I spend a lot of time working on voices. Often we are building them from the ground-up, teaching the instrument how to behave in a new way.
This can be slow for voices that are more stubborn, have suffered from health issues, etc. The process can also be surprisingly quick, as voices typically suck up new muscle memory/behaviour patterns when it’s good for them.
The whole process involves training and co-ordinating the vocal folds, the vocal tract, the larynx, and a host of other components.
Intro: 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, but 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 often so severe that the individual barely recognises their voice anymore (psychologically or mechanically/acoustically) and so they are at a loss how to proceed.
Part 1: Vocal Trauma
Here is a short, non-exhaustive general list of 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, some are by-products of other issues. Others can be more hormonal or psychological than anything else. Not everything is as dramatic as nodules, but there are many afflictions that can distressing or disorienting for singers.
Plenty who have such problems can recognise the signs, but often never get started resolving the issues. I was chatting to someone recently who (allegedly) had just a bad cold a few months prior, and yet something happened which meant they have lost half their range and their voice became substantially weaker. For me, this would be a huge deal. Yet for them, it was just a footnote in their day-to-day. But if this would bother you, then you’d do well to keep reading to understand how things can be improved.
There are two main components to what I’m looking to address in re-building voices: Vocal Folds + Vocal Tract. Let’s dive into each.
Part 2: The Vocal Folds
When problems occur with the voice, often the vocal folds are hit, e.g. laryngitis. Here is the broad-brush process that we have to go through to start the recovery process:
(i): Check for swelling/basic function
Every time I’ve had laryngitis/chest infections or similar, I’ve had to conduct a few basic function tests to see how inflamed or swollen my voice was each day. These tests varied but typically lip bubbles, some dopey vowels and some thinned out edgy sounds are used to check this.
This process is 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.
(ii): Start to reintroduce connection (cautiously)
As swelling recedes, this doesn’t mean you can go hell-for-leather on your voice. Caution is the name of the game. We have to start re-introducing the vocal folds to the function they should be capable of. This involves balancing the contraction and stretch of the folds, over whatever range they are capable of delivering it, both that day and generally.
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.
(iii): 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.
NOTE: We cannot heal inflammation through exercises. We are not miracle workers. However, when an instrument is swollen/inflamed, it cannot behave correctly. Yet most singers will keep trying their damaged instrument out, damaging it and inflaming it further.
The original symptom then becomes an antagonising factor. preventing full recovery, much like a runner constantly trying to run on a sprained ankle. The original sprain is gone, but constantly trying to return to using the leg without a good level of recovery AND ingraining correct function will keep triggering flare-ups. Slow and cautious return to use of the body in an increasingly more correct way can sidestep any unnecessary prolongation of the original trauma.
Part 3: Vocal Tract
The vocal tract comprises various components of your body 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 overlooked. Here are some things that are useful to do
(i): Check out any inflammation
If there’s severe inflammation (typically during the peak of illness/trauma), it can often be visible with a light and looking at the back of your mouth with in the mirror. Sometimes the inflammation is lower down, but typically you’ll be able to see inflammation.
Severe redness, crusty lumps (like tonsilitis) or overwhelming white spots (caused by antibody build-up), means you need to rest. The more serious this is, the more rest you’ll need, and medical attention may be needed (e.g. strep throat). There’s no point attempting exercises if your throat is enormously inflamed and still in the midst of an illness.
As health returns, we can do some basic vowel tests. As the vocal tract governs vowel control, issues will manifest in such tests.
After getting the voice warm, 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. We need 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, we need to 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, whilst also trying to encourage it back towards correct behaviour.
From there we can start to check 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 tract’s ability to shape the vowels correctly.
NOTE: Most untrained singers find this hard anyway, which can often lead to them creating chronic persistent issues in their instrument when the original acute illness/injury has abated.
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.
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. The hard part is that it can feel like slow-going, especially when one remembers how good it felt before vs the current unwell state.