You really messed up now…Your career’s over…You have damaged your voice…
When your voice begins to sound and feel irregular, your inner voices can be pretty disturbing. They take you down a dark and miserable emotional road of fear and self-doubt. Immediately, we go into self-preservation mode. We save our voices, spend days in silence, forego auditions, drink herbal concoctions, and wear the stereotypical singer’s scarf. Unfortunately, avoiding using your voice can stymie your recovery time. No one wants to be a limping singer.
Don’t get me wrong, rest can work wonders. Yet sometimes even after rest we don’t feel our best vocally. Rather, this article is for the singer who feels like they’ve lost something from their voice over time. Perhaps there’s an odd rattle, or you feel a little thick on certain notes. Whatever the case, you should definitely consult a voice professional before you resign yourself to Bob Dylan covers or gravel-voiced character roles.
Before waving the white flag, take stock of your current state. Perhaps you’ll find that there are certain habits that have crept into your routine that aren’t kind to the voice. How’s your physical fitness? Is your diet balanced? Are you sleeping enough? There’s no time like the present to invest in your overall health. Without a doubt, healthy habits will beget a healthier voice.
Any perceived or diagnosed vocal damage is an opportunity to double-down on your technique. As you work through the tough time, surround yourself with positivity. Those inner voices will be trying to distract you with doubt and fear. Flush them. Whatever concrete jungle you inhabit, remember that nature renews itself. There is always a promise of spring in the darkness of winter.
Again, I recommend working with a speech therapist or a voice teacher; you want a professional to help you get back into good vocal shape safely. That being said, don’t be afraid to run some diagnostics yourself.
When I work with someone who has vocal damage, I begin with developing the thin edge function of the vocal cords. When the vocal cords are lean, thin, and gently coming together at their edges, you hear and feel a faint resonant buzz accompanying your sound. It feels easy to sing and all is well with the world. Visualize two pieces of paper gently touching edges without any bending from pressure.
Damage compromises the thin edges of the cords. They can’t close completely with the same light amount of effort as before, so we press them together more firmly. Typically we’ll start engaging ancillary muscles of the neck and throat to help with cord closure which can cause some added discomfort and further the damage.
I begin with slides on a minor third from the bottom pitch, to the top, then back to the bottom. (If you’re not familiar with the interval, give a quick listen to the song “The Very Thought of You.” The titular phrase utilizes the minor third.) It’s important that the tongue stay as relaxed as possible during the exercise, so use an NG or an EE. Both keep the tongue high and fat. Make sure that the slide is, in fact, an even slide. Avoid letting the voice quickly shift to either pitch.
Don’t leave an interval until you can perform a slow even slide with the resonant buzz. Take your time. This isn’t about speed; it’s about rehabilitating your voice. Any compromise you make along the journey back to vocal health will come back to haunt you. Really listen for any interruptions in the buzz. Is there a moment that the tone deadens or becomes thick? Can you feel a muscular pull in the neck or throat? Is the tongue pressing back toward the throat? If so, start again. Perform the slide as many times as you need. Keep this exercise within your middle voice, A4-A5 for ladies and B3-B4 for fellows.
After you’ve slid around for a while and can feel a thin edge again, it’s time to ease into stretching the vocal cords. Just like other muscles of the body, the vocal folds, as well as the muscles of the larynx, neck, throat, and jaw, function better with regular stretching. The neck and jaw are a bit easier to stretch without instruction. However, to really stretch the laryngeal muscles, throat, and vocal folds, you may need some guidance.
The best way to healthily stretch your voice is with falsetto exercises. (You’ll want to put on your Mickey Mouse ears at this time.) First of all, let’s maximize the stretch potential. Place a finger on your Adam’s apple to determine where your larynx is. Inhale and feel it lower. The lower the larynx, the wider the larynx can be; conversely, the higher the larynx, the more narrow it can be. Keeping the larynx in that lowered position, open the jaw as wide as you comfortably can and round the lips into a small oval. Think of this as the “I just put something extremely hot in my mouth but don’t want to take it out” position.
Now sing breathy falsetto WHOs. Use a 5 3 1 pattern starting on around F5 for ladies, F4 for gents. It’s imperative that you maintain the facial and laryngeal posture throughout the exercise. You may feel the desire to spread the lips for the top pitch as you ascend, but stay strong. As you reach your high Bb especially, keep the position, allow more breathiness through your shape, and listen for the next level of thin cords. It will sound a bit thinner and a bit more heady.
Don’t force anything with this. The most important element is the stretch of the cords, but not to any breaking point. Save the intense stretching for a lesson with a voice professional, but don’t be afraid to test your limits. Often I find that people who begin a lesson sounding as if they have vocal damage will suddenly sound normal again after fully stretching in falsetto. Think of a knot in a muscle. It’s uncomfortable until you work it out.
In conclusion, don’t be afraid. All singers experience damage of some sorts from time to time. We’re human. It’s okay. Move on. Ask for help from a professional. That’s why we’re here. Your vocal renewal is but a WHO away.