The recent vocal issues of Adele, Keith Urban, have all in my opinion been caused by a combination of incorrect vocal technique and overuse of the voice. This blog is to discuss some of these issues, and their solutions.
My heart goes out to British pop star Adele, whose meteoric rise to fame has been somewhat halted by vocal problems. How well do I remember the days of being on the road with a band, and having to sing with vocal cords that were swollen due to contracting a cold or flu on the road. The road is not for the faint of heart- the pace is grueling and unfortunately for a singer there just isn’t anyone who can “sub” for you when you get sick. Additionally, singers often don’t get enough “down time” and rest on the road- elements that are absolutely essential in maintaining good vocal health.
Constantly changing time zones, dehydrating airplane cabin air, singing for hours at a time, talking too much in loud environments, lack of sleep, not drinking enough water, general exhaustion, and poor diet all contribute to poor vocal health and swollen vocal cords. And the effect will spiral out of control, as the singer has to force the voice through compromised vocal cords, which causes them to swell even more, and so on. It’s a very slippery slope.
The two fundamental issues, in my opinion, are incorrect vocal production (technique), and overuse of the voice. Most vocal issues can be mitigated or avoided altogether by investing time and energy (preferably early in the artist’s career, rather than after the problems have started to show up) in good vocal technique and training.
High on the list of vocal technique issues to address should include: learning to sing with a “mix” rather pushing the chest voice too high, registration balancing, and learning to sing with a moderate amount of volume, rather than trying to “out-sing electricity” (ie- the band, who can always turn up the volume). In the heat of the onstage moment, with emotions and artistry at a high peak, it is very difficult to restrain oneself from pushing for volume (especially since the band is usually playing very loudly); however, singing at a moderate vocal dynamic is essential for a singer’s longevity.
Then there is the choice of whether or not to attend the after hours party, even one given in your honor. For the smart singer, the smartest choice would be “not”. Talking loudly over more noise and volume is the worst thing you can do after singing a show. After you have sung hard, you should be on total vocal rest (that means silence-no whispering either) for at least a day, to give the vocal mechanism a chance to recover and rebuild.
Sadly, many popular artists fail to train properly before starting a career. A foundation of good vocal technique that emphasizes register balancing and the use of the “mix” rather than pushing chest is essential.
Singer Adele (who sings mostly in her chest voice, as many pop and rock singers do) has had a plethora of vocal issues recently, and has had to cancel numerous performances. She released the following statement on her website:
“It is with deep regret that Adele has been forced to cancel her remaining live dates and promotional appearances in 2011,” says her website. “She is to undergo surgery to alleviate the current issues with her throat and a full recovery is expected. As a result, doctors have ordered her to rest her voice and completely recuperate before looking to schedule any work commitments.”
Many “natural” (and highly talented) singers such as Adele either don’t feel they need voice lessons, or are afraid a teacher will change their unique sound. They start heir careers on natural gift, which, sadly, tends to dissipate under the stresses of a career, when singing becomes a daily job. This is compounded further with the aging process, and the stress of singing longer, louder, and more often than before success happens, with little or no time for recuperation.
I try to emphasize to young singers that getting on a show such as American Idol is great, getting signed to a record deal is great, having a hit song is great; however life does change drastically at this point for a singer. Now you are expected to deliver, flawlessly and consistently, the same vocal sound that got you discovered in the first place. And without years of prior training and consistent and continued vocalizing to establish and maintain good vocal habits, this is going to be challenging, to say the least. The vocal instrument is rather fragile, and, subjected to poor vocal production, will undoubtedly degenerate over time.
Like an athlete, a singer must train the muscles properly to begin with, or they can expect to confront vocal problems sooner or later. And good vocal production must be maintained by consistent vocal workouts with an “outside set of ears”- that is, a teacher who can listen to and rebalance the voice. Since we as singers do not hear ourselves, we need to consistently entrust our precious voice to someone else who can accurately diagnose and provide proper technical training.
What are the vocal cords and how do they work? The vocal cords (or “folds”) are comprised of two folds of mucous membrane covering muscle and cartilage. Normally they open and close smoothly, adducting (coming together) on the closed portion of the open/closed cycle. However, vocal abuse can create swelling, cysts, polyps, and nodules on the vocal cords.
With laryngitis, the vocal cords become inflamed, irritated and swollen, because of trauma to the cords. When air passes over the swollen cords, the resulting sound is distorted, creating a “hoarse” voice. With extreme swelling of the cords, the voice becomes almost inaudible.
Treatment for laryngitis usually involves a foundation of vocal rest. Silently resting the cords gives the “edema” or swelling a chance to dissipate.
However if a singer continues to abuse the voice by forcing vocal sound over swollen vocal cords, a fairly easily treatable laryngitis may progress further, resulting in vocal nodules, polyps, or, as in Adele’s case, vocal cord hemorrhage.
Vocal cord hemorrhage results when one of the blood vessels on the surface of the vocal cord ruptures and the soft tissues of the vocal cord fill with blood. It is considered a vocal emergency and is treated with absolute voice rest until the hemorrhage resolves.
A hemorrhage left untreated or occurring repeatedly may result in scarring of the vocal folds, which is a condition that is much harder to treat and has permanent effects on voice quality.
Sometimes a hemorrhage can produce a “polyp” (blood blister) on the vocal cords. Polyps can be removed with microlaryngoscopic surgery, and many singers such as Keith Urban choose to undergo this procedure. Singer John Mayer was also recently diagnosed with a granuloma (lesion) which formed on the cartilage of the larynx.
Vocal nodules are another common byproduct of overuse and abuse of the voice. Vocal cord nodules are also called Singer’s Nodes, or Screamer’s Nodes.
Vocal cord nodules are known as “calluses of the vocal fold.” They appear on both sides of the vocal cords, typically at the midpoint, and directly face each other. Like other calluses, these lesions often diminish or disappear when overuse of the voice is discontinued. This usually means 2-6 weeks of total silence followed by vocal rehabilitation through speech therapy.
However, when the singer returns to prior vocal habits, either in speaking or in singing, nodules and other vocal woes are likely to return.
The solution is good vocal technique! It is true that “if you keep doing what you have done before, you will continue getting what you got before”. Vocal habits take time to relearn and change and a singer who wants to avoid the vocal problems mentioned above would do well to establish good singing habits, and to maintain those habits by continued work with a teacher who understands registration, mix and balancing as it applies to pop and rock singing.
The right teacher won’t try to change a pop singer’s sound, but will enable the singer to take some vocal weight off the bottom of the voice (if they are pushing chest up too high) and instead, build and develop the upper register so that high notes can be sung in “mix”, rather than hyperextending the vocal cords to push chest voice up. With time and training, the upper register mix will sound just as strong as the chest voice does, and the singer will no longer be abusing their talent, and can enjoy a long and profitable career, with no time off needed to recover from vocal abuse.
For professional singing lessons in the Atlanta, Marietta and Alpharetta GA area, or to register for voice training online by skype, facetime, or speakerphone, please visit the website at www.singlikeastar.com, and click on the GET STARTED tab to register for a professional vocal evaluation and consultation.