December/January 2021

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Ways To Rebuild The Voice From Nodules

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Ways To Rebuild The Voice From Nodules

Dog whimpers and raspberry sirens: Ways to rebuild the voice from nodules. Late in 2019, Cailtin Smith was diagnosed with nodules on her vocal cords.

‘Singer’s nodules’ are calluses in the same place on both cords opposing each other, produced by repeatedly forcing a specific pitch. Mine developed through screaming to be heard in an abusive relationship, not from singing incorrectly. I was devastated! How could someone who teaches voice have developed nodules?

It wasn’t my first nodule rodeo, either. I developed them first in 1992 from simultaneously singing with laryngitis, drinking heavily and screaming in a punk band. Back then I received voice therapy at Greenlane Hospital’s Voice Clinic which advocated prolonged vocal rest and learning how to speak with good technique. This was a catalyst to my becoming a vocal coach. I realised there wasn’t adequate support, guidance and correct information available to professional voice users, specifically singers.

What I discovered late last year was that, within the medical system, things haven’t improved. In fact, they’ve gotten far worse! I’m not going to mention how disrespectfully treated I was by the Voice Clinic at Auckland Hospital or how expensive it is to go private. I’ll simply say that the first voice therapy session they could get me was ridiculously six months after diagnosis.

It appears that there’s a schism between old and new approaches. The latter aren’t interested in healing the nodules. Rather, they suggest ‘compensatory strategies’ and ‘coping mechanisms’ such as ‘reducing frequency and length of vocalisation’. I couldn’t believe my ears. How lacking in compassion? How do others facing this cope?

My tip: Regardless of how and why you got ‘em, full recovery is easier than you’d think.

Nodules occur due to forcing the voice, pushing sound through a tight throat with immense amounts of tension in the body. Voice is our primal and immediate means of expression. It’s very hard not to react out of self-defence, as a response to pain, injustice or attack. As any parent can attest, it’s difficult to restrain yourself from yelling at your kids (given provocation, fatigue, exhaustion and exasperation).

Conversely, juvenile nodules present when a child incessantly screams. The outcome is a husky, raspy or breathy tone as nodules prevent the vocal cords from adducting/approximating along their full length. Gaps on either side of the nodule let air escape so that the vocal cords don’t vibrate evenly and freely. There is no such thing as a ‘naturally husky voice’… only damage in need of healing. It’s unlikely they’ll go away without the strategies that follow below.

Though you wind up sounding like Mavis Staples (yasssss!) there is a cost: a marked break, very sore musculature in the throat (neck, tongue, jaw), little or no phonation around the breaking point in the voice, breathiness, vocal fatigue and immense effort making sound. ‘Purity of tone’ is impossible. Sure, roughness is great, but we want at least the option of a clear easeful sound. (Personally, I didn’t have a truncation of range, rather the middle/transitional part of the voice disappeared).

The real causality of nodules is not being heard.

When we’re not heard, or don’t feel heard, we increase volume in hope that the message gets through. Sadly, this is counter-productive. The harder we try to be heard (when repeatedly being interrupted, talked over or when band members crank their guitars to 11) the more tension in the body. Tension is like concrete. We’re acoustic instruments making sound through spatial resonance and bone conduction – drums not windbags. We expect the poor wee vocal cords to do the job of the whole body and they simply can’t. Hence… nodules.

It’s incredibly liberating to accept that some people will never be able to listen, comprehend, understand or hear us out. Our best option, therefore, is to walk away without engaging in protracted arguments. This is easier said than done, especially if we have a history of being silenced or unheard.

Surefire methodology to get rid of nodules:

  • Observe 5 days of complete vocal rest (no coughing or throat clearing… not a peep). Enjoy it. Silence is liberating and deeply spiritual.
  • Inhale steam as often as you can. Make a funnel from cardboard around the mouth of a thermos flask, or wrap your mouth around the spout of a teapot (ceramic, not metal for obvious reasons).
  • After day five, start gentle vocalising: Dog whimpers and Raspberry sirens. Dog whimpers are just that – soft sob-like descending sounds with as clean an onset as you can muster (using ‘ng’ to prevent breathy or glottal/tight-throated onsets).
  • Start the whimper from the top of your range and gently siren down without a break. It’s important that you focus on the clarity of onset (i.e. a smooth, precise initiation of tone). No forcing or breathiness. Raspberry sirens too are as they sound.
  • On a raspberry, siren from the bottom of your range, right up to the top and back down again – this is the quickest way to warm up the voice from scratch at any time.
  • Don’t rush into gigs too soon. Give yourself at least two days of gentle warming-up before launching into practising/gigging.
  • Lose the tension. Stretch, yoga, shake wildly, get plenty of rest, massages, meditation, walking, de-stress, eradicate the stressors, counselling or therapy.
  • Learn how to use twang and open-ness and vocalise correctly. Utilise these tools instead of pushing.
  • Become a Trauma Detective. Investigate who has historically or recently; silenced, shut down, laughed at or invalidated your opinions, or repeatedly interrupted you. Become aware of and observe how and when you respond with a strained, pushed voice.
  • Self-compassion and self-preservation. Walk away from argumentative, attacking or disrespectful people. You needn’t literally waste your voice explaining, defending or educating people who just won’t get it.
  • Get band members (or yourself) to turn down.
  • Gain awareness of communication styles and volume, yours and others. Take full responsibility for your reactions.