Every time you look in the news it seems that there is another singer out with vocal fold problems. Just last week Meghan Trainor had to cancel her tour due to vocal fold issues. Sometimes all they require is some rest, other times they have to resort to more drastic invasive surgical treatments. Some classical voice teachers posit that it’s the lack of technique and though for some singers this may be true, in general that is not what the cause is. http://www.vulture.com/2015/08/surgeon-explains-vocal-cord-injuries.html?mid=fb-share-vulture
In 2008 at a conference for the National Associations of Teachers of Singing (NATS), I took part in a study to assess the vocal folds of voice professionals. The results of the study were surprising in that 86% of the study participants had vocal pathologies, but it didn't interfere with healthy voice production. This is one reason why every professional singer or aspiring professional should get a laryngological evaluation including high-quality strobovideolaryngoscopy when they are healthy and singing well. http://www.vocapedia.info/_Library/JOS_files_Vocapedia/JOS-069-3-2013-301.pdf What really causes the problems for professional singers is not the abnormalities that already exist or the style of singing, but the demands and frequency of performing.
Train Like An Athlete
In sports overuse injuries are well known and talked about - rest and recovery are very important parts of any training program. Vocal athletes need to consider this as well. Opera singers do - performances are spread out with rest days and rehearsals are often sung with a marked voice. The modern contemporary popular music artist is expected to perform day after day with grueling touring schedules, plus the toll of the constant travel can increase stress levels and make healthy eating difficult. Young singers in undergraduate programs also run a risk due to technique not being fully developed and increased vocal use in lessons, masterclasses, choirs, practice, etc.
What can you do about vocal overuse? As with sports training, have an effective training program. There are a number of training cycles involved. One is the overall cycle that takes into account training season, playing season and off-season. A smaller scale cycle could be broken up into 4-week periods with a three-week build followed by a recovery week with a lighter load. Finally we can program a weekly cycle that allows for work days and rest days. Keep in mind that vocal folds and the surrounding muscles are small structures and cannot train for hours on end a day. It’s important to get to know your voice and what the signs of fatigue are. In athletic training, even for intense interval training you should always feel like you still have gas in the tank. You should be able to maintain form and good technique. If that starts to break down then it is time to stop.
The other aspect of any good training program also involves things like making sure you have a good light warm up keeping the intensity low. It sets up your mind and body for the training that is about to happen. Working on all round development. For singing this would involve making sure the whole body is in condition, not just the vocal apparatus. Keep in mind principles of reversibility and maintenance. Reversibility is when training ceases and the body returns to a pre-exercise state. Though a week or two of rest may be a good break anything longer can result in a regression. Most vocal students who take off the whole summer usually experience this. The other principle is maintenance. This can prevent the reversal of your vocal (and bodily) fitness level during the break times (up to 12 weeks at one third the volume).
Stress and diet are also important to keep in mind. Make sure you are eating a healthy diet. I find Shakeology is a great addition and wonderful for traveling. You are always guaranteed one exceptionally healthy meal a day. Take time to distress by having some quiet time doing activities you enjoy (a bath, a walk in the park, meditation, exercise).
As I always stress, singing is a very physical activity and you are a VOCAL ATHLETE. Treat yourself like one and you will find that you will be in better shape than ever (vocally and physically) and less prone to overuse injury.
I hope everyone is having a fantastic summer! This has been a wonderful summer for me. I have done so much and there’s still so much to do before the F-word rolls around in September. I’ve completed two sprint-distance triathlons and am getting set to do an Olympic next week. I had a great trip to Vancouver for a music teachers’ conference followed by some visiting and sight-seeing. My personal trainer certification is almost finished. I've attended some wonderful summer festival offerings like the local Fringe and Folklorama (a multicultural festival) and other summer shows. Family, friends, fun, laughter, food…
So what are the 5 lessons? Well, behind the scenes of all these accomplishments and activities is a lot more work to keep things moving along and it’s not all fun and games.
So with what we have left of the summer continue to learn, eat well, keep exercising, and go to the lake!
In 20 years of teaching voice you start to notice certain things that seem to creep into the studio over and over again. As a younger singer, I’m sure I was guilty of some of these errors, too. Maybe this sounds familiar: You are standing with good alignment (you’ve been working hard on this), you inhale deeply, you start to sing expecting your voice to soar…Something’s wrong, the voice is not coming free; no matter how low in your body you are trying to connect, no matter how hard you are working, it seems to be all stuck in your throat. Yes, there may be tension issues and other technical problems, but today we are going to focus on the Kink in the Hose.
Some teachers refer to the imagery of having a column of breath to carry the sound. I once heard Marilyn Horne refer to imagining the breath as a water fountain with a ball being carried at the top of it. This image of the flow leads to my analogy of the kink in the hose. Misalignment in the body will prevent the free flow of breath much like a kink in a hose prevents the free flow of water. Some postural problems are due to poor muscle balance and require correction starting with proper postural assessment and a good exercise prescription, which may require the assistance of a personal trainer or physical therapist. Today, however, I’m going to assume that there is good alignment with no overt postural problems. Here are three common problems that can occur once the mechanism of singing starts.
Hyperextension of the back
This occurs when the singer over-exaggerates standing tall. He is trying to keep shoulders back and sternum lifted as he has been instructed to do, but over compensates. In doing so, the abdominal muscles are pulled taut so they don’t have the freedom to move as required. The back is shortened in this posture so that the back of the ribs are compressed and likewise do not have the freedom necessary to facilitate effective breath management. Breathing tends to become more shallow if this posture is maintained. This posture can sometimes be difficult to spot since the ear-shoulder-hip-ankle may still seem aligned. Strong core muscles can help minimize the tendency to back extension. Watch that the distance between the pelvic bone and the bottom ribs stays the same at the front and back while maintaining a neutral spine (a slight expansion of the ribs will be felt).
Anterior pelvic tilt
This one I’ve encountered most often with transfer students who have been encouraged to focus on belly breathing. They push into their belly, which pulls the ribcage forward, forces the pelvic bone to rotate forward and causes more curvature in the lumbar spine. These singers often feel like they are working very hard, yet can’t seem to connect the voice to the breath resulting in a thin wobbly voice. Looking at a side view will help identify this problem easily. Focus on maintaining a neutral spine. Reworking the habits of inhalation may take a little time, but thinking of costoabdominal breathing may help. The reward of a fuller, steadier, more powerful sound that seems so much easier to produce is usually incentive enough to get quick results in the correction of this poor postural habit.
Posture is well-aligned and maintained through inhalation and then, as the first note is sung, the head moves forward, usually leading with the chin. There are a couple reasons this can happen. One is the singers desire to connect with the audience and move closer to them. This is sometimes accompanied by the full-body lean towards the audience. This singer has to become aware of tendency and let the audience come to them. Another possible cause of forward head is the subconscious idea that this is helping get the sound out. The singer is most likely not even aware of this happening. Aside from resulting in a less than convincing performance this posture will cause tension around the larynx impeding the freedom of the vocal mechanism and of airflow. Watching in a mirror and using it as a tool for feedback can help this problem, whatever the underlying cause.
Aside from hindering vocal performance, these poor postural habits left unchecked can lead to back problems and even eventual vocal pathologies. I’ve listed just three of the most common ones that I come across. If you know of other postural problems that occur during singing or have an issue yourself please feel free to comment and open up the discussion.