“Is Singing Hard The Road To Vocal Ruin?” by Jeannie Deva

Can you use it and not lose it? As you may know from experience, singing hard is a style that often seems accompanied by its own punishment – strain, hoarseness, laryngitis, throat discomfort, loss of upper range, or a frequent need to “clear your throat.” In severe cases, the result can be nodes or polyps, (nodes: calluses on the inner rims of; polyps: blisters on the tops or undersides of the vocal folds), which are painful and restrictive of singing. Metal and Rock singers often have the attitude that training will make them sound too “pretty.” So not knowing what else to do, they tough it on their own, canceling gigs, sessions and parts of tours.

Does singing hard automatically mean that you will wreck your voice? The good news is that it’s not what sounds you make, but how you make them that will save your voice! Through over 35 years of my own vocal performance and over 25 years of research and coaching others, I’ve found there are techniques that allow you to sing any style you want and without the bad effects.

Vocal blow-out stems from external as well as internal conditions. The main external conditions are: late hours, insufficient rest, bad nutrition, alcohol, drugs, smoky clubs, PA and monitor problems, incorrect microphone design for your voice, and competing with band volume (sigh). The key factor, however, is internal: improper use of your vocal instrument when singing hard. To scope this out and get a handle on it, an understanding of your instrument is necessary.

Vocal Basics
Vocal sound, as you may already know, is the result of the vibration of your vocal folds. (You may know them as “vocal cords,” but they’re not cords and that’s not their actual name.) The inside of your throat has two vertical tubes; one positioned in front of the other. The tube in front is for air, while the one for swallowing runs behind it, more in the center of your throat. Your two vocal folds are positioned just behind your Adam’s apple and lie horizontally across the inside of your air tube. They are coated with mucous membrane, and come equipped with their own tuning pegs, which are connected to the back ends of the folds.

The folds remain open during regular breathing. But for every sound you make, the tuning pegs automatically pivot and assist in closing the folds. With each sound you decide to make, the muscles of the folds prepare and adjust by stretching, thinning and closing them to varying degrees. The production of higher pitches requires less air, and for the folds to stretch, thin and close more. For low notes, the reverse is true. The principle involved is similar to the strings on a guitar.

Examining The Problem
To produce vocal sound, air is released from your lungs and vibrates your stretched and closed vocal folds. If you push too much air up against and through the folds, too much pressure is created. The muscles of your folds will tighten, your throat muscles tense, and your problems begin. Many singers unconsciously associate tension with big emotion and hard singing. For your sound to be big, just the opposite is needed. The louder and harder your sound, the more resonance is needed. If your throat and tongue tighten or your mouth closes, you shut down your acoustic chamber and there goes the resonance. The stress created by the push of excess air pressure and muscle tension can cause an irritation and swelling of your folds. The result is usually: hoarseness, power loss, range shrinkage, and other difficulties, including a strained and off pitch-voice. I work with several techniques that permit singing hard while eliminating the risk of vocal blow-out. While all the techniques aren’t possible to fully detail in this short article, you’ll find it helpful to apply the following.

Self Test
Try saying the word “how.” Put extra emphasis on the “H” as you do so. Now sing the word in the same way. Notice how pushing on the “H” makes your throat feel and your voice sound. Sing the word again, and this time, as you sustain the tone, form the “W.” Decide if you like this outcome. Now try singing it with minimal air on the “H” and instead, emphasizing the “O” (which will sound more like an “Ah” when you sing it). Notice the result. This should feel and sound better.

Vowel sounds originate from the vibration of your vocal folds. Consonants are created with an exhaled air stream and are formed by your mouth. If stressed, consonants can push out too much air for your voice to work well. In response, your throat and tongue muscles will tighten and choke your sound. The problem will increase as you sing higher and louder. Vowels, worked with correctly, will open up the acoustic chamber of your throat and mouth and increase your volume. Consonants should not be stressed as you sing. Let the vowels take the spotlight.

Putting This to Use
Go through a song you find challenging, as follows:

1) Talk through the lyrics and notice the sound of each vowel.

2) Maintaining this awareness, sing the song. Be aware that the pronunciation of many vowels, when sung, is often different than the spelling. (Ex. “I” is often pronounced more like “Ah.” “Say” uses more of an “Eh” than an “Ee” sound.)

3) If you run into any trouble spots, chances are you’re pushing and closing your mouth on the consonants that begin or end the word, while simultaneously singing the vowel.

4) Sing that word or phrase again, focusing on the vowel and letting the consonant(s) take the back seat.

5) On any melody note that you hold out, such as at the end of a phrase, notice: are you simultaneously closing your mouth prematurely ending the word, or are you letting the vowel sound sustain? Try it both ways and decide which you like better.

Practicing with this new awareness may at first take some extra thought. But it soon becomes second nature, while your sound is enhanced and singing the way you want becomes easier!

Jeannie Deva, international vocalist, teacher and recording session vocal specialist, is the Founder of The Deva Method® and The Jeannie Deva® Voice Studios with a network of teachers certified in her method. She has taught thousands of singers world-wide. Clients include singers on labels such as MCA, Sony and CBS, Grammy Awardee Amee Mann, Magic Dick and J. Geils, members from the international touring cast of Fame and Jesus Christ Superstar, Dar Williams, Patty Griffin, MoodCrush, backup singers for Elton John, Celine Dion, and many more. Jeannie’s private voice studio is located in LA. For information on services and her popular voice enhancement products contact: Jeannie Deva Voice Studios, http://www.jeanniedeva.com/, Los Angeles: 818-446-0932

© 2003. Jeannie Deva Enterprises, Inc. Jeannie Deva and The Deva Method are Registered Trademarks and used with permission.