correct. (Michael is referring to a fact, that when singing with the SLS Technique, the listener hears the singer’s voice “in SLS mix mode” louder than the singer does. The singer has to rely more on how it feels as opposed to how loud it sounds and has to adjust for this truth!
Michael: How it’s different is that you feel a much lighter response when you’re using SLS.
Alexys: That’s right.
Michael: One problem is that the singer who is used to hearing or feeling a much heavier response will have great difficulty in trusting the new lighter response. Even when you are doing the exercises, you still feel that isn’t right, because it’s way too light.
Alexys: Not only that, it isn’t just the feeling, and we both know that the feeling is the most important part of it. But for people like ourselves, who had a tendency to pull chest and to yell on pitch, it’s also the hearing.
You know it sounds heavier (when pulling chest). When the instructor begins moving you into a lighter sound, you resist and say, “Wait a minute, I can’t sing that way.”
Michael: You even say, “I can’t use that!”
Alexys: Exactly! The other factor is, once the process starts and it begins to evolve. I tell the student this, “I know it sounds lighter now and I also know that you feel that you cannot use this. But, you have to realize the more you do these exercises, the stronger the vocal cords will get. Why? Because, when we are moving them into “the mix” (SLS technique way of singing) we divert them away from muscles that they can no longer use to make pitch.
Alexys: They can only use the vocal cords to make pitch. This means we have to move them into the upper parts of the vocal cords; their head voice part of vocal cords that they have never used before, and (that part of the vocal cord) is weaker. Those parts of their vocal cords are not as strong as the chest voice parts of the vocal cords, going laterally. If you take your index finger and your middle finger and you point with a “V” back towards your neck, that’s how the vocal cords are setting in the larynx or throat.
To further demonstrate: If you bend your two fingers at the knuckles, let’s say those knuckles are where the (vocal) first bridge is. (This is the important area in the voice that bridges the chest voice with the head voice.) This area is where most people stay. In particular, people who are pulling chest! They don’t go beyond that area. They yell from that point upwards to make pitch. We instructors divert them to go beyond those knuckles, go beyond that first bridge and use those head voice, vocal cord (muscles).
Alexys: I recall when we were working that area, I felt you had an “aha moment.” I gave you an exercise, and you said, “Ah man, you know, that’s nasal!”
Alexys: I just looked at you at that time. Then, thought to myself, “Yeah. But that’s right or closer to right than not.”
Michael: I think we were at your house and I remember that time. The other issue for me personally, was that I was drastically trying to find out, where you wanted me to put this sound.
Alexys: That’s right!
Michael: And, so I was like “Is it here? Is it here? Or is it here?” And you said, ‘Okay. That’s it, right there.” I said, “Well man, that’s . . . kinda nasal.”
Alexys: When you returned the following week, I thought to myself, “Man, he had it rolling so beautifully last week, I cannot wait to see if he does it the way I taught him.” I gave you the same exercises, and you weren’t doing it! You weren’t in the “mix.”
So I turned off the CD recorder, and I said, “Michael, you know that thing you call nasal? Do that because that’s closer to right than not.” You followed my instruction and for the rest of the lesson you were in the “mix.”
The experience gave Michael confidence that he could began using a tonal quality he referred to as nasal to help guide him into the SLS mix way of singing.
Note: As an SLS Instructor, I know how difficult it can be for singers to make progress. So anything I can do to move them forward, I am willing to try, as long as it stays within SLS’ procedures. Michael’s assertion that a certain sound seemed nasal to him, was very insightful. Although SLS does not promote a nasally sound, when moving up the scale, the sound should pass behind the nasal cavity. It has to as it ascends into the soft palette and resonates into one’s head. That is why we refer to the higher notes or upper register as “head voice.” I simply used a term (nasal) Michael Jeffries had categorized for himself as a means to guide him toward the mix. That would not work for everyone, but it worked for Michael. When he said, “Alexys. You opened the door for me!” It was a great compliment. After many years of studying SLS, this was the break-through moment that led Michael Jeffries into the art of mixing. Still, Michael was not totally confident that he was on the right path. To his ears, the mix sound response was too light and he wasn’t confident it was usable. As I’ve already explained previously, the mix sound is much louder to the listener’s ears than to the singer’s ears. This is what the singer must get used to.
There is a crucial adjustment phase the chest puller must go through as they’re transitioning, called through the fire.
Through the Fire
Michael: Something important I wanted to say is I feel, every instructor, even though they know how important that whole aspect is about, the audience hears the mix louder than the singer, and the singer has to adjust for this truth . . .
Michael: Every SLS Instructor missed it…
I’d like to note here that Michael and I are in partial agreement. He is of the opinion that SLS Instructors aren’t doing enough to inform the student that changing from a pulled chest sound to an SLS Mix is very different and requires adaptation to the mix sound by the singer. In my experience as a SLS student, my instructors did duly inform me. However, the information didn’t make things any less painful for the student who pulls chest in a hard way. Now, as an instructor I constantly remind students of this process and how they must get used to the new lighter sound response. The problem is, the student is in the mist of learning; in the mist of transitioning from the old way of singing to the new way. To use an analogy, the singer is crossing over a bed of burning, red-hot coals from the west bank to the east bank. While the singer goes through the fire, and the flames are burning his feet, his legs, his torso, his face, he/she can’t hear all of the information that is being hurled at them! The student receives much instruction and information, but that vital bit of info (although as crucial as it is for the student to continue crossing through the fire) often falls on deaf ears. There is an old adage: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” This is applicable here in this instance. Continuing to drink the water would cool the fire. I have seen many truly gifted students who pull chest, get discouraged and give up. It is not my teaching style to drill them.
MY TEACHING STYLE
When a singer comes to me, the first thing I do is assess the vocal tendencies of the individual; where the singer is blocked and correct what needs fixing. Then, we break-through the obstacles and replace bad habits, as rapidly as possible. My primary responsibility, (and I take it seriously), is to get the singer into a strong SLS mix voice, as quickly and smoothly as possible, by applying the technique to songs and any style of music. I use the SLS tools creatively to guide the singer into the “experience” of mixing so they can feel it for themselves and also define for themselves, how that experience feels. I am sharing knowledge with them at every step along the way, to impart facts about the voice to help them gain insight. This is important, because if we could see the voice with the physical eye, we could correct things from that vantage point, but this is impossible to do for all practical purposes. The singer has to see the voice with his/her internal eye and through the singer’s feelings! So the voice is unique in this way, requiring the singer to go deeper into self to discover what is going on. The SLS Technique is supremely advantageous for allowing the singer to get in touch with their vocal instrument! My methodology of teaching gives the singer insight into what they are feeling vocally so they can keep what feels and sounds right and pleasing, and then let go of what doesn’t.
Further, along with the person’s vocal tendencies (which is very much a physical action) I observe deeper into the individual’s spiritual, emotional, and psychological character to get a feel for what layers of stuff that may also be in need of “light”. I’ve found that teaching voice is very therapeutic for the singer as well as for me. Any voice instructor has to realize, they are dealing intimately with the individual. The voice is a very personal instrument and emotionally linked with the artist/singer, that needs encouragement and positive, yet honest guidance. So much learning goes on in voice lessons! I can’t begin to state how many singers come to me who have been blocked from using their vocal gift because someone told them they couldn’t sing! Very often, that other person was a close relative. Fortunately or unfortunately, as one may think of it, the voice teacher is dealing with all of it, for to teach is to learn. One cannot exist without the other; they co-exist simultaneously. I have learned, that it is nearly impossible to go through this process without uncovering deeper meaning of one’s spiritual self. To the extent that I can share information regarding health, diet, exercise, spirituality, and, truth that helps the singer reflect, experience and then gain insight, the singer is going to impart this internalized information with the audience – emotionally! It will reflect in song from the person’s heart and soul, musically and spiritually. As I truly believe singing is a spiritual endeavor.
So therefore, technique is a means to an end. Once the singer learns the technique, it needs to get absorb into the person’s body so the person is able to sing freely with emotion and spirit from the heart and soul, and in Free Voice.
I agree with Michael when he says that more can be done to assist the person who pulls chest hard, in making the transition in a shorter amount of time. Being resourceful, Michael took matters into his own hands and created a listening device to assist him as he practiced the SLS Technique.
End of Part I.
In Part II, Michael talks about the development of “The Trainer” (which Michael believes will help singers who “pull chest” transition into “mixing” chest voice and head voice faster. We also continue discussing Michael’s and Alexys’ vocal experiences, and Michaels shares insights into his upcoming project release entitled “Michael Jeffries, Daughter and Son.”
For an more in-depth article about the SLS Technique and its benefits, go here: Free Voice.
Sing Like The Starz Studios Emeryville/Oakland, Ca.
Advanced Instructor – Institute for Vocal Advancement(IVA)