Vocal Health: Dryness; The Obvious

Following really quickly on from yesterday’s blog post, as there is a pretty big, hopefully obvious, omission from that list of do’s and don’t’s to combat dryness…. (drum roll…)

….. smoking.

So, when I finished my last blog post saying there were other causes of dryness, what I was getting at is, anything that you inhale that isn’t moist (yes, I went there 😬) will probably have a detrimental effect on the vocal cords.

Smoking is the most obvious; but essentially, inhaling hot particles of anything is going to interfere with, and dry out, the layer of lubricant on the vocal cords. And, depending what is being smoked, irritate and inflame the then dried-out surface of the cords.

Other things that could have a similar effect include:

Air-conditioned air (very dry)

Airborne chemicals (use a lot of hairspray / cleaning product / polishing product for example?)

Incense (fairly large airborne particles)

Pollution, especially exhaust fumes

Dust (household, wood, earth)

Any other kinds of smoke (bonfire, open fire at home)

Dry ice

So, it’s worth having a think as to what you are exposed to in your daily life; can you take any measures to lessen it?

Otherwise what can we do to offset any negative effects from daily exposure to inhaled irritants…? You could try:

Daily steam inhalations

Drinking hot (as is comfortable) drinks that are hydrating

Chewing gum (encourages saliva which creates a moist environment)

Do all the other things on the good doc’s list (see previous blog post)

Again, we need to find out what works for us as individuals, but also, keep an eye on longevity. How long do you want to keep your voice healthy for? You might get away with smoking and singing in your early twenties, but as your vocal cords age, adding gradual damage to the ageing process may mean a vocal crash or breakdown later on.

In 2016, pop singer Adele was reported in the media to have said that she missed smoking, as she felt that stopping had made her voice weaker and she couldn’t hit the high notes anymore. This was after she had endured two surgical procedures to remove polyps and repair her haemorrhaging vocal cords, having touring extensively with a heavy smoking habit. As a result, she is unlikely to ever embark on a world tour again, as she has been advised it would probably end in yet another surgical procedure.

I’ll leave that pearl of wisdom with you !

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com

Vocal Health: Dryness; A Story

A few years ago now I had a horrible cough for a few weeks. Even after it cleared up, I couldn’t get my voice to work properly; I was getting an ache in my throat, my high notes weren’t their usual selves and it was just generally difficult. I had already taken a couple of weeks off work (East Sussex Music Service at the time) but was panicking as I needed to return to work, had gigs booked, and was generally worried about my voice.

So I booked an ENT appointment in Brighton with the top surgeon in the land, Mr Meredydd Harries; but, via the NHS this was going to take 6 weeks to materialise. So I got out my credit card and went to see him privately.

I had had a stroboscopy a few years before to have my vocal cords looked at, as I had been trying to fathom why I had morphed from super-high, clean, classical soprano to the love-child of Rod Stewart and Bonnie Tyler; nothing to report, my vocal cords were clean as a whistle. It wasn’t a hugely pleasant procedure, as you have to have a tube put up your nose and then down your throat.

So, I was relieved to see that Mr Harries had a new-fangled telescope-thing for viewing the vocal cords, which just slides along your tongue and sees ‘down and around the bend’. It was so much more comfortable AND I got to see my vocal cords on the screen, which was really exciting (geek-out moment) as I had seen so many, but not my own, over the years.

Again, he told me that my vocal cords were fine – in fact, he said they were perfect in terms of shape, evenness and structure.

However, he did say that my vocal cords were chronically dry, and as a result, they weren’t stretching and vibrating quite as efficiently as they should, which explained my struggle with the high notes. He also noted that I had started to engage my false vocal cords to compensate for the lack of movement in the true cords, and this was likely to be the cause of the ‘ache in my throat’.

He told me that the dryness was likely to have been caused by my horrible cough, as coughing bashes the vocal cords together, making them rough, but also, any infection in that area may have temporarily wiped out the little glands that produce the lubricant for the vocal cords – their ‘engine oil’, if you like. Apparently, after a nasty cough or cold, it can take these glands a while to get back to normal, and so the voice stays dry after the infection has gone, and this is very common.

In fact, he said that dryness of the vocal cords is the most common minor problem that singers face, and it is often a precursor to more serious problems, as lots of singers continue to use, and push, the vocal cords when they are dry.

He gave me a list of do’s and don’t’s, which are pretty obvious, but, can be hard to follow. In a nutshell:

No coffee, tea, caffeinated drinks

No alcoholic beverages

No spicy food

More sleep

No shouting

Drink enough water for whole-body hydration (so the glands can make the lubricant – all these things need water)

Do up to six (!) steam inhalations per day, just plain water, no Olbas oil etc

Rest your voice if it’s very dry

Don’t use medicated throat pastilles (you will be masking the problem and could cause more damage)

So, based on this advice, I aim not to have a curry and go on the lash in the few days before a gig. As I mentioned before, I try – try – not to drink coffee on the day of a gig (I give myself an ‘after 10am’ rule). If I’ve got, or had, a cold or cough, I try and steam a couple of times a day. And if I do have to gig with a dry voice (not ideal, do as I say, etc ….) then I take a flask of herbal tea and honey, some non-medicated pastilles (Vocalzone are my favourite), and I might adjust how I sing some of the harder songs in the set. Then, I rest my voice as much as possible for a few days after. It’s not an ideal situation, but then, I’m usually only gigging two or three times a month – it’s a challenging set, but I know my body and have learnt my limits.

So, this is what I think each singer needs to do – become really well acquainted with your voice, what your body needs and is adversely affected by (age will be a factor too, but youngsters – keep an eye on longevity as well as the short-term). How many gigs / performances you have, how sensitive you are to certain factors, will have a bearing on how much of the good doc’s advice you will want to take on board (if you are a theatre singer doing a show six days a week, you may want to take all of this very seriously to maintain your health).

If you have a sore throat – don’t sing! It sounds obvious, but so many people don’t rest when they know they need to.

If your voice is still hoarse after two weeks, go to your doctor.

Anyway, how I became a gravelly Rod Stewart tribute, and then found my way back out of that, is a subject for another day! I will continue on the theme of vocal dryness in my next blog post, as there are other causes.

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com

Vocal Health: Fact v Fiction, Part 1

A quick interlude to have a look at vocal health, as I’ve had loads of questions on this topic this week.

Let’s start with the food and drink issue, as I get asked about this frequently, and I was once told by a ‘technical development’ tutor on my music degree course, that singers shouldn’t eat cheese as it would ‘sit on the vocal cords…’ so there is clearly still a lot of confusion around this topic.

Here’s the thing …. your vocal cords are in your airway; food goes down your oesophagus; the epiglottis is the flap that manages the junction, if you like – it closes over the airway so you can swallow food without choking. So, if cheese were to be ‘sitting on your vocal cords’ you would be in immediate need of the Heimlich Manoeuvre!

In addition, food passes through the pharynx before it goes down the oesophagus, which is the section of the throat behind the nasal cavity and mouth. The wall of the pharynx moves quite dramatically when we raise in pitch during singing. In a healthy body, food or drink does not linger in this area – some people have the idea that certain foods ‘stick’ to the throat – but a functioning digestive system will have everything moving through efficiently.

(Pharynx split into three sections here, green, yellow, blue)

However, certain foods or drink could irritate or dehydrate the tissues of the lower pharynx / wall of the throat, impairing the movement required during singing.

The only ways your vocal cords can be affected by food or drink, are if there is steam, or moist air, that you are inhaling (e.g. hot cup of tea) or the overall level of hydration in the body has dropped (e.g. a raging hangover). It takes your body around four hours to metabolise water that you have drunk, so it can reach the cells which make the vocal cords’ lubricating fluid. A drink of water may soothe your mouth and pharynx in the short term, but has no immediate effect on your larynx.

Another question is whether certain foods encourage the production of excess mucus in the body, particularly the upper respiratory tract, around the larynx, which could inhibit the movement of the vocal cords and other structures. Possibly, this is why some singers find eating dairy produce affects their voice.

I say ‘possibly’; my advice to students is that there isn’t a one-advice-fits-all here. We need to discover for ourselves what our bodies need. For me, I try (…operative word!) not to drink coffee beyond 10am on the day of a gig, as I feel it dehydrates my pharynx wall, it doesn’t seem to move as easily, it feels dry. That’s from years of being a coffee-addict and noticing a correlation. So I work on hydrating my body effectively from a couple of days beforehand.

There are other things that can affect the health and functioning of the voice, but let’s look at those in another post …. it’s time for a coffee …

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com

Volume and Power: Get Closure

A lot of singers come for lessons looking to find out how to get more volume, or power, in their voice. Usually they are struggling with this as they have been relying on a ‘big breath’ to ‘power’ through a phrase, but cannot understand why the voice remains airy, weak, or strained.

As discussed previously in this blog, using a lot of air creates too much pressure on the vocal cords, often pushing them apart to create an ‘airy’ sound (air=airy, go figure). So, the idea that a big breath makes you more powerful, or louder, is instantly scotched.

Volume is created purely by how the vocal cords close.

The vocal cords sit either side of the opening of the trachea (airway) and in order to create sound they vibrate really really fast and also open and close really really really fast, meeting in the middle to touch each other on closure.

How fully the vocal cords touch on closure, and the amount of force used to close, determines how loud you sing.

So, let’s say, for sake of argument, that Norah Jones – soft, jazzy, – averages 40% closure with minimal force; and perhaps Adele – belting, firm and loud – averages 75% closure, with more force – this starts to give us an idea of the difference closure can make to our sound.

In fact, it’s the seat of our sound, the core. Your vocal cords create your voice. Not your lungs, not your diaphragm. So, the compliment, “what a singer! Must have a cracking set of lungs!” is a misleading inaccuracy.

The shape of the vocal tract has a bearing on your overall tone, but we will look at that in another post.

I will also address why Adele has had two surgeries on her vocal cords, before hitting her mid-twenties …

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com

The Mystery of The Diaphragm: Part 2

I finished my last blog post on what may have been a bit of a cliffhanger for a lot of singers; with the revelation that the (thoracic) diaphragm isn’t in its active phase when we sing, and so, therefore, we don’t ‘use’ it to sing.

However, the idea that we do has been around for a long time, and it continues to be taught.

I think this is because the diaphragm is the main creator of inhalation, so the assumption has been that it also controls the exhale. Or perhaps because we are not quite sure what we are experiencing in the abdomen when we sing.

I like to scotch this myth, as I think it can confuse singers and cause them to create unhelpful tension, both physically and mentally! If we can’t really feel this elusive, supposedly vital, muscle, that is going to make us sound amazing (but it appears that everyone else can!) then we could be spending a lot of uncertain time searching for an answer that isn’t really there.

The answer is actually much easier to implement.

We want a steady, controlled flow of air passing the vocal cords when we sing. As previously discussed, we want as little air pressure as possible to allow the vocal cords to stretch and vibrate happily, so less air in, better control out, is the aim.

We discussed the importance of good posture, especially keeping the ribcage stable (intercostal muscles between the ribs engaged) and sternum raised, yet in a relaxed fashion.

In addition, we want to engage the deep abdominal muscles as we sing, as the abs work in an antagonistic way to the diaphragm – they engage whilst it relaxes, pushing the abdominal organs upwards with the diaphragm – this, alongside the action of the ribcage and recoil of the lungs, helps us produce a smooth, controlled, flow of air.

So, in essence, rather than wondering if we are doing the correct thing with our diaphragm when we sing, if we focus on our posture, ribcage and abs, this gives us a tangible and more effective way of controlling our airflow, but also making that ‘lesser’ breath work for us, both in terms of minimal pressure on the vocal cords and making it to the end of a phrase or held note!

Mystery solved….

In my next blog I will discuss what creates volume in the voice, and why that old chestnut, ‘what a great voice – must have a cracking set of lungs!’ is also a load of old hokum….

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com

The Mystery of The Diaphragm: Part 1

After looking at the position and stability of the ribcage, and specifically the sternum, in my recent blog about posture, the second element in the riddle of how to sing effectively with less air pressure is the (thoracic) diaphragm.

Oh, the diaphragm ! Students come to me with some really weird ideas about this muscle and its role in the body, breathing and singing. There is SO much myth and incorrect information about this, we need to look at exactly what it is and what it does to understand why there is so much confusion about it.

If you have ever heard any of these phrases:

“Sing with a strong diaphragm”

Support the voice with the diaphragm

Use your diaphragm”

“Sing from the diaphragm”

…. then I hope you are sitting comfortably!

Let’s start with what the diaphragm is and where it is; it’s a kinda-dome-shaped muscle that is attached to the last rib and forms the floor of the ribcage. It literally separates your bodily innards into two sections : lungs and heart above (housed within ribcage) and guts, digestive, reproductive and other bits below (‘diaphragm’ from the Greek meaning ‘partition’).

Have a feel of where your ribcage ends and poke your fingers underneath the last rib – that’s your diaphragm in there. It attaches at the back to the spine, which is what gives it leverage to move. It’s higher up in the body cavity than most people imagine.

Okay, so here is what we know about muscles: they contract to create force and movement – this is their active phase. Then they relax back to their resting state.

And…. here’s what we know about the diaphragm: it contracts (pulls itself downwards) so we can inhale, and relaxes (moves back up) on the exhale.

And here’s what we know about singing: we sing on the exhale…

Add to this the indisputable anatomical fact that the the exhalation of air is caused by the recoil action of the lungs and tissues lining the ribcage.

So, the facts are …. you do not use your diaphragm to breathe out.

You do not have a ‘strong diaphragm’ when you breathe out.

So, you definitely do not sing with or from your diaphragm. You only ever sing with your vocal cords.

(To be fair, I think we can safely assume Jennifer knows this …. what a voice!)

In conclusion, your diaphragm is basically doing nothing of active use when you sing …. so what is ? And why has it come to pass that generations of singers and teachers believed it to be the diaphragm, causing Emperor’s New Clothes-style confusion and propagation of a totally wrong idea that still survives today?

I will answer these questions in the next instalment. Stay tuned for part 2 (dons Miss Marple hat #stylishlymysterious).

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com

©️Fiona Wallace 2018

The Singing Stance: Why Posture Matters

We singers are always being told to stand up straight, but for some people this posture can feel unnatural, especially for those who have a desk-bound existence.

However, it’s a bit more subtle than just doing an impression of a Buckingham Palace guard! And in fact, if we tighten too much into a ‘good posture’ this can hinder our breath.

I wrote in my last blog about not taking in big breaths to reach the end of a phrase or sustain a held note. Posture is the key to making the lesser, more relaxed breath last on the exhale.

There are two key elements here: control of the sternum (breastbone) and control of the diaphragm.

Firstly, the sternum; this is the large, flat bone that joins your ribs together at the front (cue Tarzan, chest-beating call). If you take in a breath and let the sternum collapse down as you breathe out (I call this ‘teenage posture’ – sorry kids- see Kevin and Perry for reference 😂) the air leaves your lungs really quickly.

However, if we do the opposite and lift up through the sternum, keeping the ribcage position stable as we breathe out, we can make the air last longer – see opera singers, ballerinas, dressage riders and athletes for reference; this posture makes our breathing easier and more efficient, without the need for huge lungfulls of air, so is used in all kinds of activities.

There is then less pressure on the vocal cords as we sing, so they can do what they need more easily to produce the sounds we want.

Equally, our head position also matters, as pulling up or pushing down can affect the larynx, and the flow of air.

One of the most common breathing and postural faults is to raise the shoulders on the inhale. Try this now – if you bring your shoulders up towards your ears, you will feel the muscles in your neck tighten. This can put unnecessary tension into the throat around the vocal cords, and can cause sharpness (unwanted raising of pitch) in the singing voice.

Start by having a look at your favourite singers and see what they do; some, like Jose Carreras in the header image above, are very obviously maintaining ribcage stability; others, like Dusty, are a bit more subtle. Here are a few….

So, in conclusion, maintaining stability in the ribcage, especially the sternum, head and shoulders, can help us be more comfortable using less air, which in turn frees up the voice.

In my next blog I will discuss the part the all-elusive diaphragm plays in singing – and it’s not what you might think. For anyone who has ever been told to, “sing with a strong diaphragm!” or even, “sing from the diaphragm”, this is a must-read!

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com

©️Fiona Wallace 2018

The Myth of the Big Breath

Looking back on childhood choirs, I can clearly remember being told to ‘take a big breath’ in order to get through the line of a song; it’s such a traditional and pervasive idea for creating an effective singing voice. Even a couple of years ago, a student who had started studying for the ABRSM Grade 4 Vocal exam with another teacher, came to me and showed me the pieces she was working on. Most of the pencilled-in annotations and notes I could decipher, but I was confused by several saying ‘BB’ throughout the pieces; when I asked the student what it meant she said, “oh, that’s where I need to take a big breath!”

At this point I almost hung my head in my hands! This student had come to me asking for help improving her tone, volume and control; she was singing with a very airy, quiet voice ….. and of course, there was the answer, scrawled across her music in pencil ….

It sounds counter-intuitive to say ‘use less air’, or at least, use the amount of air necessary, is probably a more accurate way of phrasing it. After all, when Marilyn sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’, she was deliberately over-breathy for effect.

The vocal cords’ primary function is to be a valve; after all, the need to control air flow in and out of the lungs preceded the need for sound! Imagine how tightly you need to pinch your fingers at the opening of a party balloon in order to stop the air escaping … at this point your fingers are acting as a tightly-closed valve. Your vocal cords act in a similar way if you over-fill your lungs with air and then try to control the resulting air pressure – whilst asking your vocal cords to vibrate, close and stretch to produce the lovely sounds you want – the stress caused will either force the vocal cords apart, creating an ‘airy’ or ‘aspirate’ vocal quality, or the required note will simply not work, crack or sound strained. This is even more obvious on high notes where more stretch is required in the vocal cords.

I tell all my students that this is basically the first lesson of singing – if we can understand the physics behind how air affects our sound, we can begin to unravel several problems at once.

So, in order to produce more volume, clarity of tone, and even pitch control, we need to banish the idea of the ‘big breath’ to the bin of history … or simply leave it for sultry renditions of the birthday song …

The next logical question might be, ‘how do I get to the end of that line without taking in three more breaths?!’ … so I’ll discuss that in my next blog.

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com for more info.

©️Fiona Wallace 2018