Loosing your voice is terrifying for any singer, especially in the spotlight of the world and I'm really feeling for Adele today. I went through something similar (on an incomparably smaller scale) a long time ago.
As a singer, your voice is more than your career, your passion: it is tied intrinsically with “you”, your personality, your spirit, your soul. It’s how you express yourself from the first yawn in the morning, to ordering a coffee in a noisy café, to hanging out with friends and loved ones. Laughing, even crying, isn’t possible if you’ve lost your voice. You open your mouth, you reach out to express your feelings and find, instead, this void of breathiness and air, of tightness and pain. It’s terrifying. You retreat, trapped.
I remember stepping out in front of a thousand people and not knowing if my voice could come out. I remember the physical reaction to the fear: the cold sweat, the tightening all over my body, the lump in my throat. I remember a colleague telling me to breathe but I didn’t think I knew how anymore!
For me a cycle of fear began: the fear of loosing my voice was creating mental and physical problems that were making me loose my voice. I make a choice to quit and to teach instead!
So, today, I’m feeling for Adele. I’m sure she is surrounded in people doing everything they can to help her recover but I know it’s not as simple as a plaster on a sore spot. The voice is as much mental as it is physical, as much spirit and soul as it is phycological.
As a vocal coach, I spend a lot of time listening to Adele. My pupils love her songs. She is a hero to many of them. We spend a lot of time talking about what makes her so outstanding. About why even vocal impressionists struggle to imitate her. About why I don’t let any of them sing "Rolling in the Deep," because they end up shouting, why her voice makes notes sounds so much lower than they really are.
We look at her face shape, her loose jaw, her commitment to the lyrics and emotional side of her songs, her slides and scoops that drop her larynx. Her vocal technique is a masterclass in itself.
Singing is much more athletic than many people realise. My students are surprised how far I push them to use their whole bodies, to commit entirely to the words and musicality. They say they are exhausted afterwards but they should be! Done right, singing is as all encompassing as an Olympic sport. What we’ve got to make sure is that they are the right kind of exhausted.
So, why is singing the only physical activity that “athletes”, at the top of their game, train relatively little for. I mean, "little" compared with the hours and hours that say, a diver or swimmer would do each day.
It is one of the only activities that people are seemingly “born” to do. Where, most singers see their vocal coach once in a while when they have problems, or a gig or audition, but, for the most part, are a “natural” at this thing they do.
Here, I want to say, that some parts of singing are “natural” in the sense that you are born with an “instrument”: A wonderful singer may perhaps, be born with a larynx made of cartilage of great vibrating capabilities, or optimum resonating size, optimum acoustic chambers in your nasal cavities, a strong end of your tongue so the root doesn’t get tight, a large pharynx (mouth), perhaps a loose ball and socket joint of your jaw, elastic vocal chords, a good immune system that keeps it all in good health.
Next maybe it’s a little nurture, the Welsh accent encouraging further optimum use of the said instrument: sing-song and open vowels, or the voices around you teaching good speaking habits which strengthen the right parts of your vocal system instead of creating bad habits such as a high larynx, or shouting.
But, even a person, born with the optimum vocal system, good habits, a soul and ear for music, plus the charisma to hold an arena captive, can come upon a problem and then what? Say, a small bout of laryngitis, or just one too many gigs in a row, causes sudden vocal issues? What happens then?
When all that seemed natural as a bird flying, is fragile, even for a day, a note, then what? Does the fear come creeping in? Do you start to do things to counteract the problems? Are they all the right things?
This is the dangerous time for a singer.
I got nodules when I was seventeen. I was never going to be Adele, but it looked like I had a good chance of working in the West End in some nice roles. I was considered one of the “strong singers” at my school, ArtsEd, and was getting big roles and high marks in assessments. I was also obsessed! I’d never wanted anything else. It was my one and only passion, addiction and firmly held my heart in it’s grip.
I pushed too hard and got nodules. The nodules eventually left but the scars of the subsequent years didn’t leave me until I gave up aged about twenty eight with a sigh of relief like someone had just offered me air after drowning.
The thing was, the damage was done at that stage. I saw my dreams pulling away and I gripped too tight. I had to carry a notebook, writing instead of talking as I spent days on vocal rest. I heard the pitying comments around me. I saw the unease, people pulling away as if I was catching. Or just simply finding me boring and weak. Maybe this was all in my mind. Maybe I just saw myself this way. I sat in classes desperate to get up and join in with a growing panic that I might never be able to.
I wish I’d known then what I know now as a vocal coach. That, the “lump in my throat” of emotion, was worse that singing for me, that the tightening muscles were gripping my larynx and pushing up the part of the instrument that wants to be free, to swing and vibrate, to be in a low easy position. It was making me hold back when I sung, inevitably clamping muscles in my jaw, causing more tightening and stress. I was not opening my mouth. I was holding air back when the vocals chords need a steady stream to make sound. I wasn’t breathing in at all; my stomach too tight and panicked to let my diaphragm drop.
I tried to manage it myself, and at the advice of ENT specialist. I drunk lots of water, gave up alcohol, didn’t eat spicy food or tomatoes incase they caused reflux (acid from stomach rising up to erode your vocal chords). I was on vocal rest most of the day. I warmed up excessively, obsessively, detrimentally.
When, during performing in a West End show, my voice cut out to zero from nowhere, I progressed to hiding in my room, barely having a social life, to giving up wheat, dairy, sugar and most things considered’ food”, I used a vocal steamer four times a day, then didn’t talk for twenty minutes after so the “steam could penetrate”. I ate this weird raw licorice, like a dog chewing on a stick. I could only perform if I psyched myself up via a routine of loud music with my headphones on and jumping around.
I was living the dream at the expense of my sanity.
Now, as a singing teacher, I sing for up to ten hours every day, and I haven’t ever lost my voice but that’s because, I understand the instrument and also, maybe more importantly, I wouldn’t care too much if I did.
After a singer looses their voice once, especially if that time was in front of their audience, how can they move forward? How can they care about maintaining their instrument, but not so much that it is detrimental? How can they be relaxed and let go?
I believe that singers should all understand their instruments, in the way that athletes understand their bodies. Most professional singers still find the concept of singing ambiguous, and their voices erratic. They say that they perform better on some days than others and they don’t know why. Perhaps this confusion is because it’s internal, like writing or art, or other creative persuades that come from deep within?
Yet, unlike writing, there are physical needs to your vocal system. You need to really understand which muscles need to release, and which need to work hard, what your larynx is, how it works most productively and how to stabilise it. You need to know what makes the chords vibrate and how to richen those sound vibrations with all the acoustic spaces in your body.
You also need to have help dealing with the tightening anxiety and fear that comes with having had vocal problems, recognising where it manifests in your body and how to deal with it in your mind. You need to understand everything so you instinctively know when to push through and when to stop, when to relax and have fun, or a glass of wine, or when to knuckle down.
I feel for Adele, because she is going through this journey in the spotlight and it must be hard to work from within, when your see your image portrayed everywhere staring back at you. I hope she trusts that she was born with an exceptional instrument and her fans respect that she needs to put this first and look after it so that she can continue on for a long time ahead.
A quick one to share here. It would have been even quicker to share if I hadn't had to google the spelling of buoyant! This is one of my favourite ways to enjoy the sensation of breathing and, remember, there's no point in talking about how to support your breath, unless you have breath in your lungs to support!
Some times breathing in before you sing, especially if you're feeling nervous, can feel tight and unnatural. As if you've forgotten how to do that easy thing you do perfectly all night long in your sleep.
There are a few ways to "remember what you already know" - my favourites are "meditation for singing breathing", "semi supine for singing" and "the leg lean."
The buoyant balloon is my favourite way to really loosen your breathing apparatus and give your lungs a nice big stretch.
And it's so easy.
Take a deep breath in, imagining that you are trying to make yourself so buoyant that you would float if you fell in water.
Imagine that you are filling up like a big balloon.
Enjoy the sensation of your ribs expanding.
Enjoy the sensation of your lungs filling.
Enjoy the sensation of your stomach expanding to make space for your lungs.
Imagine the base of the balloon is at the base of your stomach, or lower.
Enjoy how easy it is to sing after you've really filled your lungs.
Don't worry about whether your shoulders raise or if you want to use any gestures to help you. This is not how you'd breath during a gig or show. It is to give your lungs a lovely big stretch to remind them, and your body, how nice it is to
When I hear a voice that has any issue: that is tight, or flat in tone, the first place I focus on is the jaw.
In fact, that the jaw is such a terror, such a culprit of vocal tension, a detrimental demon to tone, flexibility and range that I've seen this wonderful exercise transform a singer in seconds.
And it's so easy.
First: Take two imaginary golf balls
Put them between your back teeth.
Why does this work?
Your larynx hangs from your jaw by muscles and ligaments. When your jaw is tight, it pull on the larynx - not allowing "your instrument" "your voice box" to move easily and to vibrate as a sound chamber wants to do.
Your jaw hinge is a ball and socket. By placing the imaginary gold balls between your back teeth, the ball and socket joint is instantly loosened, letting the larynx hang free.
Of course, loosening the jaw also allows more space in your mouth: your "acoustic room on your head, so those lovely sound vibrations can bounce and ricochet around the space.
I hope you enjoy this exercise and please let me know how you get on.
Diphthong means, very simply, two vowel sounds.
Example: Although the word "I" (as in "I am") is the vowel "I", is is audibly or phonetically sounded as:
Ah and ee = two phonetic vowel sounds.
Being able to identify diphthongs is crucial in singing because you need to know which vowels you are singing on, and whether they are GOOD VOWEL SOUNDS OR NAUGHTY VOWEL SOUNDS (read more here).
Exercise: When you are singing, listen out for these tricksy diphthongs:
EY EE as in "Maybe."
EYE EE as in "Bite."
EEE UH as in "Ear.'
UH OO as in "Bone."
O EE as in "Boy."
A OU as in "House."
AAH EE as in "Time."
So, when singing a diphthong, which vowel sound should you sing on? The first? The second? Both?
There is no hard and fast rule. You should probably try all the options and decide yourself but, my advice is usually that the first vowel sound is more open.
If this is the case then sing the first vowel sound and use the second vowel to tie up the note, like a full stop.
Time is sung TAAAAAAAAAAAH (eem)
I is sung AAAAAAAAAH (eem)
Bone is sung BOOOOOOOOOOH (oon)
Good luck and let me know how you get on!
,This is my very simple, no nonsense, rule to vowels when singing.
The ones crossed out in the picture are NAUGHTY VOWELS SOUNDS. They make the acoustic space inside your mouth detrimental to singing well: they raise the tongue root, push from the throat, tighten the jaw. They are very, very NAUGHTY.
The ones of the right side of the list are GOOD VOWELS SOUNDSand conducive to singing well. They encourage the top of your mouth (soft palate) to lift, they don't encourage tongue tension or pushing, they open up the mouth (pharynx) and throat, and loosen the jaw.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When I say vowels, I mean phonetic vowels, the sound of them not the vowels as you learn in school.
Exercise: Sing your songs through, circling the NAUGHTY VOWEL SOUNDS and make them GOOD VOWEL SOUNDS.
Tip: Sing the naughty vowels and drop your jaw. It will usually transform them into good vowels.
Let me know how you get on or if you have any questions.
Any smarty pants out there who note that some vowels are diphthongs (double vowel sounds). Yes, you're right. For more on diphthongs, take a read here.
Your mouth is an acoustic chamber and makes as much difference to your sound as singing in a grand echoey cathedral or a small squashy carpeted curtained room.
To encourage you to make the most conducive space in your mouth for singing, I could demand the following:
Raise your soft palate!
Relax your tongue root!
Open your throat!
Loosen your jaw!
Or, I could ask you to use your imagination to do the following:
Imagine an egg. A very special egg that you don't want to break. Maybe inside the egg is a baby chick, or a baby dinosaur?
Put the egg in your mouth.
The point is to encourage you to make as much space as you can in the internal area of your mouth so that, as the sound passes through, it can ricochet around, growing in lovely warm resonance rather than being swallowed up and absorbed.
The feeling and imagery of having an egg inside your mouth when you sing keeps your tongue flat at the root base, the roof of your mouth (soft palate) high, your jaw loose and your throat open.
For other tips about using the resonating chamber of the mouth (pharynx) have a read of:
Good Vowel Naughty vowel
The golden golf ball
Let me know if the egg imagery works for you!
Today 11 year old Tait started preparing for his School of Rock video entry. Here's his first shot - pretty good already! I love how Tait has such an easy flow to his voice and such a clear tone. We worked on
1) Singing on the vowels not the consonants.
Vowels allow the throat to be open, and the space in the mouth to become a productive resonating chamber for the sound: like singing in a lovely big cathedral!
Consonants, while great for storytelling, energy and engaging the diaphragm (another topic!) they also shut the mouth, make the tongue get in the way and potentially tighten the jaw.
In the video, you can see how Tait makes sure he sings on the vowels, especially as he starts to sing higher.
2) Using different vocal registers.
People talk about "head voice", "middle voice" and "chest voice". I don't believe we have three voices but there are different techniques that need to be applied when you're singing in different parts of your range. To get the best sound from every note in your range (clear, warm easy, non-breathy, powerful, controlled yet free!) you need to understand really understand your voice.
For example, when you sing higher, you need (as above) to open the vowels wider, which consequentially loosens the jaw, which lowers the larynx (another topic!) and gets the tongue out of the way.
You also need to use more air support as you sing higher as the vocal chords become longer, thinner and tighter.
Listen to how Tait tries to adjust things as he moves into the very top of his range.
For more on this please take a read of:
"Singing tips for resonance" - Your personal EQ.
"Singing tips for resonance" - The house.
3) Dynamics and musicality.
These come naturally to Tait, as they will do for many of you, but listen to how the song grows, how the phrases seems to dance in the air. Tait and I have spent a lot of time encouraging him to use his dynamics and musicality so that his singing comes alive.
Saturday was very moving. 30 students aged between 5 and 18 arrived at the hall, many of who had never met each other, never sung together. We had about an hour to take all their singular hard work and put them together into a choir, like pieces of a very musical puzzle: over 30 songs, tied into mash ups and medleys, solos, duets, and group songs, songs ranging from modern pop to Musical Theatre classics.
There was some hesitancy on faces as I ushered them into seats and we dove straight into the opening number, "The Cup Song." Singing in front of each other for the first time must have been terrifying but each student rose to the challenge: the teenagers inspiring with their harmonies, the five year olds impressing with their bravery.
By the time the hall was full of parents, family and friends, yes, there were nerves in the air yet, what was most palpable was the focus and determination; each young singer readying themselves to do their best.
They were all wonderful and it was an honour and a joy to see their hard work pay off.
AND at the end of the concerts, our generous audience had dug deep into their pockets and surpassed my expectations with £400 raised this year for MIND. I chose to collect for MIND, as my father passed away when I was 15 from mental health illness. MIND are doing wonderful things for mental health awareness, especially by encouraging more of us to talk about this disease.
If you'd like to donate to MIND the please follow this link: