Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

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. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Raspy Voice... Cool Sound or Voice Killer?

Yours truly adding a little rasp at BB Kings, Nashville

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Cool Rasp:
The raspy voice has been a signature sound for some singers with legendary careers. Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, Bonny Tyler, Macy Gray and Brian Adams are among the artists that come to mind who have successfully used this sound, plus of course rockers who use extreme versions of rasp and scream. In many contemporary music genres, a degree of raspiness can add a cool, passionate, exciting factor to vocal performance.

Dangerous Rasp:
The raspy voice can also be the tell-tale clue for the presence of vocal damage. It's one of the signs of vocal nodes, polyps, cancer, spasmodic dysphonia. Yes, there are surgical techniques to remove and repair serious damage. But watch these vocal surgery videos (especially the first two) and I think you may find yourself freshly dedicated to preventative vocal cord care instead of possible vocal suicide!

But what if you want to have a raspy sound in your voice? Can you safely do it? 
It depends on several factors. Check yourself for these three: Vocal health, stamina, and technique.

Your Vocal Health 

- the presence of any vocal strain or damage
Case study:

Some concerned parents brought their child in for a vocal lesson. Their little girl already had a successful vocal career going, and was in the middle of a professional production, but was experiencing some problems. I had her sing for me and found her voice to be breathy and raspy. The parents told me that a coach their daughter had been working with told them that some people's voices are just naturally that way, so they never worried about it. Hmm. I had her do some gentle, targeted vocal exercises that almost always clear a voice up, but I couldn't get her speaking or singing without those sounds. Recognizing the signs, I sent her to Vanderbilt Voice Center in Nashville where they examined her vocal cords, diagnosed serious vocal nodules, and put her on extended voice rest. Her vocal career was stopped in its tracks. I'm not sure what happened to her, because I never heard from her again, which is unfortunate because it is my experience that with time and careful remedial work, vocal damage can usually heal without surgery, and careers can be resumed.

If you have any vocal strain or damage, do not sing or speak with a rasp, vocal fry, or 'gravel' sound. Period. Picture rubbing two wounded emery boards together every time you sing. Wait until the vocal damage and fatigue is completely healed before attempting to create rasp (if ever!).

If you have a raspy voice already and you can't make a conscious choice to speak or sing without it, it's very important to investigate why it sounds that way. For instance, you could have excessive mucous on your vocal cords (folds) due to allergies or dehydration. You could have a degree of irritation or a growth of some kind on your vocal cord(s). You could even have throat cancer. You could be fatiguing or damaging your voice by the vocal fry you don't even know you're using when you speak.

Contrary to what you may hear (from ANYBODY), it is not a good idea to ignore it just because you've had vocal raspiness for a long time, and think it's 'natural' for you. Any chronic case of vocal raspiness, hoarseness, or discomfort should be investigated by a doctor. It's best to go to a vocal health center where medical voice specialists can scope your cords, rule out anything serious and illuminate you about anything you may be doing or not doing that is causing the sound. A good vocal coach can help you change techniques that are keeping your voice unhealthy.

Your Vocal Stamina

- the conditioned strength of your vocal apparatus.

Some voices can just get by with more punishment than others. Think of the guy or girl you know who can eat habanero peppers like candy. Some voices are strong enough, or have been exercised long and correctly enough,  to create vocal sounds that would fatigue or damage weaker voices. It is my opinion that such is the case for career raspy singers like those mentioned above. Unless, of course, they lose their voices on tour!

Case Study:
I sang for about 7 years as part of a group that sang jingles from 8:30am to 3:30pm 5 days a week. One of the singers in our group developed a vocal hemorrhage from the hours of singing. Why did she have the issue and others did not? The better question is, what were the signs she needed to rest? And yes, she did heal completely and went on to a stellar career.

How do you know? 
    • If it hurts, your voice can't tolerate it... stop! 
    • If your voice feels worse the next day after you've used a raspy sound, your voice can't tolerate it... stop! 
    • If you haven't been singing for a while and need to sing a raspy song, try doing those raspy sounds far less than usual throughout the song. Save it for choice spots and do those BACKWARDS (see next section). When it comes to vocal affectations, less is often best anyway for performance impact!
    • If you have it because you smoke, you don't need the cigarette - train instead for the rasp you want. And don't be afraid to ... stop smoking!! You can do it!

Your Vocal Technique

- the way the voice creates the raspy sound
There are techniques to singing with a raspy sound that are healthy. If this is a sound you want to use, learn how to do it in a way that protects your cords from vocal strain. For metal screamers, I recommend the Jamie Vendera product "Extreme Scream". For those of you who'd just like some random rasp, I can help you accomplish it strain-free with my 'pulling' method of deconstructing technique.

Bottom line:

You may wish to add a growl, rasp or scream for coolness or signature impact when you sing. You may be acting as a character with a raspy voice, and need to speak with that sound. But be careful. Don't use rasp or vocal fry unless you mean to; get it out of your everyday speech habits. And if you do mean to sing or speak with a rasp for some purpose, learn vocal techniques to pull those sounds, be vigilant with vocal warmups and cooldowns to mitigate any stress to your vocal cords. Create those sounds in ways that will protect the health of your vocal apparatus. Raspiness can be cool, passionate, and harmless, or it can be a real voice killer.

If you'd like to reach out for a lesson on vocal rasp or anything else, contact me. I'd be glad to help!

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  • At August 6, 2012 at 12:29 PM , Anonymous Gary Catona said...

    Great advice in this article. Unfortunately with more aggressive singing styles, such as in some types of rock, damage control is the name of the game.

  • At May 28, 2021 at 3:03 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Gary, veteran teacher that you are, I'm honored that you read this. I have a deep interest in mitigating vocal strain even in aggressive singing styles. And it's my goal never to let a day go by without learning something new to help my students. I do believe one can sing even metal styles without damage, as long as the technique is there.

  • At May 28, 2021 at 6:02 PM , Anonymous Ron Calabrese said...

    Hi Judy. Your advice in this blog is AS USUAL spot on. Singing mostly classical music all my life, I’ve never been asked to sing with a rasp, and when a rasp has suddenly appeared, I knew it was a bad sign; time to rest! Operatic tenors seem to have similar problems with their technique, usually caused by those dreaded high notes. Everyone needs a good voice coach/teacher, with a trained ear to keep the vocal train on the tracks. Its almost insidious the way bad habits can creep into a technique and if no one is there to correct you, on you go down the path to vocal problems.

    Its happened to some of the greatest singers of all time, i.e. Pavarotti. The “king of the high C’s” had some problems during a period in his career reaching those stratospheric high notes. This after singing them with consummate ease for many years. Suddenly, he was making faces and creating wide jaw positions for his upper register, when before you could hardly tell the facial difference between middle C and high C. Luckily for all of us who loved his voice, he or someone corrected these errors in technique, and he returned to his previous effortless emission.

    I thank God I don’t have to create a rasp or similar vocal delivery to successfully communicate a song. Singing popular music is in many ways more complicated than Verdi!

  • At May 29, 2021 at 4:56 AM , Blogger Luc Dermul said...

    Huge fan of the late Joe Cocker loved his raspy voice. Thanks for pointing out the dangers of the use of raspy voice when I am at the karaoke bar.

  • At May 29, 2021 at 10:48 AM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At May 29, 2021 at 10:50 AM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At May 29, 2021 at 10:57 AM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    So great to get your thoughts on this Ron! I didn't know about the great Pavarotti's troubles; very glad to know the troublesome technique was corrected! You know, if one is serious ability voice, especially with a vocal career, it's a good idea to have a coach to least touch base with should the need arise.

  • At May 29, 2021 at 10:58 AM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    having a blast and being egged on by the crowd, singing Joe Cocker style can leave you with limited communication ability the next day! But if you know HOW, you could get away with it no worse for the wear! And who doesn't love Joe Cocker:)


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