Vocal Longevity: The Icarus Effect

I had a new client in on Friday who gigs regularly down in London. One of the issues they raised was that they feel that longevity and robustness is a serious problem for them. If they were doing a recording session, they felt they could deliver a handful of good takes and then the voice would just get weaker from that point on. If they were doing a string of gigs, they may even feel like they need months off to recover from them.

This person is also not old, so it’s not an age related issue. They can hit all the notes they are trying to hit. They are also not overly aggressive with their singing, if anything they are slightly light with their voice. And they are not alone in this struggle – I regularly get experienced singers in suffering the same issues.

So what’s going on?

Many MANY singers suffer from these issues to one extent or another, and it is increasingly common with younger singers for reasons I’m about to explain. The best illustration I can give, is the story of Icarus.

The Icarus Effect

In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a craftsman imprisoned with his son by King Minos of Crete. Daedalus built them each a set of wings made of feathers and wax to enable them to escape and to fly out of their prison. During the flight, Icarus was amazed at what he could do with his wings and flew up high, far too close to the sun for far too long, despite warnings from his father. The prolonged exposure to heat from the sun then melted the wax holding the feathers in place, so Icarus wings fell apart, and he plummeted to his death.

The issue with many singers (young, old, you name it), especially ones gifted with a half decent instrument, is that they over-estimate their ability. Now, I’m not talking about “whether they can hit the note” or not – I’m talking about something several dimensions deeper than that.

– What does it take to hit a reasonably high note just ONCE in a song? Probably challenging but doable.
– What does it take to sing a final chorus where the whole melody is relatively high? Hmmm, tiring, but manageable.
– What about if the whole song sits in that range? Oh… that’s getting really exhausting.
– What about if you’ve got a whole set of songs that sits in that range? Errrrrr….
– What if you have got multiple gigs a week, with a whole set of songs in that range? Uh-oh.

But THIS is exactly what many singers do. They realise they can sing a high note once, maybe several times, then suddenly everything becomes about shoehorning every song into that area of their voice, without addressing how LONG they can sustain that kind of demand of their voice.

The issue is NOT how high someone can sing.

We get untrained singers with great aptitude for higher notes all the time – some people’s instruments are better put together in this regard.

The issue is NOT even how often they can sing those high notes. If there is a portion of the song that is lower that the singer can retreat to for comfort and ease between climaxes, then repeated high notes are really not too exhausting.

Why Icarus ACTUALLY fell…

Icarus didn’t just fall because of how close he flow to the sun, he met his fate because of how LONG he spent that close to the sun. It’s the duration and exposure that we’re talking about.

But if a singer insists on placing songs in keys where EVERY note requires application of effort, even if it’s only a tiny amount, the resulting vocal condition places the demand squarely in the court of how LONG can they spend hitting those high notes… i.e. how long can they spend in the sun without their wings melting. THIS is an altogether different parameter to measure your singing ability against. It is absolutely possible to spend a long time in those places, but it’s an ability that takes a long time to develop and control, and most OVER-estimate their ability in this regard, when we should be playing it safe. But this is what I see time and time again. Singers (heck, even students from time to time!) see that they can hit a note, maybe even sustain, and suddenly EVERYTHING they sing is “up there” the whole time.

In the opera world, Pavarotti talked about how challenging it is to keep singing those high notes and how the body naturally finds it harder to keep the system perfect the longer you are “up there’. In the pop world, you can look up Bruno Mars bootlegs on YouTube where the man with the biggest live range of the 21st century sits songs just around his first bridge or just in chest voice in order to preserve it for paying gigs.

The Take-Home Message
If you are a singer who is repeatedly facing vocal health and longevity issues in relation to periods of singing, it is very likely you are flying too close to the sun, hence my advice to you will be the same as to the client I had the other day.

Take your songs down several keys. Assess yourself AND your set-lists and the songs you sing. Your primary goal is to sound GOOD – don’t compromise on that. If you can’t sprint a whole marathon, if you can’t lift maximum weights in the gym with no rest, then you can’t sing every song at the tippy-top of your range – you will wreck yourself. You must pace yourself, and make sure you don’t spend too long “up there” taxing your voice.

Learn More: Related Articles

If you want to learn more about vocal health and voice issues, you may enjoy the following articles:
Shouting masquerading as singing: Why so many singers are just yelling
Why vocal problems so regularly derail careers, permanently
Famous Singers with Voice Problems
Vocal Health Issues
My Singing Voice Hurts: 5 Habits for Vocal Health
Why do I keep losing my voice: Overuse, Misuse and Abuse
The Seriousness of Vocal Fold Nodules

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