Voice training traditions have sometimes brought madness in their wake. Dane Chalfin, a director of the British Voice Association and prominent vocal coach, is intent on separating fact from fiction.
I have a mock motivational poster at my studio. It pictures the running of the bulls in Barcelona with this caption: “TRADITION – Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly stupid”.
When I present certain ideas to voice teachers, I see some stony faces. It’s not always easy to have cherished ways challenged. As I expand on these points, the looks turn to anger: it is as if I’d killed their dog! However, as we examine together the science of the voice and practice some straightforward techniques, the looks change to amazement…and gratitude.
There are many new and important discoveries in the science of the voice that have yet to make a widespread impact on vocal training and technique. I see many prominent singers with acute issues in my clinic—but I would far rather do preventative maintenance than last minute interventions. So, check the next 2 pages to see whether you are practicing these important principles.
1. Listen to Your Body.
It is imperative that singers pay attention to the signals their bodies are sending them. If you have a scratching sensation in your larynx when singing, or if you have to cough after you have made certain sounds, this is a sign that you are traumatizing your vocal folds. You need to rest and investigate a cure. Having said this, sometimes singers are under the illusion that one shouldn’t feel anything at all. However, muscle ache is not always a bad thing: you will feel some ache after you have worked on any muscle set in a new way. Think of going on a long hike: your muscles are tired and may ache— this is a natural part of the process. If the ache is persistent, however, it is a sign that you need to change your technique.
2. Don’t Use Your Voice to Warm Up Your Body.
Too many singers believe that a long and laborious vocal warm up is necessary prior to an effective performance. However, your vocal folds do not require this; in fact, a long warm-up wastes precious energy that should be conserved for performance. So how should you warm up? All high-intensity singing requires anchoring from muscles in the head/neck and torso/core. Get the big muscle groups working first before you attempt any high-intensity sounds—do some stretching to limber up and remove unwanted tension from your tongue and jaw. Don’t attempt high-intensity singing if you are physically fatigued. Warming up is about checking in with your technique, but a warm-up should not be a “wear-out.”
3. Avoid Lozenges and Sprays.
There is not a single singer who needs these. If the product contains anesthetics then it will remove the body’s warning mechanism – pain. If your throat is numb, you are more likely to push things harder and in less efficient ways, potentially leading to further trauma. The only way to get anything to touch the vocal folds is to inhale it. Tea with honey and lemon might make you feel better psychologically but it has no effect upon the vocal folds. So, is there any commodity that will help a sore voice? Scientific research points to one “product”: steam. Steaming for 5-15 minutes, twice a day, is a great way to ease allergies, colds and dry voices. Maybe the reason that more people haven’t tuned into this is that it is absolutely free and evades the radar of the market.
4. Stop Over-Breathing.
The only valve you have for holding breath back is your larynx. Tanking up with huge amounts of air will only make the larynx work harder. Try taking a large breath and hold it. Your larynx is working hard to keep it in—this work is not necessary. It isn’t breathing technique we need, but anti-technique. Think of how you breathe when you speak: it just happens. Often all a singer needs is a little posture work and this is enough. Let breathing happen on its own by releasing the abdominal muscles at the end of a phrase. Air comes back in all by itself!
5. Don’t Relax.
Just think of any physical activity from tennis to rock climbing—your body is never completely relaxed but in a state of readiness. Getting rid of rigidity and superfluous tension is good, but all singing requires varying degrees of effort. Don’t be afraid of it. Effort is not the same as strain. We engage muscles in most daily vocal tasks: crying, yelling, laughing, calling out, etc. Why should singing be any different? The inside of your larynx should feel free, open and easy but it is very unlikely that the rest of your body will be totally relaxed during high intensity singing. If you are learning a new sound or vocal maneuver, focus on isolating the specific muscles you need to achieve the sound and to maintain it.
6. Make the Sounds You Want.
Don’t let teachers discourage your individuality. All clean sounds from speech to belting and everything in between can be made safely. Even distorted sounds and “grott” can be made safely—though I have to share a caveat. There are techniques to be mastered when high intensity and distorted sounds are the goal and these techniques need to be respected. The main point to stress is that you can, and should, follow your intuition with the sounds you wish to make. The idea that all singers should approach their entire range in the same manner and with this same sound quality is outdated, boring and, frankly, dangerous. Artistry is your choice. Technique is only relevant if it enables artistic choices. Do a cost-benefit analysis of the sounds you wish to make. What do those sounds “buy” you (e.g. artistic color, emotional impact, etc.)? and what do they “cost” you (in fatigue, trauma, etc.)? Then, make your investment wisely.
7. Understand Your Voice.
Learning a little about the anatomy and physiology of your voice is important. Knowing all the muscle groups certainly won’t make you a better singer, but understanding how different sounds are produced in the body will protect you against people who don’t have the same knowledge whether they are producers, directors, teachers or coaches. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it; do your own research. Be aware that everyone has a product to sell and that voice methodologies are too often accompanied by pseudo science. I recommend that singers begin with proven studies and methods like those by Jo Estill or Cathrine Sadolin where research has been done to back up their work.
8. Recognize that Eminence is Not the Same as Evidence.
Having famous clients may mean that a teacher has some good and useful tools. It doesn’t mean they know everything. Voice science and research are relatively new fields and the technology keeps getting better. We are constantly learning new things about how the voice works. Make sure that you find out what kind of work your teacher is doing to improve themselves. And don’t forget to employ both vocal science and your own intuition as “authorities” on your search for better vocal health.
9. Liberate your Larynx.
In traditional/classical teaching and even in some contemporary pedagogies there is an emphasis on keeping the larynx down in a lowered position. Unfortunately this type of instruction can be very damaging. The larynx has to rise or move up in the throat to help accommodate higher pitches. There are muscles that can pull down against this natural need to rise, in order to make the sound color ‘darker’. This is an aesthetic choice that will be appropriate for some styles of music. However, if singers hold the larynx down with tongue, jaw or other inappropriate muscles, it can eventually lead to quite a lot of vocal problems. It is also worth mentioning that it is potentially dangerous to make high-intensity or belt sounds without allowing the larynx to rise. Contrary to what some pedagogies may advise, a lowered larynx will not ensure vocal health.
10. Stop Trying to Sing from Your Diaphragm.
Contrary to popular belief, it is impossible to “sing from your diaphragm”. You cannot feel or directly control your diaphragm in the singing process. The diaphragm is a muscular partition that stretches around the entire torso; it provides no sensory feedback. Instead of attempting to feel something that cannot be felt, pay attention to the principles above: listen to your body and remember that insufficient or misplaced effort is the usual culprit with most vocal challenges.