The Art of Re-Building a Voice

Building a voice

I spend a lot of time building voices from the ground-up. This involves teaching the instrument how to behave in a new way.

This can be slow for voices that are more stubborn, or it can be surprisingly quick as voices typically suck up new muscle memory when it’s good for them. This involves the vocal folds, the vocal tract, the larynx, and a host of other components. So when I talk about building a voice I generally mean training people’s voices to be capable of doing things they’ve not done previously.

Re-building a voice

However there is a smaller sub-section of people I work with where I am not building their voice for the first time, I am re-building their voice.

Here I’m talking about people who previously had a functioning voice – perhaps even a trained one – that have undergone some kind of vocal trauma that has radically shifted how their instrument behaves and operates. This shift is typically to a point they don’t recognise it anymore (psychologically or mechanically/acoustically) and so they are at a loss how to proceed.

This translates not just to a desire to improve their voice, but requires some level of fixing and re-training that also needs to happen alongside the normal trajectory.

Part 1: Examples of Vocal Trauma

– Vocal surgery: surgery to remove nodules, polyps, repair granulomas, aneurysms, or other.
– Damage to their instrument: damage to nerves that control the vocal folds, to the larynx or trachea, scar tissue from reflux, damage to/straining of supporting musculature, or even damage from other surgery.
– Severe illness : pneumonia, allergies leading to severe tissue inflammation, laryngitis, tonsilitis, etc.
– Chronic biological changes/conditions: muscle tension dysphonia, spasmodic dysphonia, chronic reflux, or even puberty/the aging process.

Some of these are direct damage to the instrument, some are by-products of some other illness/damage, and some are more hormonal or psychological than anything else. Nevertheless, these are all dramatic and traumatic changes that can occur to singers.

There are plenty of people out there who have gone through such changes that simply don’t ever seek help. I was chatting to someone recently who had a bad cold a few months ago, and something happened meant they have lost half their range and their voice is substantially weaker. To me, that is terrifying and I would want to address this issue, but for them, it was just a footnote in their day-to-day.

IMPORTANT: Shift happens…

A key point to take away is this: there there are plenty of causes out there that can cause tectonic shifts in your voice. These needn’t be the development of serious issues like vocal nodules (generally due to misuse/abuse/overuse), but can be serious enough to leave you wondering “where the hell am I?“… even people with very well put together voices will have those moments – myself included!

There are two main components to what I’m looking to address when working with singers that need to check their voice and re-build things: Vocal Folds + Vocal Tract. Let’s dive into each.

Part 2: The Vocal Folds

Last year, I had approximately 2.5-3 months of my voice being wholly unfamiliar to me. What had happened was I had a bad cold, followed by laryngitis. This took about a month. As I was recovering, I had a horrendous night’s sleep (a single night was all it took) that instantly caused my vocal folds to swell (vocal edema).

Now normally this single bad night’s sleep wouldn’t affect me much, but because my instrument was only JUST recovering from a trauma, it was the first of many vocal ‘trips’. This then led to a series of false starts and radical shifts in good vocal behaviour that lasted for another 1.5-2 months. This was not remotely fun. Such issues need addressing (broadly speaking) in the following fashion:

Check for swelling/basic function
Every morning, I had to conduct a few basic function tests to see how swollen my instrument was each day. Please note that I KNEW my vocal folds were swollen, and the chronic nature of the issue meant I had to accept this for the time-being. These tests varied but typically lip bubbles, some dopey vowels and some thinned out edgy sounds were used to check this. It’s partly based on sound, partly based on feel. I perform similar checks when clients are in with issues, or when they are out on tour with vocal issues and they need a check-up.

Start to reintroduce connection (cautiously)
As the swelling receded, it didn’t mean I could go hell-for-leather on my voice as per normal. I had to be cautious, but also had to start re-introducing the vocal folds to the function they should be capable of. This involves balancing the contraction and stretch they should be capable of, over whatever range they are capable of delivering it.

One MUST be careful not to overdo it at this stage. It’s very easy to get over-excited with the return of vocal fold function, go a step too far, and trigger swelling again. All of this should be done on highly favourable exercises to give the voice the best chance of finding it’s desired behaviour again.

Test it on pure vowels/less assistive exercises, and less demanding songs
Once connection is back over at least the first bridge, ideally the second also (especially for women), we can start to road-test the vocal folds a little bit on fragments of song. Just like the exercises, the better it performs, the more we can trust it with. From there the voice (and the singer’s mental state) will tend to be more like it was before.

Even if the voice isn’t perfect, to have a more “complete” instrument that behaves in a more predictable and familiar way goes a long way towards engendering trust in your instrument.

Part 3: Vocal Tract

Something that is MASSIVELY overlooked is the vocal tract. This is considered to comprise various components between your lips and larynx (e.g. pharynx, nasal cavity, etc). Swelling or inflammation in this area (e.g. sore throat/pharyngitis, tonsilities, inflammation due to post nasal drip/allergies etc) means one cannot shape vowels precisely, which leads to functional issues with the voice moving smoothly through the vocal range.

This can result in yelling, flat notes, the voice flipping, etc. Often people assume this is the result of the vocal folds misbehaving, but problems in the vocal tract are often missed.

As it happens, my hayfever kicked in a few weeks ago and has been causing similar issues, at a level I’ve not had to deal with before. The irritation in my vocal tract has led to a lot of issues, and I’m having to re-build my voice slowly, as the inflammation has died down. I’ve not had to battle this specific experience before, but this level of re-building of the voice is something I have to do with my own voice (and other people’s voices) on a regular enough basis that it’s familiar territory.

Check out any inflammation

With a light and a mirror, you can see how much inflammation there is at the back of the mouth. Sometimes the inflammation is lower down, but typically you’ll be able to see inflammation.

If there’s severe redness, crusty lumps (like tonsilitis) or overwhelming white spots (caused by antibody build-up), you know you need some rest. There are lots of remedies, but the more serious this is, the more rest you’ll need, and medical attention may be needed (e.g. strep throat).

In my case, I’m fairly confident it’s hayfever, so gargling with salt water, rest, anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, etc) are taken (as well as anti-histamines).

Vowel tests
As the vocal tract governs vowel control, we need to test this out. After getting the voice warm (e.g. lip bubbles, checking connection that’s available) we can start to re-align the behaviour of the vocal tract with the vowels it should be capable of shaping. Due to poor functioning of the tract, this can have a knock-on effect on how the vocal folds are behaving, so it’s important to keep this in mind, and try to keep both those components in balance.

A lot of this is governed by sound and feel. If it feels tight, or forced, discontinue and rest. This is as much like trying to learn to run again after a bad sprain or even a broken leg – we have to listen to the body and respect the boundaries it is setting.

Connection over double and triple vowels, from below and above
Once we know that the vocal tract can shape the vowels correctly, we can start to check it’s behaviour across multiple vowels on the same exercise. This means we are changing the shape of the vocal tract across multiple instances of the same exercise. This is to ascertain that the tract CAN make such refined changes. Persistent inflammation or tissue irritation will impinge on the tracts ability to shape the vowels correctly.

Once we are getting somewhere with the vowels (even imperfectly), we can transition more into song tests and iron out any wrinkles as we go. Again, the more predictable and familiar the experience of the instrument can be made for the singer, the more they can trust it and can bounce back into using it more normally.

Conclusion

When re-building a voice, it is a good news bad news scenario. The bad news is it feels so much more hopeless to the singer because it feels like the instrument that was once their own has gone.

To re-iterate, there are various functional and physical checks we want to make, in order to re-build the voice. Once we get the the voice across a threshold of useability and reliability using this philosophy, the singer can trust and rely on their voice (even if it’s still a work in progress) much the way they remember themselves doing prior to the trauma.

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