Guest Blogger: Gregory A. Barker, PhD is a Co-Founder of Singdaptive and its VP of Publishing. He is also an editor, with Kathy Alexander, of The Ultimate Guide to Singing and, for years, served as Commissioning Editor for VoiceCouncil Magazine, the leading website for singers. Greg is also a Fellow at the University of Winchester, a published author with Oxford University Press, and a textbook writer & journalist. 

We’ve all heard of famous singers who have canceled shows, recording sessions – and even entire tours because of a sudden problem with their voice. Of course the vocal issues were hardly ever “sudden” – but grew from a pattern many of us fall into: trying to do too much in too little time! 

A fascinating part of work as a music journalist has been to speak with some of these famous singers, as well as the doctors who have treated them, to discover what they’ve learned. Each of these stories has ended with good news: the voice returned, stronger than ever. 

However, there is one part of these stories you rarely see reported on by the popular press – a theme that concerns every one of us that wants to sing: these artists have learned ways to manage their voice, so that they can rely on it day after day, or night after night, without “sudden” problems. Here are three vocal management tools used by famous singers to increase your singing longevity:

Warming up your voice

Warmups ensure that your first notes into the mic are optimal.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Do a vocal warm up. Yet it’s the easiest thing in the world to overlook when juggling too many things. After all, we seem to be able to talk to others without warming up our voice – so why shouldn’t we be able to sing?  

For singers working around instrumentalists, there can be an added pressure – a guitarist can take their guitar out of a cold case from the back of their car, plug it in and start playing. Sometimes band mates think the singer should be able to do the same thing with their vocal cords!

Troy Sanders was 10 years into his work with Mastodon when he suddenly realized he was taking better care of his bass guitar than his voice.  He was also getting tired of  “blowing out” his voice with an over-elevated energy at the beginning of his concerts – and then being unable to sing strongly “out of the gate” in the next performance. This led him to regular warm-ups: “I adopted a series of vocal warm-ups that I’ve done every single day that we’ve played music; every show day, or recording day, or rehearsal day.”

Mark Baxter, an instructor at Singdaptive, and formerly vocal coach to Journey and Aerosmith, teaches singers to adapt their warm-up according to their workload. If you’re facing a long practice, recording session, or concert, then your warmup may be on the shorter side – so that you don’t wear out your voice in the warmup. Alternatively if you are gearing up to record or perform one song, then you may find a longer warm up most helpful in getting ready so that you aren’t using your song as a part of your warmup! The state of your vocal health is also a factor: spend more time very gently warming up if you are experiencing some vocal fold swelling. 

Many singers find that doing about 20-30 minutes of vocal exercises (humming, scales, lip trills, etc.) is great for warming up the voice. Yet, the key for Mark Baxter is to change the duration and intensity of the warmup to account for your circumstances.

Use exercises to develop stamina 

When singers face a complicated phrase, or want to sing in the highest parts of their range,  they often instinctively “recruit” muscles to help them to do this – the neck becomes tense, the head is thrust forward,  and the shoulders tighten! Yet, this tension works directly against true vocal strength.

There are likely times when you speak loudly without any tension at all. The key is to find these speech patterns and turn them into singing patterns. 

Author and Vocal Coach Kathy Alexander says that powerful singing happens when singers connect their voice to the air flow – this involves good posture, muscle fluidity and freedom with breathing. There are many exercises that can help in these areas, but here is one that you can try out today. It involves using your speaking voice to train your singing voice. 

There are likely times when you speak loudly without any tension at all. The key is to find these speech patterns and turn them into singing patterns. So, find a place where you sing loudly: an empty house, a back yard or a vacant lot will do. Next, try saying these statements with a loud, “calling out” voice:

  • (Pretending you are on a busy sidewalk and need to get the attention of a taxi driver) “Taxi!”
  • (You see a friend across a four-lane highway and want to get their attention) “Hey! How are you doing?”
  • (A child is in another room and you suddenly remember there is a lit candle) “Don’t touch the candle!”
  • (Your inflatable raft is floating out to sea and you need to get the lifeguard’s attention) “Help!”
  • (Someone gives you a huge, expensive gift) “No way!”
When we call out for a taxi or to someone far away we may naturally be using good vocal support.

Try each of these out – and add your own scenarios. As you try each one, take note of the level of tension. Did one of these involve less tension than the others?  Did you notice that you could call out without your shoulders or neck becoming tight? You’ll likely find that at least one of these you did without any tension at all. Take this “call out” and (i) try it with different pitches and (ii) slowly morph it into singing sounds, lengthening the vowels. For example instead of “No way!” you call out “Nooooooooo-ahhhhhhhhh  Way-aaaaay”. In this way you are transitioning from your speaking voice to your singing voice, and teaching yourself to sing without tension. 

Be aware of when you need a rest

Don’t underestimate the power of giving your voice a rest

We’ve already covered the biggest enemy of vocal longevity – tension. The second biggest enemy is not being aware when the voice needs a rest. In other words, it’s just as possible to damage your voice with a punishing schedule as it is with tense singing. 

This is why many famous singers on a demanding tour will make only a brief appearance at the after-concert party, or have long periods of silence on the tour bus. When these same stars have swollen vocal folds, they’ll have the courage to lower the key on some of their songs and perhaps have their bandmates or audience sing some of the higher portions of choruses. The wisest of the stars will say no when their voice isn’t up to the task. 

Renowned New York Otolaryngologist Anthony F. Jahn has treated both A-List pop singers as well as leading opera stars. He explains that swollen vocal folds can have many causes; for example, the common cold, allergies, or over-singing. When one “muscles through” their singing despite roughness or pain, nodules can form on the vocal folds which reduce one’s range and voice quality. 

Dr. Jahn says that these nodules can disappear with voice rest; though, some singers have these removed surgically. He writes, “I compare nodules to corns on your toes – they result from wearing ill-fitting shoes (or using an inappropriate voice). You can remove the corns surgically, but unless you also change your shoes, they will inevitably come back.”

When these same stars have swollen vocal folds, they’ll have the courage to lower the key on some of their songs and perhaps have their bandmates or audience sing some of the higher portions of choruses.

Think of a bit of rest as a part of “changing your shoes”. Begin by just being aware of the quality of your voice on a day-by-day basis. Is the voice sounding a little rougher than usual? If so, that isn’t odd – the vocal folds can easily become swollen from overuse or a cold. This should be a trigger to take things a bit easier – use gentler warmups, sing passages in the middle of your range. Or, it may be time to just rest the voice a few days.

Finally, keep in mind that many famous singers with heavy vocal loads have employed these strategies to manage their voices. This is because they are aware that fame doesn’t guarantee vocal health – but daily management of your voice does.

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