Vocal Coach Seth Riggs on Working with Michael Jackson, Ray Charles and More

The prolific teacher behind the esteemed method known as “speech level singing” shares his story

Before he became the vocal coach for Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole and more, the first lesson Seth Riggs ever taught was on the captain’s lookout of a naval destroyer escort. Riggs had already begun to study classical music in earnest, but was frustrated with what he perceived as a lack of attention given to the fraught transition from chest voice to head voice. While on guard duty, his vocalizations had inspired an unknown lieutenant to ask for impromptu lessons, and it marked the first recognition of a method that would define the rest of Riggs’ creative life.

Speech level singing, as Riggs’ method is known, is especially concerned with movement of the larynx. When the larynx moves up and down, it constricts your vocal cords, negatively affecting pitch control and the ability to sing key vowels or consonants in a given range. Devotees of speech level singing aspire to keep their larynx down at the level it would be were they speaking at a normal volume, while still emoting and producing tones suitable for whatever music they’re performing.

The simple-sounding method has its detractors, but it has earned Riggs the favor of clients across a wide musical spectrum, from Nina Simone, Tina Turner and Barbra Streisand to Ozzy Osbourne, Chester Bennington and Anthony Kiedis, not to mention Michael Jackson, with whom he worked closely while Jackson was recording Thriller, Bad and Dangerous.

Riggs is now 87 years old, but even over a staticky Skype connection he shows an impressive vocal range and control when inspired to demonstrate, with a speaking voice that is expectedly mellifluous. Calling from Sweden, where he and his wife and professional partner, Margareta Svensson Riggs, were teaching a vocal workshop, Riggs shared stories from his many decades teaching vocal technique, delving into the specifics of speech level singing and his working relationship with various different artists.

Seth & Margareta Riggs Alan Weissman

You started in a boys’ choir, and that was your first time singing professionally. But at what point did you want to pursue singing as a career?

Right from the very beginning, because a young man next door was already doing that and I just loved to listen to the guy. He could play the piano well, he could sing. I said, “Boy, when I grow up I wanna be like Harry.” Harry had gone to the Washington National Cathedral choir, and Paul Callaway was the conductor. Paul Callaway had studied with some fantastic people in Europe, and they used to call him “Spider” because he could play as well with his feet on the bass of the organ as he could with his fingers. He was a real genius.

Did you come from a musical family, or was it this neighbor that really inspired you more than anything?

No, it was the neighbor that inspired me. My mother sang a little bit in the choir. My father couldn’t sing at all. When I would sing as a little fellow at six and seven years old, he used to cry, but he couldn’t sing. I was sort of embarrassed about it. When I began to emerge with this particularly interesting voice, I was afraid to sing in front of my parents. But there was a big forsythia bush in the front yard, which had branches that fell over in sort of a “U,” and on the inside there was a little room. We didn’t have a great deal of money, but we had the only singing forsythia bush in the neighborhood. That’s where I started, under a little bush.

I auditioned for the choir and I got into that, which was very difficult because it was supposed to be the best boys’ choir in the United States. From then on it was only music, music, music. It was all classical. I enjoyed Brahms and Schubert, and Schumann. Every Sunday in church I was singing that music. It was terribly impressive. From there I stayed in classical music, won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I went over there and worked during the day at the conservatory, and at night I went out to add more academic credits at Johns Hopkins in the liberal arts department.

I realized that the secret to it all was keeping your larynx down.

Did that coincide with an interest in theater? You started performing at Lincoln Center at a certain point.

I did that when I went to New York. I didn’t know a soul when I went to New York, so I had to stick with the church things and I sang in a choir. My accompanist on Wednesday night in singalongs was Van Cliburn, who won the Tchaikovsky [piano competition]. Everything was always classical. Then, little by little, I started teaching and trying to figure out what I didn’t find with my undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States. That was how to get from chest voice to the head voice. You know?

When I did that, I began to have something. I refused to go through the graduation exercises, because neither my undergraduate nor my graduate gave me the ability to get from chest into my head voice. When I started to figure it out myself, I realized that the secret to it all was keeping your larynx down… That seemed to be very important to a lot of my classical singer friends when I told them. They said, “How do you do that?”

How long would you estimate it took you from envisioning this technique in your mind to codifying it in a way that could be taught to other people?

I first got a little sniff of it when I was in the Navy. I was a gunner, but I was on guard duty at 2 AM in the morning, and I was vocalizing on the fantail of a destroyer escort out of New London, Connecticut. And somebody came up, and I loaded up and he said, “You can relax, it’s Lieutenant JG so-and-so.” He said, “Was that you singing?” I said, “Sorry sir. Was it too loud?” He said, “No. But what you did was very interesting. Could you show me how to do that?” I said, “Well, sir, I don’t know where I would. It’s two o’clock in the morning.” This is a night watch, so I get off at four. He said, “Well, see you at four. Where could we go?” I said, “We could go up to the captain’s lookout.” We went up three decks above, stuffed the information tubes that would go down to the engine room with signal flags, and I began to show him. He says, “I can’t do that. What are you doing?” I said, “I’m not exactly sure, sir. But it does work.”

That was 1949. That was over 60 years ago. I’ll be 87 within a month or two, and I’m still doing it. So I figure that I’ve never lost my voice. You never stop working. You never stop building the [chest to head] connection.

Physically speaking, what would be the difference in larynx control while practicing speech level singing versus the poor sort of singing I would be doing in the shower?

Let’s take a guitar for a moment. If you were playing guitar and you shortened a string, the pitch goes up. The same thing with a piano, if you look at the piano. And the same thing happens with your vocal cords. They vibrate along their entire length up to an E flat or a E natural. And then they should begin to damp – the pitch slides forward on the front. So when you can assist that conditioning, then you go [further] up and there’s no problem to it. You don’t have to reach for high notes. So I thought, “Wow. Speech. Right where we talk, for heaven’s sake.” How simple but how silly. It’s hard because you say, “Well, how could that be done?” Very often, people will criticize me on Facebook and say, “There’s no such thing as speech level singing,” And I will always tweet them back and say, “You are absolutely right. There’s no such thing as speech level singing - the way you do it.”

[I began to form this] in 1949 on the fantail on the rear of that destroyer escort standing guard, and trying to show that. But then it really took off in 1954, I think, when I was 24. That’s when this thing began and I just followed it, but I found myself being directed more toward pop singers than the opera singers.

You began working with so many big artists. What sort of collaborative techniques would you use for them to be comfortable even having a vocal coach, because in some cases you were working with people who were temperamental, a little bit insular, and you had to gain their trust. How did you go about doing that as a teacher?

You are absolutely right. It was simply by explaining them the same thing that I’ve been talking about with you. You can set your keys. But if you set your keys to a lower level, then you’re giving all chest [voice] all the time. That’s no good. You’ve got to learn how to go up into the nasal pharynx. You may not be able to use it for a recording session right away, but with the exercises I developed and proper application, you will soon.

See, what you do is, if I go, let’s say, to A flat, I can [demonstrating a bridge]. You’re connected [between chest and head]. If I pull in my belly – we’ll make it louder – I just stay there. That’s a full-on A flat. When you diminuendo and you don’t bend, it falls off. They might know messa di voce or bel canto. I would say, “You’re a pop singer. How do you know about messa di voce? That’s bel canto. That’s the old Italian vocal style. How do you know about that?” “Well, my teacher tried to tell me, but we could never do it.”

I wanted to say, “You’ve got to find another teacher.” But you can’t come out that hard, because they have personal relationships. And they know that the teacher’s doing their best. But if I can present to them something that they can make physical from a mental concept, that’s what I try to do.

Some people say, “When you go up to the high notes, you pull your buttocks together.” Well, what do you do on stage? Did you ever try to hold your buttocks together holding a note and walking across stage, one place to the other? You look like you’re trying to hold a dime in your butt. Come on. That’s stupid. I’m sorry, that is a thing that doesn’t work.

Little by little, you begin to accumulate a lot of things which would get you to go from your chest into your head voice.

So more often than not, these artists were coming to you as much for general improvements as they were to fix specific problems?

Yes, but their problems became specific and they couldn’t get out of them. They couldn’t get through the first bridge [from chest to head]. [But] there was no limit. I thought, “Wow, I’m onto something! I’m able to figure out what they did years ago and make the applications into people that sing pop…” [Speech level singing] enables you to sing anything you want to sing.

What we need is already with us. What we have to do is to find a way to access it.

Can you give me an example of an artist that you’ve worked with across multiple years, where perhaps they’ve had vocal cord surgery or their range has shifted? Is there one artist that you can take me through how your working method shifted as they got older and their voice changed?

When Ray Charles first came in, I said “Mr. Charles, what can I do for you?” I hadn’t even heard him sing. He said, “Well, I’ve lost my falsetto.” I said, “Well, I don’t hear that, Mr. Charles.” And he said, “Well, I have.” I said, “Wait a minute. Do ‘Georgia’ for me.” I took him by the hand, he came over and sat down at the piano.

And he starts off and says, “George-AH.” And says, “See, I’ve lost my falsetto.” I said, “Wait a minute, where’s the accent? What’s the name of that song?” He says, “Georgia.” “But you said ‘George-AH.’ The accent’s on the wrong syllable. ‘Georg-eh.’ Then flip to your falsetto.”

He tries again, beautifully: “George-eh.” “Oh! There it is!” I said, “Take the last step, Mr. Charles. ‘George-eh.’ ‘George-eh.’” He says, “There it is!”

I said, “Yes, sir. It was always there – but you couldn’t access it with your larynx going up.” And this swallowing action had begun [with] “George-AH.”

Ray Charles and Norah Jones - Here We Go Again

His last recording was Genius Loves Company, and he sang the very best I’ve ever heard him sing. And yet the cancer, which was ravaging his body, was really on him at the time. But he made it. I said, “You see the difference?” He said, “Oh, yes. You know, Brother Seth, we’re going to do alright.” I said, “Yes, sir, we are.” And we did.

Sometimes it’s a simple thing. I was working with Barbra Streisand, for instance, on a Broadway album, and she was singing “How are things in Glocca MARE-AH?” I said, “Are you trying to do an Irish accent? The Irish say, ‘Glocca Moora.’ Try that. Try the ‘oo.’” “Oh, that’s easier.” Well, [that’s when] you maintain the lower larynx ... The Irish don’t say “Glocca MARE-AH,” they say “Glocca Moora.” I was able to immediately make a change with her. I did it on that recording, narrowing the vowel together with this registry of the voice to get a shorter piece of the vocal cord to produce the pitch. Those two things came together. So I think, “I’m on to something here: ‘speech level.’”

And how do you get from working with artists like Barbra Streisand to working with someone like Ozzy Osbourne?

That was very interesting, because Ozzy Osbourne was having trouble, but the teacher he was working with at the time gave him some sort of salve or something that he was to put on his throat that would help him make these transitions. Well, it wasn’t. It wasn’t working it at all. I did the same thing with him that I did with Mr. Charles. I said, “I want you to give me a closed vowel.” “What do you mean closed?” “Instead of going ‘AH,’ give me ‘UH.’ Or better still, give me ‘OO.’” I gave him [sings a scale rising into head voice]. He said “Isn’t that falsetto?” He didn’t go that high, but I changed him in two weeks. And it was wonderful to hear what he did. By simply narrowing the vowel, it threw him into the shorter cord, and the mixture [of chest and head] that he was not getting from the other teacher.

Are there artists you’ve wanted to work with, but haven’t been able to? Whether there was something about them as an artist you liked, or because you heard something you thought you could help fix?

I wanted to work with that girl who just won six Grammys and had to have an operation. Adele!

When you’re listening to the radio, what sorts of trends or tendencies in vocal performance have you heard come and go? I imagine you can hear the ebb and flow of certain tendencies that come in and out of fashion. What do you hear listening to the radio now versus in, say, 1980?

Now, the bad singing has overcome the good singing… You hear a lot of pulled-up chest, which results in hoarseness, and in turn leads to nodules on the singer’s vocal cords, not to mention a limited register, flat notes and a lot of agony and canceled concerts. Today, recordings can be manipulated in the studio in a way they might not have been some time ago, but you can still hear the pulled-up chest. It might not sound as abrasive as it does live – singing live is like walking a tightrope, it’s unforgiving.

Then you have the people that are busy with drugs. I’ve taught a great many people that are doing cocaine. Sometimes their nose would begin to run because they would destroy it from snorting so much snow. It looked like – well, excuse me – but the word is snot. So I say to them, “The things that I offer you, you’re not going to like: no more smokes, no more alcohol, no more drugs.” The smoking cuts down the capacity of your lungs. Alcohol puffs your cords… A temporary edema. That’s no good. And then, of course, the drugs put you in another world and you can’t concentrate on anything.

Probably a good example of that person that you have asked me to identify [was] Natalie Cole. Natalie would come in with a big bag of hamburgers at ten o’clock in the morning and she would come in in slow motion, like she was underwater. She’d tell you this – she wouldn’t mind my telling you, even when she was alive. She’d put it down on top of the piano, and say, “Here we go!” And I kept saying to her, “You have to have an operation. You’ve got nodules. You must do it. You’ve got to kick this habit. You’ve got to go into rehab.” And my God, she did it. Her mother Maria took care of it, put her away for a year. And she came back and then she had the operation and then I put her back together again.

Natalie Cole - Joy To The World

You know “Joy To The World”? She does it with an upbeat kind of thing, and she goes up into R&B. Now, she’s a jazz singer – she was not an R&B singer. I was giving her R&B licks. And if you listen to what she does and the way she goes on that, you get the example of the person that was with me until she passed away.

Can you tell me about the first time you met Michael Jackson?

Quincy Jones introduced us… The first time I met Michael was at his house. We went up over the roof, because they were re-doing the front stairs and they were all taken apart. So we went up a ladder and walked across the roof, and then it was three short steps up to a little door which entered into his bedroom, which was two stories. I knocked on the door and this voice says, “Hello?” And I said, “Michael, this is Seth.” “Oh, come in.”

I opened the door and there he was, holding this little monkey upside down, and he had a cloth and was wiping his butt. [The monkey] had just gone to the bathroom. So, I thought, “Oh my God, what is this going to be?”

There’s so much that’s been written about his voice as an instrument. What can you tell us about his vocal talent that people might not already be aware of?

Immediately, I would say that when his larynx didn’t go up, he was able to vocalize down to a low C, a basso low C. I can’t even belch that low, but he could go down there! He always could go down to E flat, which the bass sings in Die Zauberflöte. It was amazing. I thought, “If you don’t reach for notes in the first bridge, meaning if you don’t pull up chest voice, you will never lose your bottom.”

Michael Jackson Vocal Training Session with Seth Riggs (1994)

It’s so important that somebody, somewhere, some teacher, will explain that to a person. But they’ve got be able to do that in their own voice. Demonstrate it. I’ve had to change my own teaching because I found out that a great many of the people were doing the exercises, which work very well, but then they couldn’t make the applications in the song. And they said, “But I’m doing the exercises very well.” I said, “The exercises will work for you. But you’ve got to apply them when you sing.” You can’t just do exercises. Your singing has to be on the same accomplishment level.

Michael had this enormous range. He would go from low E flat to E flats and Gs above high C? And if you know where that G is above high C… I don’t know if I can do it now, I haven’t warmed up. [Sings]That’s a G above high C. In one pitch. And the nice thing about speech level singing is that the German really sounds like German. French really sounds like French. English sounds like English. Pure vowels.

What exactly were you doing with Muhammad Ali?

Muhammad Ali was, of course, a marvelous boxer, but if someone hits you on the larynx, you sort of get this kind of hoarse [sound] that doesn’t come together. I had to try to get his cords together. He wanted to read some poetry. I began to give him these exercises which pulled his cords together. One of his cords had been bowed and it wouldn’t come together. I had him doing the same exercises that I gave you, and his voice came back.

You worked with Tina Turner on Tommy – can you talk about what that experience was like, preparing her to sing “Acid Queen?”

I was introduced to her by Ann-Margret, whom I also was working with. She would only be singing [imitates Tina Turner’s upper register], that kind of thing. And she says, “People really love that.” I say “Yes, but it’s abuse.” And I said “Of course, with the money that you have made and the young men that you’ve married, you can pay for anything. You don’t have to sing that, but it would help you if you used [singing in a lower chest register].” She said “Yeah, but that doesn’t give you the character that this does.” I said “I know it doesn’t, but that’s what people do that want to save their voices for a longer term.”

Tina Turner - Acid Queen

That’s sort of the same thing that Michael did when he went [impersonates a Michael Jackson shriek]. But he goes in the chest and then flips into falsetto so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

Look at this young man that just killed himself, hung himself. Chester [Bennington]. I showed Chester this. He said “But that’s so easy.” I said, “Chester, you have a wonderful facility, but look. We’re sitting in a car now right? Who is that little baby and that lady sitting over there?” He said “That’s my baby and her nurse.” “I see. And who is the lady with the older child sitting in front of her?” “That’s my child, my older child, and my wife.” “What kind of a car are we sitting in?” “We’re sitting in a Mercedes-Benz.” I said, “How much was it?” He said “This was a special one. The fellow didn’t have the money for it and we got it on sale.” But I said, “How much?” He said, “$150,000.” I said, “Wouldn’t you like to continue this, the way you have it now?”

I didn’t know about the other things that plagued him, because I had to read about what they were. We didn’t get into that. I’m not a psychiatrist. But I said, “Could you do it? I know that you pull up a lot of chest when you do it the old way, but the new way, you don’t. So, make you a deal. Get me half and half. Do it ‘half-bad.’” He said “OK, I’ll try that.” It gets them the character they want but without killing their voice.

You also worked with Nina Simone, who is many people’s definition of a mercurial artist. How did you meet her, and what were the cirumstances of her working with you? How did you gain her trust?

Natalie Cole married a man who was producing Nina Simone [Andre Fischer]. When he suggested to Ms. Simone that she work with me, she came in. I showed her what I just showed you and explained to you [about transitioning from chest to head], and all of a sudden she took the cover of the piano keys and slammed it down. She says, “Where was this when I needed it?” I said, “It was always here, Ms. Simone. It was always here, but you couldn’t access it. What we need is already with us. What we have to do is to find a way to access it.” “But, what do you do?” “It’s what you allow, not what you do. It’s what you allow to happen.” And Nina passed away not too long after that.

You have to get your ego out of the way. People say to me, “You have different levels of speech level singing. What level are you?” I say, “Not even at one.” “How could that be?” It’s because I learn every day. Because a new problem comes in and you’ve got to meet that problem. You’ve got to build their independence. You’ve got to go quickly. Artists don’t have time to record each session always. You must give them what is the easiest to remember to help them get the feeling of proper bridging. That is what will extend their ranges and their careers and keep their vocal cords healthy, without interfering with their artistic style. And that is my passion.

By Aaron Gonsher on August 29, 2017

On a different note