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August/September 2015

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: How To Sing After A Singing Break

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: How To Sing After A Singing Break

When we haven’t sung after a singing break, we can be disheartened when confronting our singing voice. This column deals with how to get back on the horse and ride like the wind. Having the courage to rebuild your voice initiates new appreciation and love for singing, music and free expression. 

Personally, I am strangely grateful for the damage, set-backs, struggle and difficulty with my voice and music career. Why? Because these challenges have led to greater understanding and higher regard for the instrument, my self and great vocal technique. The voice is 100% physical…, 100% psychological and 100% spiritual. (As you can tell, I’ve never been good at maths.) Work on wellness in your life and your voice will reflect this. Similarly, establishing a joyous daily singing practice radiates positive influence in all other aspects of our lives.

Some of my previous NZM columns have dealt with the issues of vocal recovery (specifically, post-operatively from vocal surgery). These experiential lessons learned mean I’m less likely to repeat mistakes –– consciously or unconsciously. If I do slip up, I know how to rectify and restore vocal function without freaking out. The voice is a very robust entity; it IS who we are. All fear is unfounded as the body is in a constant state of healing and improvement. It helps to write your fears down –– articulating fears often reveals how puerile they are.

When we haven’t sung or performed in a while, we seem to expect an amazing sound to spontaneously siren forth from our mouths. The logic of this is as faulty as expecting to effortlessly run up several flights of stairs after doing no exercise for months, and gaining 10kg. (I know, because I am that soldier.) Vocalisation will probably feel less powerful and controlled, and more heavy and unwieldy. This is normal, and temporary. Rather than reaching an ideal (sound or weight), simply increase fitness and enjoy the benefits.

Because vocal cords are tiny vibrating ligaments attached to the vast musculature of the body, they get flabby, weak and unfit if unused. Like yoga, the point of warming up the voice is to gently stretch it back into full range, strength, balance, flexibility and function. Like yoga, vocalisation feeeeeels so good. (Try combining singing warm-ups with yoga stretches –– it works a charm!)

It does feel ‘weird’ doing yoga when you’re out of shape though –– same with singing. Allow yourself to gracefully move through a transition period of slow steady improvement rather than demanding instant results. Don’t worry about outcomes, just enjoy the activity of singing and the scrummy sounds you dive into.

Voice is an instrument of self-expression and healing – for self and others. Twang and open-ness make every note and word you sing a remedy. Use vocal tools as the pilot uses instruments to steer to their destination –– constantly adjusting course, altitude etc. in response to conditions.

Music is all forgiving and unconditionally loving. Songs are like great friends –– they don’t care how long you’ve been away, they just love that you want to hang out, whatever state you’re in. Find out what’s new? Ask them what they’ve been up to. Keep the lines of communication open.

Personally, I don’t respond well to deadlines or diets, obligations or ‘have-to’s. Therefore, I don’t set unachievable goals that I’ll beat myself up for not realising. Rather, I distract myself by singing while doing something else like walking, housework, in the shower etc. Find out what works best for you. Prefer military styles? Then boot camp it is.

Whatever you do, don’t judge or compare. Voices change and may feel/sound different, wrong, hard, foreign, unfamiliar –– even impossible at times. Using good technique, there’s nothing to be afraid of, and nothing you can’t achieve. You’ll know HOW to get the sounds you’re after. Previously, singing may have been natural/easy, but you didn’t know what you were doing. It just worked. Difficulty is an invitation to learn failsafe ways of vocalising. Injury, fatigue and damage, instruct us into ‘best practice’. Like Ironman, you’ll be stronger after the rebuild.

Following vocal silence (every morning) you’ll find your voice is lower. That’s great. Warm-ups easily regain the top end, but now you’ll have more bottom end to play with. Think of Joni Mitchell’s voice changing, getting more character with age, cocaine and cigarettes.

Coincidentally, age is a blessing for vocalists –– it often increases subtleties of expression, musicality and depth. Respect the instrument, keep fit and you’ll capitalise on these new dimensions. Unlike other kinds of athleticism, the voice improves as it matures by virtue of increased life experience, emotional breadth and expertise. Tony Bennett and Alberta Hunter are great examples of maturation rather than decay. Carole King is sounding better now than she did in her 20s.

Like acting, if you show up and take risks to develop, your craft and skill mature as you do. Use the jazz rather than pop model, which worships youth, considering artists as past it by 21, and focuses way too much on aesthetics rather than true inspiration and soul.

Why then, do we despair? Probably perfectionism… served up with a shot of shame and a loss-of-faith chaser. We deny, avoid, act out, self-medicate, make excuses for not practicing, judge and catastrophise.

You’ll complain, “I don’t sound like I used to. I can’t hit those high notes anymore.”” Nothing’s wrong. You’re just out of practice. Warm up and be amazed as your voice returns with greater control. Become aware and adept using twang, openness, placement and purpose. Little things pack a big punch –– e.g. three minutes of loudly panting ‘Sh! Sh! Sh!’ each day will greatly strengthen breathing/support muscles.

Every little bit helps.

Rather than numbing your emotions and experiencing anger or frustration at where you’re at, open the paint box of your emotions and use them to colour your songs. Remind yourself of why you sing; to serve the song, communicate, activate, engage, express, connect. An audience doesn’t require you to be perfect, rather, that you be real, honest and spectacularly you. Last time I checked, I wasn’t perfect. Thank God for that.

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Twitter: @BraveCaitlin

Caitlin@caitlinsmith.com