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Common vocal problems and solutions

Some common vocal problems and how to address them:

As a vocal coach I come across several recurring vocal issues. I will list one of the main ones here and summarise the way in which it can be addressed. Please bear in mind that solving technical challenges is best done together with a good vocal coach. However, when you read the scenario below, you might recognise an issue you have been facing and this article will at least point you in the right direction.

1) The Problem:

You can only sing loudly. If you try to sing in your head voice your voice is weak and breathy. You can make a loud powerful belt sound but there is nothing in between. You are loosing vocal range and your voice seems to be getting lower. Your speaking voice is raspy and/or breathy. After gigs you are vocally tired. You often worry wether you might loose your voice in a long session. You can only sing every second day otherwise your voice is too tired.

The diagnosis:

-It is impossible to pinpoint the exact problem. If this is an ongoing situation you should book in with a laryngologist and have a scope done in order to assess this accurately. However, the likely cause is swollen, thickened vocal folds which are not adducting or meeting properly. This can happen for a variety of reasons. If you are in a Rock band and use a loud belt quality frequently, without warming up or practicing, your vocal folds will thicken and loose flexibility. Imagine an athlete training with heavy weights in the gym several times a week without stretching or working on cardiovascular fitness and flexibility. The athlete would develop bulky large muscles which do not work finely. Vocalists need to practice their head voice or ‘thin folds’ even if in performance they are only belting. It is vital to stretch the vocal fold mass out and to work the voice on thin folds whenever you practice. How is this done? Try to make a small and very clear and connected ‘i’sound. Practice scales and arpeggios going up and down from the bottom of your vocal range to the top. Warm up before every gig in your ‘smaller’ more ‘classical’ sounding voice. Practice gliding between notes. Voices love to glide. It stretches out the vocal fold mass. Glide between thirds, fifths or octaves. Practice ‘sirening’. Sirens are wonderful for voices. Practice them on an ‘ng’ sound like on the end of ‘sing’.

-You may have acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when the acid from your stomach travels back up the oesophagus at night when you are lying flat and ‘bathes’ your vocal folds in acid. Your vocal folds end up red raw and swollen. The answer is to elevate your mattress with a pillow so that your head is slightly higher than the rest of your body. Try not to eat too late. Avoid acid producing foods such as alcohol, coffee, meat, dairy and sugar. Eat more fruits and vegetables and pulses. Drink lots of water. If there is no improvement you can go to your Doctor and ask for a prescription of an anti-acid medication such as omeprasole.

-You may have nodules, be pre-nodular or have a polyp. Polyps are particularly difficult to diagnose as they tend not to affect vocal fold closure. You can still make a well-connected sound but your voice tires easily. They tend to have to be removed surgically but this is fairly straight-forward. Nodules are easier to spot as the singer will find it almost impossible to sing high in their range and even lower down the tone is not clear. If they are soft nodules (pre-nodular) then a few months working with a good vocal coach on your technique should get rid of them. If they are established nodules you may need surgery.

-You may have a slight gap at the back of your vocal folds. This is called Muscle Tension Dysphonia. It is important to find a good speech therapist and/or vocal coach to deal with this.The goal would be to decrease excessive tension so that your vocal folds can function effectively again and close properly. Technical aspects which should be addressed include improving posture, improving breath control and support, avoiding excessive neck and shoulder tension, avoiding tongue root tension and jaw tension. This will take time as muscles which are overloaded take time to retrain.

-If the way you use your every day speech voice is unhealthy then you need to work on this. We use our speech voice much more than our singing voice. If you rasp, speak breathily and cough a lot or excessively clear your throat, then you need to re-train yourself to speak with a clear, well-connected voice.

All of the above are the most common causes of voice problems which I encounter in the studio. If you do have recurring voice problems it is vital to get this checked out by a specialist as the underlying causes can be difficult to diagnose and there are many possibilities which are not mentioned here. To diagnose the problem 100% you will need to be scoped. This is a very simple procedure where a laryngologist puts a camera down into your larynx in order to have a look. It takes about 5 minutes and is more than worth it. It is also very helpful for your vocal coach as they will know the specific answer to helping you fix the problem. I work together with two laryngologists on a regular basis who always look at my students if I suspect a problem. You can either arrange this privately or you can ask for a referral by your Doctor.