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1. Your clothesMy student came to her first studio vocal session dressed to the nines. Her tight dress had a waist cinched up like an old fashioned barbie doll, making opening the bottom of her ribcage, and breath inhale/support/control, all difficult. She learned fast... for her next vocal session she arrived in sweat pants!
How you look and feel in the studio and on stage is important. Yes, it can help your voice if you feel confident about the way you look in the studio or on stage, because if you aren't confident you will tend to tighten or slump around your core, and numb your body/facial language. And then there are those outfits that help define your artistic persona. But you need to balance feeling pretty with feeling physically unobstructed. And guess what? For singing and speaking, how you sound matters more than how you look.
Choices to make: Wool jacket or soft cotton? Figure flattering or loose & flowing? Waist or hip belt? As you pick out what you're going to wear, remember that for best results in performance, ask your voice what it wants.
2. Your shoesIf your shoes don't fit well, you will be distracted by how your feet feel. Your boots need to fit your feet like a soft but sturdy glove. The front of your footwear shouldn't cramp your toes when you move your feet. The heels of your shoes matter a ton... if they are too high, low or the slant is wrong for your feet, they will create breathing problems, pain, and distraction. If like Tina Turner or Dolly you are used to wearing high heels all day, then your Achilles tendon may be short and flat shoes may cause pain. If like me you don't wear stilettos much, then your Achilles is longer and wearing those heels for long will cause pain and fatigue in your feet and legs. Any shoe that causes you to have an increased swayback will be a problem for your breath, and therefore for your voice.
In the studio, if I come in shoes that don't feel that great, I make sure I'm wearing or taking socks and just take those shoes off. I've done that on stage, too, but be careful. I remember when I took my shoes off halfway through my Austin City Limits show and had to do my last songs with a big splinter in my foot! For stage, I have boots and high heels which are a bit of an illusion... the soles are thick for height and the heel is thick also, for ankle safety. Voices do NOT like twisted ankles😩! For studio, I like brands like Sketchers footwear because they simulate feeling barefoot, which my voice has always liked best. When trying on potential performance shoes, walk around and be sure they make your spine, your legs and your voice feel great.
3. If, when and how you do physical exerciseYour voice needs your body to be in shape. Aerobic exercise, core exercise, stretching and weight lifting can all help your voice if you do them at the right time and with good form. Exercising too long and hard before significant vocal practice or performance will be counterproductive because of tension and physical fatigue reduces your ability to control and support your voice. How you lift free weights can affect your neck and shoulders. If you've even tried to sing with a crick in your neck, you'll realize how tension and pain in those muscles can sabotage your voice by affecting your throat channel among other things.
Strengthen your neck and shoulders with exercise but avoid excessive weight lifting that over-tightens those muscles and restricts your larynx. Also, don't grunt (do glottal stops) when lifting those weights. Don't make your vocal cords do that work!
4. Pain in your big toe and anything else that hurtsGout, stumping your toe, menstrual cramps, a headache... pain anywhere will cause compensatory muscular tension and mental distraction. Your voice will not be at it's best when the focus of your brain is otherwise occupied.
Get to the bottom of the pain issue. For headaches, if you'd like to avoid taking too many NSAIDs, you might try putting peppermint or Eucalyptus oil on your temples, occipital bone, forehead and upper lip. This will often take the headache away and also deliver a boost of energy. Your voice doesn't mind that you smell like a Peppermint Patty. Just be careful not to rub your eyes after you do! (Ask me how I know😱.)
5. Your emotional stateWhen you are sad, depressed, angry or anxious, your voice won't work as well as when you are centered, confident and positive. This is because your emotional state will be somehow reflected in your body language. Fight or flight brain will create protect mode that closes in your ribcage and throat, and moves your power center up too high in your body. Your expectation of how your performance will go, how well you'll hit a high or low note, how you might hurt your voice, will negatively impact your vocal ability.
Fear is a particular saboteur... it caused partial vocal cord paralysis in one woman I worked with. It can cause tension in your throat, and even in your diaphragm, which will affect your breath/vocal control. I can't promise this result for everybody, but three weeks after we started working to relax her mind and connect it properly to her body and voice, she went back to the doc that diagnosed her and found that the paralysis disappeared!
Act as if and you shall be. You can use this wisdom to change your state of mind, and then your refocused mind/body/voice connection can improve your performance dramatically, immediately. A good therapist or intuitive vocal coach can help you defeat your invisible foes, too. It's important to work with someone you trust to have good information.
6. Your hormonesAccording to Sameep Kadakia, Dave Carlson, and Robert T. Sataloff in an article on hormones for the Journal of Singing,
The voice is exquisitely sensitive to changes in the hormonal milieu.Androgens, progesterone, and estrogen cause changes in the larynx as females and males go through puberty, along with degrees of muscle and ligament bulk and resulting vocal range extension into adulthood. We recognize the somewhat clumsy adjustments males go through resulting in voice cracking and the need for careful training through the voice change. For females, cyclical changes in hormones cause fluctuations in all kinds of areas such as edema and blood flow in laryngeal structures, acid reflux, and mental anxiety. Higher levels of androgens can cause a drop in the female voice after menopause.
[NOTE: I am in my 6th decade, and have a wider vocal range than ever in my life... including extension at the top of my head voice (from C3 to E6). So don't use this as an excuse for settling for limited voice, ladies!]
Thyroid hormones can also affect the vocal apparatus. Both hypo- and hyper-thyroidism can cause hoarseness. Several other hormones influence your voice, which you can read about in the article just mentioned.
If you have mysterious vocal limitations, you might want to have a doctor do a thorough check of your hormone levels. Some are and should be cyclical, some may warrant medication to correct. The other thing you can do is to train and use your voice. Your fluctuating hormones may limit your outer edges, but your practical vocal range should be just fine. Sing and speak to your heart's content; just be careful to habitually use healthy vocal technique whenever you make a sound.
7. What someone just said to youOK we creatives tend to pay attention to things we should ignore. Here are some saboteuring words others can throw our way:
- "are you nervous" ... right before you go onstage (a personal peeve).
- "don't mind me I just want to watch" ... by a distracting control room visitor as you head back to the vocal booth.
- "I'm not sure what to tell you but can you try another pass" by an audio engineer who doesn't know what to tell you when you're flat, sharp, numb, or for whatever reason, you need another pass.
- "Why can't you pay attention to me instead of your stupid music" or any other stressful phone call.
- "-silence-" after you just performed your best song brilliantly before the wrong audience.
Avoid these voices at least during these situations. In the studio, make sure someone in your audio production team knows how to help you get your vocals right... or better yet, get my book and be prepared to give yourself advice.
8. Humidity or the lack thereofI've done some of my best singing in the rain (under a tarp) and choke on dry midwest air. But others are bothered by humidity and do better in Pheonix in the summer. Where you grew up can acclimate your voice to certain weather. Of course, your personal allergy susceptibilities can, too.
Know yourself, and be prepared. If your voice is a humidity lover and you have to perform in Tahoe, be sure you have a humidifier in your room and diluted pineapple juice on stage. If your voice gets gunked up with too much humidity, stay inside as much as possible and raise the level of your internal hydration (drink water) to thin out the phlegm.
9. Congested lymph nodesWhen a good warmup and correct technique is no longer working, it could be unusually congested lymph nodes. When excessive lymph fluid builds up, it can cause problems in the neck, throat, larynx, and sinuses.
A student of mine recently asked me to suggest something for her mysterious vocal limitations, and I asked her to try the self lymph drainage massage by Heather Wibbles, LMT. Her video is embedded in my blog post on getting mucus off vocal cords.
10. Back problems
11. Face and heart are missingIf your face is habitually in ventriloquist mode (still eyes, frozen jaw), and you aren't communicating to one heart, your voice will be weak and/or tight and your range will be limited. In one of my most recent and rewarding cases, a teenage boy asked me to teach him how to talk with a louder voice. He didn't feel like he was being heard by those around him. He explained this rather frozen-faced and the issue was clear.
I introduced his voice to his face. After doing some bio-feedback work, he activated his eyes and opened his jaw more freely. Then I introduced him to the main thing...focusing a message to a specific heart. His voice responded immediately, and when he contacted me about another lesson, he was just thrilled... his mama in fact had asked him why he was talking so loud! He is doing videos to encourage others, and I am thrilled to have provided some wind beneath his wings because I think Ryan Stewart aka 'RyRobio' will go on to change the world for the better!