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!

Monday, June 6, 2022

How I Lost My Voice (So You Don't Have To!)

Me, Jennifer O'Brien and Gary Pigg on the third day of our 40 song bgv marathon: 
Notice the jacket I'm wearing:)

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If you follow me or have taken a vocal lesson from me, you know that I specialize in preventing and getting rid of vocal strain or fatigue from overuse in singers and speakers. I believe (and still do) that we can use our voices as long as we want and not have vocal strain - IF and ONLY IF - we prepare ourselves and our voices for the performance we're about to do. OK now about that 'if'...

Recently I had a serious reality (humility) check when I sang 40 background vocals in 4 days without practicing what I preach - and temporarily lost my voice! 

Here's my cautionary story:

I was hired to be group leader/contractor, arranger, and singer on 40 background vocals in 4 consecutive days. I called Jennifer O'Brien and Gary Pigg who are veteran studio session singing friends of mine that sing with me like a well-oiled machine. I was extremely busy in the days before these sessions with producing the artist's lead vocals on those 40 songs, preparing the AFTRA contracts, printing out multiple copies of all lyrics, canceling all my vocal lessons for a couple of weeks and joining my session buddies doing Covid tests the night before our sessions started. First day went well, but long story short, at the end of the second day I started feeling a dreaded hot, scratchy feeling in my throat and the even more dreaded signs of vocal issues. I was losing my voice! It looked like I might be unable to sing the last 2 days! 

Factors that led up to my vocal problems:

  • The allergy levels in Nashville were up. Focusing on the arrangements and on singing with pitch accuracy, I began having to deal with an unusual level of phlegm in my voice. Without thinking I started clearing my throat too hard between recording takes. I got by with it the first day, but not the second.
  • The studio was cold and I didn't bring a jacket! I know to ALWAYS bring layers so I can wear what I need to based on the conditions in the vocal booth!
  • I didn't bring pineapple juice!! I only had water - which is important but not nearly as soothing to the throat as that juice. 
  • Unbelievably, (I am so embarrassed to admit this) I didn't warm my voice up! I was too busy with everything else and I guess my lizard brain's hubris was telling me I do exercises all the time, I would have no problems skipping them!
  • I went from zero to 90. I hadn't sung full voice for 6 hours straight in a long time! Now I had to do that 4 days in a row. WARNING: No matter how many vocal exercises you do, the voice is not able to suddenly perform full voice much longer and harder than it has been without experiencing negative consequences. 

This may surprise you (click to tweet):

You need both kinds of voice work - the exercises and the full voice performance. You should sing full voice at least 4 days before doing something important that you haven't been doing with your voice. This advice is in contrast to those who think vocal exercises should push the voice to fatigue or strain in order to strengthen the voice and be effective. But from my experience and that of my students: If your voice doesn't feel BETTER after doing vocal exercises, they are useless - and can even be harmful.

OK back to my story: I deserved the vocal strain. I absolutely did. I know better!

Here's how I was able to get my voice back and finish this vocal marathon:

  • First of all, towards the latter part of the session when I did notice my throat irritation and my voice going south, I started doing two things: 
    1. talking as little and as lightly as possible and 
    2. 'lifting my voice above the lava' as I sang. I used my pulling technique, very consciously dropping my jaw, using my eyes, and lifting my soft palate to avoid pushing my voice through phlegm. Doing these two things and drinking enough water, I was able to finish out the backgrounds for that second day. 
  • Next, as soon as I got home I used the kitchen sink approach - I did everything I could to fight any possible infection trying to take opportunistic hold in my swollen throat tissues. Please note that everyone's different. It's important to experiment (with a doctor's ok) with different immune strengthening, pathogen-fighting strategies to see what works best for you. Also, please check your pulse... you're human; sometimes nothing works, and you and I will have to get sick and heal. But my strategy included the following:
    • gargling with hydrogen peroxide, plus gargling with salt water 
    • taking a hot epsom salts bath to alkalize, detoxify and raise my temperature to an artificial fever. I bundled up and sweated it out as I drifted off to sleep, first saying a prayer that I didn't have covid or a blown vocal cord!
Do NOT soak in a hot bath if you have circulatory system issues or could be pregnant. In fact, run any prevention protocol you consider using by your doctor to make sure it's safe for you. 
If you suspect covid, get a test - and if positive, get to a doctor!
  • The next morning before leaving for the session, I drank my lemon juice and protein smoothie, took another warm bath, deeply breathing in the steam. Then I took some time to seriously warm my voice up with some careful, targeted vocal exercises, including a new one based on a scale my fellow coach Mark Thress had shared with me. At first, I had some glitches in my range, and using this new exercise with morphy slo-mo vowel modification I was able to stretch and smooth those areas out. I'm now using it with students who need more flexibility and help with vocal glitches, and it's really working! Here's a video demonstration I did for you.
  • So even this scary situation came with a silver lining. Oh, the research I do for you guys! I also worked my head voice up slowly and did staccato scales throughout my vocal range to pump interstitial fluid out of my puffy morning vocal folds.
  • I brought my jacket and had 2 six-packs of pineapple juice at the studio waiting for me and the other singers. All day long I limited my speaking, kept drinking the diluted pineapple juice, and used excellent vocal technique, lifting up and pulling notes into place as if from the sky. 

Bottom line - IT WORKED! 

  • Thankfully, my voice not only worked, it got better as that third day went on! My tone blended well and I had no vocal issues. The fourth day my voice felt pretty much like normal - and I found fresh faith in vocal techniques and strategies that work for serious performance. More importantly, our producer Paul Thomas and engineer Joe Carroll were thrilled with the results of our background vocals! I resolved to swallow my pride and share this as a cautionary tale with you:)


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  • At June 7, 2022 at 10:47 PM , Anonymous Ron Calabrese said...

    Having experienced the pitfalls of poor preparation you describe, I can certainly commiserate with you and your students. I remember singing in Church musicals in which we did about 12 short performances a night. Unfortunately, I had at least 3 solos in those shows, totally 36 solos a night with chorus singing in between. Since Pavarotti was the king at that time, I used his greasy chicken idea between shows. It worked pretty well, but we did these shows on successive nights and my chicken ran out! I sure wish I had known about that pineapple juice, because after the second night, at least 24performances, the simple show tunes, “Hey There,” “Tonight” felt like Wagner.
    Even now, I make sure to vocalize everyday if there is some challenging music coming up. The best vocal thing about getting older is you learn how your voice works, when it’s not working, and what to do about it.
    A great teacher like you is invaluable, and singers wanting a career, should NEVER lose contact with the teacher that did them the most good.

    Best Regards and thanks for the informative CONFESSION!

  • At June 10, 2022 at 5:02 PM , Anonymous Denise Wakeman said...

    Wow, Judy. I'm not a singer, but I think the big picture of your lesson could be applied to so many things and how we sometimes take our lives and livelihoods for granted. Thank you!

  • At June 10, 2022 at 11:16 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Oh my gosh you're so right, Denise; and glad you enjoyed this post! We never stop learning, do we?

  • At June 11, 2022 at 10:58 AM , Blogger Elizabeth H. Cottrell said...

    Wow! Such important information for anyone (not just singers) who relies on their voice. Will be sharing!

  • At June 11, 2022 at 12:41 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Thank you so very much Elizabeth... hope it helps some of your people!

  • At June 27, 2022 at 8:05 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thank you so much for this insight! I struggle with sinus drainage continually as well as allergy issues year round. No matter what I do it will still rear it’s ugly head at times. Unconsciously I will find my self clearing my throat way too hard and not preparing my voice ahead of time.


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