By Kathy Alexander
From Adele to Bon Jovi, famous singers have been prevalent in the news recently for vocal health problems and cancelled tours. Amateur and professional singers alike are losing their voices all too often, impacting their income and confidence as a singer. Some voice issues are caused by how the singer is using their voice, but the significant culprits are a relentless schedule and the lack of expert support for what is a highly athletic use of the human voice.
Ten years ago, I developed vocal fold nodules — a common but serious vocal fold injury — and, at the time, did not understand much about vocal health. I felt pressure to power through obvious warning signs that my voice was in trouble. Like many singers, I ignored common and fixable voice problems. Vocal therapist Joan Lader has compared athletes and singers, describing the latter as a “vocal athlete.” In sports, if you have an injury, you’re advised by your team — consisting of trainers, coaches, and physical therapists — to rest and heal. For singers, they can get advice from an otolaryngologist (ENT), but many don’t have access to one.
Any singer — amateur or professional — who has regular performance commitments should consider themselves a vocal athlete. The risk of injury is high and the need for specialist support is a given. Like the rest of the body, the voice needs time to heal after illness, strain, or injury. Powering through usually makes it far worse. You can preserve the health of your voice with three steps: Assess, Adjust, and Avoid.
Assess Your Vocal Condition
The most important step you can take to protect your vocal health is to recognize the early signs of vocal fold irritation or swelling. Being attentive to these early signs can help you adjust and get back to normal without risking more serious vocal health problems.
Singers should never experience pain or discomfort when using their voice, even if they are singing with great intensity. When singers recognize any discomfort in their voice, they can be aware of the signs that their vocal folds are experiencing too much tension and getting irritated.
Unfortunately, we cannot feel our vocal folds, so you can’t just pay attention to pain. It’s imperative that singers also pay attention to how their voice is functioning. Many serious vocal fold injuries cause no pain at all to the singer. Using the vocal cords in an intense way, such as talking at a noisy restaurant for hours or singing at a long rehearsal, can cause issues.
So, what’s the best way for singers to identify a worsening vocal condition when there is no pain? Conduct a daily vocal swelling test. To take the test, singers should sing the first phrase of “Happy Birthday” in a high-pitched voice and repeat the phrase in a higher pitch every time until their voice falters. Taking this test twice daily for 20 seconds will help singers recognize small injuries before they get serious.
Adjust Your Voice
If singers realize their vocal folds are inflamed, they must take extra care with their vocal technique and make temporary adjustments in singing and their day-to-day life. Despite the fear of judgement, the best message to give to others is that you are “conserving” your voice for a few days and will be singing cautiously. If you convey confidence and authority in the matter, no one will bat an eye. When your voice is under the weather, you must work with the voice you have — not the voice you should have — on any given day. Adjusting your voice means lessening the intensity and the amount of singing and speaking throughout the day.
Singers should take a “vocal nap,” which consists of 15 minutes to several hours of silence as often as possible. When performing, singers should request for their band to take longer instrumental solos, change their song keys, and cut out songs that are more vocally demanding. In musical theatre, singers should take high notes down an octave and alter melodies to avoid belting. However, if the singing is particularly demanding, singers should bow out of a gig to prevent long-standing vocal issues.
Avoid Future Strain & Swelling
To avoid irritating your voice next time, commit to avoiding yelling and talking in noisy environments as much as possible for the rest of your life.
Singers must learn how to make the sounds they desire without forcing or straining. It’s possible to express any musical sound safely even if the sound does not come naturally to the singer. The best way singers can do this is through technique training with an experienced teacher in their genre of music.
Singers are bound by their physiology and the laws of acoustics. But, with the right coordination of breathing, vocal folds, and resonating spaces, singers can be heard over an orchestra without amplification or belt out a heavy metal scream without hurting their vocal folds. Yes, these activities are vocally athletic but, just like athletes, singers can succeed in their craft without injury
Kathy Alexander is VP of Curriculum for Singdaptive, a vocal coaching platform to teach professional and amateur singers. She was a staff writer for six years at VoiceCouncil magazine and works for the University of Victoria as a practicum supervisor. Kathy is also a singer, vocal coach, and choir director. www.singdaptive.com