JO ESTILL

Biography and development of the Estill Voice Training System

Jo Estill

Josephine Antoinette Vadala Estill was born on April 25, 1921 in Pennsylvania from parents of Italian descent. From a very early age, she demonstrated a talent for singing and her parents encouraged her to sing standing on the kitchen table for their guests. Not surprisingly, she chose a lyrical singing career and was quite successful. While on tour in Europe and despite rave reviews, she became increasingly nervous at each concert and would be heard saying, “Please God, let me get through this and I'll never sing again!”. She realized she did not know how she actually achieved such results and often asked herself what she was doing physiologically for her to sing in such a manner. Eventually, the question “How am I doing this” is what inspired her to make a career change.

Back in America, she asked herself the following question: “In my singing classes, I learned all the musical language codes. I studied how to express perfect phrasing, sing in several languages, perform Opera…, but I did not learn how exactly my voice works. I could produce sounds in an incredible number of ways, but only one was deemed correct. I only really used one vocal Quality. Why were other Qualities inappropriate?”

In her quest for answers, Jo started teaching singing all while doing a master’s in musical education. Wanting to learn more, she searched through book after book… but quickly realized that she did not comprehend the content, nor did she truly understand her singing professors! She noticed many contradictions and found very little consensus, from one book to another, about language and its concepts. Jo did not recognize what she herself was doing with her own voice and how she could sing as she did.

During her studies, she took complementary classes in Anatomy and physiology of the head and neck. She started her own research at a time when medical imagery was just becoming accessible in laboratories. She therefore had access to tools that allowed her to study the flow and air pressure, as well as muscular activity (EMG electromyography, EGG electroglottography). The laryngoscope was also available for her observations, which allowed her to develop her own hypothesis on the actual workings of the voice. Jo collaborated with renowned medical, voice and language science researchers. She pursued her research over several decades and their results became the foundation of the Estill Voice Training System.

Jo Estill was fascinated by the infinite variety of sounds heard in different cultures around the world. She perceived, heard and saw things differently. Through her research, she maintained her sense of wonder and her enthusiasm for new ideas. When she asked herself what was happening when she sang, she was willing to consider all possible answers. With the model she created, Jo filled a gap between the science of the voice and the teaching aspect of it.

EVT is a specific vocal training model accessible to all that allows independent control of the various anatomical structures that the vocal tract is comprised of. The exercises she created are known as Figures and are efficient tools for the speaking voice as well as for elite singing, not to mention all the work done with patients suffering from voice disorders.

 Singing is no more difficult than learning how to drive a car. Where you go with it – that is, what you choose to sing – is your decision. There is no single "best" voice Quality. "Best" depends on what you like to hear. Some qualities require more work than others and they cannot be done without that physiological commitment. But even that "work" can be fun.

During the last years of her career, Jo Estill focused on the Certification process (EVT) so that her model be taught by expert instructors (EMCIs) and trainers (EMTs) with advanced knowledge of the anatomy, physiology and vocal acoustics.

Jo Estill’s great contribution to science was recognized by the National Centre for Voice and Speech of Sydney (Australia) in 2002, and by the University of East Anglia (United Kingdom) from where she received an honorary Ph.D. in 2004.

Jo died on December 9, 2010 at the age of 89.

Testimonials

Jo Estill's work is pioneering in that she was the first to separate voice quality clearly into source and filter components! Her basic vocal tract shapes associated with sob (yawn), twang, and sing (opera) are fundamental to our current understanding of how the source and the filter interact.

Ingo R. Titze, PhD, World-renowned voice scientist and Director
National Center for Voice and Speech

It was nice to be reminded of how important my Estill training has been in guiding me to the point I'm at today. I've had more tools, thanks to Jo...

Joan Lader, New York City, premier voice coach
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