So the other day I was flicking through the TV, and I landed on boy band – The Wanted’s Show, I only watched for five minutes and within those five minutes it showed one of the singers (who had all but lost his voice) going in to a voice specialist, who then told him he needed to go on complete vocal rest, It then showed a clip of another member of the band struggling during a performance and then being pretty much told off by the manager for his bad performance and ordered back to his vocal lessons.
On further research it turned out the first – Nathan was actually suffering from a haemorrhaging vocal cord which eventually needed surgery.
The thing is it seems more and more singers are coming down with vocal injuries, look at Adele who in 2011 had to have a polyp removed from her vocal cord after repeated damage reduced her down to a whisper, even Julie Andrews couldn’t escape the effects of singing, she developed a cyst after her extended performances on Broadway, and after her surgery to remove it went wrong she has now been left unable to sing! – So how long is it until these singers bad voice habits start to rub off on their fans?
Which brings me to a question that I often get asked – What do I see as the most common cause of damage in young voices?
The answer is that it’s not usually just one thing, but it definitely starts with lack of guidance from parents, teachers or the media, the need for a young singer to push themselves to be the next big thing without thought on the actual damage they may be causing themselves.
For starters how many times are voices marked on how high they can go?
Young singers are striving to hit the high notes of their idols who are either struggling with their voice themselves, or on the flip side sometimes vocally trained, under the guidance of a singing teacher and are usually aged 20+. So when a males voice isn’t fully developed until their early 20’s and a females voice isn’t fully developed until their mid 30’s, why do we push children’s voices to sing songs that could be damaging to them instead of developing?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for stretching vocal ranges and pushing voices to help them develop, but when you’re getting a 10 year old to sing a challenging song which is an effort for the 30 year old it was written for – how can you be encouraging that voice to grow safely and ultimately to the best of its ability?
The issue here is that a lot of people will disagree with this, they’ll probably say – she can hit the notes without straining – Well of course she can, she’s 10! The only untrained voice that’s higher than hers is a boy of the same age!
The main point is that a lot of people including singing teachers don’t necessarily understand about voice weighting, just because you can sing a note doesn’t mean that you should! If people have light floaty high notes they shouldn’t be singing dramatic heavy notes even if they are on the same pitch.
I remember being at Uni and approaching my teacher about an aria I had heard and wanted to work on for my dissertation, she told me that “I better not dare look at that song again until I was at least 45!” To which I obviously protested thinking she was being a little over protective, after all at this stage I had been studying vocal technique for 9 years, had gone through a BTEC, HND and a year of degree and thought at the time that I had a pretty steady hold on my voice.
She explained to me that just because I could reach those notes, it didn’t mean that my voice was ready to sing for a prolonged time up in that register as my voice was still young. So if at 21, with years of vocal training I wasn’t ready to sing these high notes, how would a 10 year old hold up to songs that were written for gospel trained R&B singers three times their age.
It’s one thing singing soft high notes with good support and an open throat, – (creating sounds that are usually natural to children), it’s another to sing gospel weighted high notes with no breath control or safe technique. To create a sound which is fake to the natural sound of the voice will only ever cause damage if it’s not correctly controlled or supported.
So that’s my first point that causes damage, singers practicing and performing songs which are either out of their voice type, (to high/to low/to heavy) and singers who are too young being forced to sing songs that are just too big for them.
The second comes from singing too much
This drives me crazy, in the vocal group I work with around Christmas pretty much all of our singers are coming in with tired/sore – and the scariest of all, husky and sometimes lost voices. When asked they tell me that they are rehearsing for hours upon end each day, practicing in between and all that without any guidance on how to sing these songs safely.
A voice only has so much singing in it each day, quite a few professional singers will start to show fatigue after 45mins, so half that and you probably have a better estimate on a child’s voice without training (if not less). So how is that child going to feel singing for 3 hours at a time (sometimes longer/usually with songs out of their voice type) add in the pressure of practicing at home, it’s only a matter of time before they start to suffer, Mix in the cold weather and you have probably hundreds if not thousands of young singers across the country with lost voices due to their school shows and lack of vocal safety guidance.
A young singer shouldn’t really be singing for more than 1-2 hours a day, preferably with breaks and plenty of water. Less than that if they’re suffering from damage – i.e sore throats/strained sounds, and not at all if they’re husky!
Another way which I have a lot of students coming to me is after having lack of access to good vocal technique training or worse, music teachers who aren’t trained in voice, or singer teachers who naturally have a good voice, but no training in technique (just because a teacher has a good voice doesn’t mean they’re a good teacher!)
I’ve had a few students who are singing at school and music teachers are trying to work with them on support, telling them to pull in their tummy’s, tighten muscles, pretty much they are telling them to put strain on their vocal mechanisms, there is a form of diaphragmatic technique which requires you to expand your diaphragm and then pull in your abdomen, (a technique I used for years) now this creates a lot of tension, is a lot of effort to keep up, and overall it does improve the average voice to a certain point. But personally I’ve found it’s not the most efficient way of breathing, I use and teach a deeper lower diaphragmatic breath, feeling the expansion into your lower abdomen/pelvic area where the only effort is breathing in and using a conscious effort to support that breath, in the same way that you would lift your arm in the air and consciously hold it there. That’s the only effort it needs. If you’re creating tension anywhere in your body it will reflect in your voice. It’s well reported that the average singer uses between 50-100% more muscles during singing than what they actually need. You don’t push and strain when speaking, so why do it when singing?
Now a lot of teachers do deliver the first method of diaphragmatic breathing and probably with great success, but after studying both ways, but I couldn’t believe how free my voice became directing my support a bit lower, so I’ll always be more biased towards the latter.
The thing is everyone has their own techniques which work best for them, my only issue comes from teachers putting too much tension into their students, and this was flagged up to me by a student, who has been singing very successfully with the lower form of breathing support which I teach, she was working on her end of year piece with a music teacher and was being told to pull in, she came to me quite distressed after finding that it really affected her voice for the worse, she found herself torn between doing as her music teacher said, pleasing her, and doing as I had taught her knowing that she felt more comfortable singing in that way. The only thing I could say, without undermining the other teacher was for her to do as she felt most comfortable, to which she chose the more relaxed breathing technique. It did make me think about how often do my students have to face the conflict of two teaching methods, I know that each teacher I studied with had a slightly different approach, and it was from all of them I merged my technique, taking from each of them what I found worked for me best, and I hope that’s what my students take forward – to find what works best for them, as long as it’s comfortable and doesn’t cause them any pain.
Another thing that’s cropping up lately which is very strange, is singers imitating computerized effects on recorded voices. I worked with one girl who actually was imitating autotune, she even had the pitch shift and tone distortion spot on to the point it was bewildering!
Unfortunately this is the after effects of that digital age people keep talking about. Young voices will always mimic their idols, this is how we learn, this is how we learnt to speak we copy what we hear, but when young voices aren’t protected and guided, this is when we start to see more and more damage. You may not notice it at first, but the sore dry throats become more often, huskiness starts to set in, the voice slips, it sounds thicker – the tone changes, until all you have is a tired voice that’s struggling each time its pushed.
You may think that it’s not likely to happen in children, but I’ve worked with 11 year olds with damage, with voices which if pushed much further were likely to develop nodules or polyps or any of the other nasty things which can ruin a career.
These are children and teenagers who dream of being stars, the majority of whom do not understand how much training goes into developing a voice fit to gig every night, the majority of which may just end up like those boys from The Wanted or Adele or worse suffering like Julie Andrews and never able to sing again.
The good thing is the majority of voices which go this way can be saved and rehabilitated, but it takes effort and commitment from the student, and at the end of the day – you get out what you put in.
The hard part is pulling back and actually taking the time to rest and be sensible – you’re not going to fix a tired or damaged voice in two or three lessons. It took me between six months to a year seeing a vocal tutor weekly before I actually felt myself again after I nearly lost my voice. But that effort is worth it, after taking the time to reassess my technique – my voice was better than ever!