Losing 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 losing my voice was creating mental and physical problems that were making me lose my voice. I made a choice to quit and to teach instead!
So, today, I’m feeling for Adele. I’m sure she is surrounded by 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. 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 their nasal cavities, a strong end of their tongue so the root doesn’t get tight, a large pharynx (mouth), perhaps a loose ball and socket joint of the 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 them teaching good speaking habits which strengthen the right parts of the 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 they 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 its 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 than 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 sang, 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 an ENT specialist. I drank 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 loses 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.