December/January 2018

by Caitlin Smith

Finding your Voice: Voice Damage – It Cuts Like A Knife

by Caitlin Smith

Finding your Voice: Voice Damage – It Cuts Like A Knife

In a recent Guardian article, Bernhard Warner asked, “Why do stars like Adele keep losing their voice?” Expanding on that he observed: “More and more singers are cancelling big shows and turning to surgery to fix their damaged vocal cords. But is the problem actually down to the way they sing?” – Caitlin Smith ruminates on voice damage.

The simple answer is ‘yes’. Is surgery necessary? In most cases, no. Will the problem recur without changing bad habits? Most certainly. However, rather than clearly explain the reasons for voice loss and recovery, he confused matters by representing two supposedly warring factions – classical vocal coaches advocating the adoption of good vocal technique – vs vocal micro-surgeons who are more than happy to get their scalpels on your soft fleshy bits.

The truth of the matter is very, very simple. Pushing, forcing, singing from the throat, using too much breath will inevitably cause you to suffer voice loss and damage.

We don’t need to blame Puccini or Wagner for writing more demanding operatic roles for classical singers.

We don’t need to presume vocal damage is ‘a necessary evil’ of singing, the way injuries are a part of playing professional sports. There is a considerable difference is between ‘accident or environmental factors’, versus being ‘personally responsible’ for damage due to poor technique.

Bad technique has been around as long as people have sung. (Much the same way as bad communications have existed as long as we’ve tried to make ourselves understood.) The good news is: so has good/safe vocalisation.

At this point, I’d like to clarify my terminology. When I say ‘good technique’, I’m referring to safe, easy, expressive, sustainable singing and speaking. When I say ‘bad’ technique, I’m referring to pushed, painful, limited, affected, inauthentic, uncomfortable vocalisation where the voice is easily worn-out, lost or fatigued.

Sadly, Adele has bad technique. There. I said it. But so do plenty of other high profile (predominantly white) singers out there. She’s got a beautiful soulful voice, but she’s misusing it. Why? Because there’s a massive industry pushing artists from the youngest age to deliver the goodies, without adequate coaching.

At least in the States, they have respect for the concept of coaching, personal development – ‘woodshedding’. If you show promise, you’re professionally guided. The ‘…you’ve either got talent or not’ position perceives coaching as an indicator of a deficit, only needed when something goes wrong.

We listeners (and voice users) need to learn to recognise the sound (and feel) of good/safe and bad/unsafe technique. Can you discern when you and others are forcing? Straining? Breathy?

For example, you can hear Adele flipping (yodelling) from her low-end into a breathy ‘head’ voice when singing high. This indicates ‘split registers’ or having a ‘break’ in the voice. It occurs as a result of singing from the throat. (For most of us this is bad and sounds a little like a donkey, or a cow.)

Having breaks in the voice is also bad, like having a broken arm. You can go to a doctor’s office and say, ‘Oh it’s fine,’ as you leak blood onto the floor. Or, you can smooth over and blend the registers so the entire range (pitch compass) comes out the forehead, where it wants to be.

Beyonce doesn’t have a discernible break. This becomes soberingly obvious when you sing Halo in her key of A and the chorus is all bangin’ round a C# – the note where most female voices would potentially break.

Interestingly some genres accommodate bad technique more forgivingly than others. For jazz, soul, metal and R&B singers use our full range in ‘full voice’ without splits, limitation or compromise.

If you are a gigging musician, you have to invest in a good insurance policy of sustainable good technique.

Without it you are a liability, due to constant cancellation. Studio-based singers can fall apart when suddenly expected to deliver the bikkies in three-hour live shows, without ‘paying their dues’ on-stage.

Yes, we’ll keep getting nodules, polyps, cysts or haemorrhaging the vocal cords as long as we sing from the throat. Micro-surgeons are all too happy for you to do this. The pharmaceutical industry delights and profits from our ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. Quick fixes like taking a pill, or unnecessary vocal surgery, do not heal the underlying issues that created the symptoms in the first place.

Sometimes the issue is developmental. Female voices break later and more subtly than males (since they don’t get as dramatically lower in pitch). Consequently, women in their late teens gradually become less able to access an upper range that was available to them when they were girls – they push to sing high instead of opening and twanging. (Who learns that in school?) 40% of cases presenting with nodules on the vocal cords are women aged 19 to 25.

Dystonia and dysphonia are frequently misunderstood conditions by the western medical profession because ENT surgeons don’t consider psychological traumas or the way we’re using our voices. They simply treat whatever symptoms are presented, mostly disinterested in the origins of, or remedies for, dysfunction.

There isn’t really any debate or disagreement among voice-coaches as to causality or treatments for voice damage. Even the rift between classical and contemporary singing teachers – we agree that good technique is fundamental and essential. The consensus is only shared by teachers who know what the rudiments of good technique are. For those who don’t, there is a hell of a lot of damage done in perpetuating bad habits. (Much the same way as all spiritual practices are based on love and forgiveness.

Goddess help us when religions preach anything that is NOT wholly/holy loving and forgiving.)

Unfortunately, there’s profit to be made from fear and doubt. Some surgeons make work for themselves rather than allowing for natural remedies, vocal silence and rehabilitation to repair stressed and abused vocal cords. It’s seductive to have a fast-track quick-fix offered, instead of having a good look at the way we’re driving the voice in an unhealthy, unsustainable way.

I should know. I’ve got rid of nodules twice with good voice-therapy and I’ve had a cyst surgically removed. I’ve also had psychosomatic voice-loss more times than I can remember. Though I could blame fatigue, oversinging, six gigs and 40 hours of teaching a week, smokey bars, 3-4 hour hard-ass jazz gigs, stress, illness, laryngitis and hormones for the nodules… the real reason they manifest was that I was still singing from my throat and hadn’t learnt or adopted twang and open-ness yet.

The good news now is that I constantly surprise myself by singing full-voiced, well past the ‘passagio’ (the notes where a break would be). I do this by using great technique and rest assured in my knowledge of this technique. If you’re reading this Adele, I’d love to have a natter over tea and help you back to singing better than ever. You can… and you won’t need surgery either.

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