Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: October 2013

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method.

Monday, October 28, 2013

How My Damaged Voice Came Back


Endotracheal tubes are inserted between vocal cords on their way to lungs

I know about vocal damage. I have researched and consulted with voice specialists and doctors about it. And years ago I came close to losing my own voice -- permanently.

At a previous post on this blog with tips about recovering from laryngitis, I get many fearful comments from people worried their injured voice may never come back. So I decided to tell you the story of my own experience with serious vocal damage, and why I am such a believer in the ability of voices to heal.

NOTE: If you experience hoarseness or laryngitis for a length of time (Mayo Clinic suggests two weeks), you should go to a doctor to be assessed for the presence of cancer, spasmodic dysphonia or other serious disease. Don't take chances... get the bottom of any medically treatable underlying cause.  Also, ruling serious illness out can give you the peace of mind to commit totally to your vocal retraining and complete healing.

My Story of Vocal Healing

When my son was born around three decades ago in Memphis, Tn, I had very serious complications. My intestines had adhered, through scar tissue, to my uterus and the act of childbirth pulled my insides apart. They diagnose the cause as undiscovered Crohns' disease. It took three surgeon-angels, three major surgeries, three months in hospital and seven weeks in ICU to get me home, and then about two years and another surgery to physically heal. In the process, I was intubated on a ventilator for days at a time, several times. They told me later they would have done a tracheotomy had they realized I would be on the ventilator that long, but I got better just in time to avoid that procedure. (One less scar!) But the intubation for that long was extremely detrimental to my vocal cords. Some screaming I did for various reasons after they took the tubing out didn't help.  In total, I lost an octave an a half of vocal range.

My brilliant surgeons through the grace and providence of God saved my life. But in the process, it looked like I had lost my voice. After I got the hospital and some healing time behind me, I asked my primary surgeon about my ailing voice. He looked down my throat and told me it was probably from permanent scar tissue on my vocal cords. I was lucky to be alive. But as a professional singer (staff jingle singer, member of nighclub band, background singer on records) looking at the end of my vocal career, I didn't feel lucky at all.

I became determined not to take that diagnosis for the final word. In my short stint in college, I had taken classical voice where I learned to pronounce and sing several of the '24 Italian Art Songs'. I got my book out and began to very lightly attempt some of the songs. Little by little, my head voice began to come back. It took two years, but I got almost all of my previous range back, from "F" below middle "C" to "Bb" just below high "C".  From what I know now, exercising my head voice as opposed to my chest voice was exactly what I needed to do to limber up my stiff and puffy vocal cords and begin to create a middle (mixed) voice again.

About this time, my young family moved from Memphis to Nashville. I began to do studio vocals (session work), but was plagued with respiratory illnesses and had to work very hard for the extreme vocal control necessary for this line of work. I found out that several of the top session singers I worked with went regularly to professional vocal coach Gerald Arthur, so I also became his student. On a side note, I also began seeing alternative health practitioner Liz Flannigan, who changed my diet and got my excessive mucous and digestion issues under control. After all, it's hard to sing with walking pneumonia!

Gerald told me very early on that I needed to 'stop guarding' my voice. I was able to trust him enough to do that, and submit to his vocal exercises without holding back. Little by little, under Gerald's patient guidance and positive support, I was able to gain  back my ease of vocal control and increase my range to 1/2 step higher than I'd ever had! Long story short, about three years later I had a recording deal, a #1 record and an ACM New Female Vocalist Award. A year after that when I opened for Reba at Mud Island in Memphis, one of my surgeons showed up at the show and surprised me with a dozen roses! What a success story for us all!

Now

Years later, my journey led to my own career as vocal coach. I learned more intricately how the voice works, what affects it and how I could unlock others' voices. I found that my personal aquantence with vocal damage helped tremendously with diagnosing vocal injury and strain in my students. From seeing what worked for all kinds of voices, I developed "Power, Path and Performance" vocal training method. Funny thing, working with this method I gained 1& 1/2 steps of vocal range myself that I'd never had. I completely eliminated a vocal break I'd always had. My vocal control is better than ever, and my speaking voice never tires, even when teaching for hours a day. I'm singing live again, full band, my husband on drums.. and our little baby has grown into an amazing young man!

I tell you this story to encourage you, dear singers and speakers. Although prevention is always better than treatment, voices are rarely ever damaged beyond repair.  With time and good healing strategies, injured voices can indeed recover. AND -- often in the process of re-training with better vocal technique and health habits, you can end up with a better voice than you ever had before. I know. I did it.

NOTE: If you schedule a surgical procedure and will have to be intubated for it, be sure and tell your anesthesiologist that you are a singer! Sometimes it's an emergency situation, but if possible to let them know beforehand, it can make a big difference in how careful they are when they the insert the thing.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Why 'American Idol' Voice Falls Short



I've been asked several times this week by singers if I thought they should enter auditions for one of the national talent competitions like American Idol. It is a common question for all contemporary commercial vocal coaches, and one you may be asking, too.

Some Things to Consider:

  • They aren't necessarily looking for the 'best voice'. They are looking for particular types of cast members for a dramatic reality show.
  • If you think these contests are fair, you are going to be in for a shock.
  • The contracts suck.
  • You rarely go on to any commercial success even if you win.
  • The type of voice that wins these contests communicates gladiator-like ear-jabs focusing on the high notes, not messages.
  • They absolutely do not care about the contestants' well being. Even the heartless conditions in which initial auditions are held often have cameras lurking to catch tears.
The best reason I can think of to participate in these auditions to gain performance experience in stressful situations (you know, 'that which does not kill you makes you sing better'). Sometimes the exposure and networking can lead to indirect benefit. Otherwise, they are simply good exercises in humiliation.

The Screamed and Belted Song of the Self

I just read a fantastic article written by Lynn Helding in my recent NATS "Journal of Singing" that I recommend to all singers. She uses the words of NYT's music critic Stephen Holder to open up her article:
Let's not kid ourselves: the ascendance of American Idol, and its turning of music into sports, signals the end of American popular song as we know it. Its ritual slaughter of songs allows no message to be carried, no wisdom to be communicated, other than the screamed and belted song of the self.

Reality Check

I know that these singing contests are influencing young voices all over the globe. Auditions of all kinds create powerful goals for singers to gain more vocal ability. As vocal coach, I work hard to prepare singers who want to enter these events and many of my clients have successfully placed or won the prize or role. 

However I also encourage singers to think far beyond the short-term competitive goal. For a voice that truly has value (means something to others), train for message-delivering, heart-moving artistry! This is the kind of voice that can find itself with a commercial vocal career. 

If you sing like you want to win a contest, you won't win much heart. Funny thing is, if you win the heart heart, you sometimes win the contest/ part/ record deal/ Grammy! It's quite the paradox.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Common Mistakes Producers/Engineers Make That Sabotage Singers


 Emil Bishaw set up in the vocal booth

A producer or audio engineer who produces vocals can make or break a singer's performance. Anything that affects the following areas will affect the studio singer's vocal ability:
  1. The Breath
  2. The Throat
  3. The Ear
  4. The Zone
  5. The Vocal Cords
Here are some common mistakes I see production teams make:
  • Putting music stand too forward right in front of the microphone. The singer will be leaning forward into the mic. This will tighten the ribcage and the throat channel of the singer, sabotaging breath, control of tone, pitch, licks, volume and vocal stamina.
  • Not setting the singer's cuebox in mono or putting the same thing in both phones when the singer is using the 'one headphone half-off" technique. The singer's ear will miss something.
  • Assuming the singer does or does not need reverb without asking, checking or experimenting. Different singers and even the same singer on different songs may need different reverb choices and amounts. 
  • Pointing the singer directly into the control room. This is intimidating and distracting for new singers, and can be disorienting even for veterans, sabotaging the 'zone'.
  • Assuming it's always best to have the singer sing the whole song every take, and compile the best of the takes for the final vocal track. Sometimes this indeed works for emotional songs. But many times (especially with big range melodies) it just fatigues vocal cords and certain parts of the song never get as good as they could if the singer has a chance to rest. Best to be flexible.
  • Not getting the track mix in the headphone cue right. There are so many variables that affect the singer's ear, from bass overtones to whether an instrument provides emotional support or pitch distraction. It helps to be able to make a good guess as to what the SINGER wants, and then to ask and experiment before the singer fully commits to performance. 
  • Not knowing how to ask for 'more' from a singer. If you don't know something about vocal technique, your suggestions may cause the singer to push too hard instead of be more powerfully emotional. Frustration sets in, singer's confidence slips, vocal cords begin to strain and effort becomes counterproductive.
Find much more on this subject at www.vocalproductionworkshop.com 

Question for producers and engineers: What has been your most frustrating problem with singers? 

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Singing Multiple Sets? Beware What You Do Between Shows!

 
 photo by Pete Rodman

If you have multiple long sets to perform, be careful to take care of your voice between sets! Here are some tips to keep vocal cords from swelling during your break. OH... and these tips work for you background vocalists and studio singers, too... anytime you need to sing for hours with breaks in between:

FIRST: Prepare for multiple set singing

  • Don't go from 0 to 90!  If you suddenly increase the time your vocal cords have to work at peak performance, there is no 'correct form' in the world that will protect your voice from strain and possibly damage. It's not enough to just do vocal exercises... sing full voice several days (sometimes weeks) before to rev up your vocal stamina for long or multiple gigs. This DEFINITELY applies to tours.
  • Get some good sleep the night before. 

Between shows... Keep hydrating

  • Drink water like a fish between sets! [Note from experience... remember to hit the bathroom before hitting the stage again!]
  • Avoid anything dehydrating such as alcohol or black tea. 

Limit or totally avoid talking between sets

  • Learn to 'pull' instead of push your speaking voice when you must say something.
  • Whatever you do, do NOT talk loud or whisper. If you need to network, smile, nod, hug, sign autographs, but think of talking as like a bank account. The more words you spend, the less voice you'll have for next show. 
  • Chill out to re-ground yourself and lower your power center. Best to go back to a quiet space like the bus or green room if one is available between stage performances.

Prepare for the next set

  • Do light vocal exercises especially working your head voice to literally 're-lift' your range.
  • Eat a protein snack or water-filled fresh fruit/veggie crudite or salad.  
  • To rev up energy, you might even try a 4 minute "Tabata' before hitting the stage again. 

Warm down

  • At the end of the night, do some light vocal exercises (bubbles, trills, sirens) on the way home. 
  • Hydrate again
  • Get some good sleep!
 If you've followed these suggestions, your voice should feel BETTER, not worse, the next day.

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