My vocal cords and I have, what I like to call, a long distance penpalship: we communicate on a regular basis, but never really get to see each other. I have relied on my vocal cords’ support in the past and continue to do so; they were there for me at every audition, they performed with me each night at sea, and now help me give vocal lessons to others. They help me express myself with a grunt if the football is on, or with a whoop as the ‘Love Island’ theme tune plays (yes – I am ashamed). They help me to communicate to others how I am feeling, and they are part of the team that helps me tell my husband that I love him (you wanted cheese with that, right?)
It was a rainy Monday 10th June (that’s England for you) when my vocal cords and I had our ‘meet cute’ via a laryngoscopy or ‘scope.’
A scope is an examination of the larynx (or voice box) using an instrument which is, usually, either placed into the mouth (videostroboscopy) or a passed through the nose (flexible laryngoscopy), and should, preferably, be performed by a laryngologist or an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor who specialises in voice.
Introducing you to the inside of my larynx via the mouth with the use of a rigid camera and a strobe light. Here you can see the vocal cords in action!
A cocktail of curiosity, wonder and neurosis led to my decision to schedule a scope. Call me a nerd, (NERD!) but I have a love for learning, and the more I delved into vocal anatomy the more fascinated I became. I started to think how peculiar it is for us all to go through life without ever seeing the very things that are working to keep us alive; no quick ‘hey guys – how are you doing?’ or ‘thanks for all you do’, or ‘keep it up, champs!’ (woah, that got a bit deep!)
Equally, the more I read up on vocal health the more apprehensive I became about the condition of my own vocal cords, especially after a bout of acid reflux symptoms. Finally, as a vocal coach, I felt I had to practise what I preach.
The white bands are the vocal cords themselves, and this is a still of them mid-oscillation.
The vocal folds look like two little bands sitting in a horizontal V shape located just above the windpipe.
There are a few different layers to the vocal folds. Let’s look at them like a trifle:
Here, the vocal cords are set apart in their V-like shape and this is their position when we inhale. Those two shoulder-like arms to each side are the arytenoid cartilages which help in opening and closing the vocal cords, and that little ringed pipe you can see is my windpipe.
Some will skip away proud as punch that their vocal cords are in great condition. However, others may have discovered that there is an abnormality and this can be terribly upsetting.
The road to recovery will depend on the problem; for some, lifestyle changes may be in order which could mean anything from changing up the diet to making alterations to the social life. In some cases, a few rehabilitation sessions with a speech and language therapist or a vocal massage will do the trick. For others, surgery may well be required. In addition to this, the injured singer will benefit from having a supportive network around them, made up of their family, friends, employees, a vocal coach to help with maintaining healthy technique, an ENT specialist and a speech and language therapist, all who can help them manage their situation both physically and emotionally.
Heck, all singers would benefit from having that network in place – vocal injury or not.
If you have experienced changes in vocal quality, increased fatigue, loss of range or hoarseness any of which have persisted for 48-hours, then the best thing to do is to get a scope booked in. Damage detected in its early stages is much easier to reverse than damage which has lingered and worsened. Or, if you are a curious cat, you could choose to get a scope even though you have no real vocal concerns. This gives you what laryngologist and voice specialist Dr Reena Gupta calls a ‘baseline strobe’, giving you the ability to understand your vocal condition at a time when all feels well, so you have something to compare it to should you run into trouble in the future.
The voice is a sensation based instrument; we don’t have the ability to hold, pluck, dissect or probe it when we sing (thank goodness – ouch!), so we have to rely on what it feels and sounds like. The only way to really check in with our vocal cords and get the facts is to visit an ENT for a scope.
Plus, it’s pretty darn cool to see inside our bodies, and get a small insight to what goes on inside our cave of wonders. Icky – but cool!
We have been told:
Unable to escape Medusa’s clutches, the world of voice is no stranger to a falsity. Alas, it’s time to stick a pin in some balloons and pop some of these vocal myths.
The diaphragm is a large sheet of muscle that is attached to the ribcage and the spine. It sits underneath the lungs in a dome-like shape and, when we breathe in, it contracts and flattens, which allows the lungs to descend, enlarge and suck up some oxygen. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to it’s resting position.
The diaphragm is an inhalation muscle; we sing on a controlled exhale.
“The diaphragm plays a questionable role in singing… You can’t control what you can’t feel.”(The OHNI Voice Book: Straight Talk with Dr Reena Gupta by Dr Reena Gupta)
If I were to ask you to wiggle your aortic valve, or tense your oesophageal sphincter, you might accuse me of having one too many glasses of the strong stuff. We have no direct control over the heart chambers, stomach valve – or our diaphragm, for that matter. If we can’t control it, and we can’t feel it, how the heck are we supposed to sing from it?
When someone says ‘sing from the diaphragm’ they are, most likely, asking you to breathe in such a way that the diaphragm can contract optimally which, in turn, allows the lungs and ribs to move efficiently and effectively.
When ‘The Flu Family’ book a cruise around your nasal passage, your initial thought is probably ‘why now?’ swiftly followed by the idea that consuming copious mugs of hot honey and lemon will soothe the vocal cords. However, because of the way in which our larynx functions, nothing we swallow touches the vocal cords themselves. As discussed in previous blog posts, the larynx’s primary job is to protect our airways. Everything we eat or drink is designed to slide down the gullet shoot – not the windpipe. This is why we cough and splutter from the smallest cookie crumb which may have taken a dive ‘down the wrong hole.’ Whilst drinking honey and lemon won’t directly affect the vocal cords, it does mean that you are putting fluid into your body, staying hydrated and keeping that lovely mucous wet.
It has been said that honey can help soothe a sore throat by fighting the bad bacteria in your throat ‘Game of Thrones’ style. Due to it’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities, Manuka honey boasts the ability to attack the germs causing sore throats by stopping the bacteria from growing (which is probably why you need to take out a small bank loan in order to stock your cupboards with it).
There is no known cure for the common cold; good old-fashioned hydration and rest are key factors to helping you feel better. Some look upon drinking honey and lemon as a bit of a placebo, but there is no harm in slurping away at a cup of bitterly sweet bee juice, regardless of whether it has any medical or scientific grounding or not. Either way, you feel better, right?
Understanding foods that trigger excess mucous production, or that cause us gyp is important for our vocal health. However, newsflash: it’s not always dairy. Second newsflash: it’s different for everyone.
Of course, for some singers, dairy products are mucous triggers which can leave them feeling ‘claggy’ and wanting to clear the throat excessively. However, for others, it could be spicy food, caffeine or tomatoes causing symptoms of heartburn and reflux.
Singing is not like buying a pair of socks: it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ thing. Just because one singer struggles after a helping of Dairy Milk buttons or a wheel of black bomber (what a cheese!) doesn’t mean the same goes for you. Get your own damn triggers!
True or false: we have both true and false vocal folds? True.
The true vocal folds are the vocal cords themselves, and the false vocal folds sit above them and, should, mind their own business when we vocalise. The false vocal folds’ main job is to protect the vocal cords (the real ones) and keep them moist.
Whispering seems like an appropriate thing to do if we need to preserve our voices for an important performance – but this isn’t necessarily the case. During whispering:
If this set up is kept for too long, muscle memory might clock on and keep it as the ‘norm,’ meaning we could be singing with some degree of false fold constriction.
From time-to-time, from person-to-person and case-by-case, whispering may not be a bad thing. We just need to be mindful that we don’t create an unhelpful set-up for the long-run.
You’re probably not.
The posh name for ‘tone deafness’ is ‘Amusia’ which is a disorder hindering musical recognition. Amusia is said to affect approximately 4% of the population as a result of brain damage or from a genetic disorder. Someone affected by Amusia may not be able to differentiate between two different pitches, for example.
If a singer hasn’t been diagnosed with Amusia, then saying or believing they are tone deaf could be their suit of armour, shielding them against judgement in the possible event of sounding bad. Voices are extremely personal to each of us as they are sewn to our being. Negative thoughts about our singing voice can arise from a bad experience where, perhaps, we were told that we sounded bad, that we can’t sing or, even worse, that we shouldn’t sing.
Pitch is the product of vocal technique and musical understanding, not the cause. There could be many reasons getting in your way of hitting the correct pitch like a darts player to a bullseye, including:
With the help of a supportive environment and a vocal coach pitch is likely to improve.
For centuries, myths have circulated this ‘flat earth’ and embedded themselves into different cultures, but you can now wash these bits of vocal ‘fake news’ out of your ears.
Oh, and carrots won’t help you to see better in the dark. Sorry!
The set-up we have as babies is not the same as when we reach adulthood. So, what does that mean for young singers, and what is it like to even audition for child roles? Meet Abigail…
Music enters our lives even as early as the foetal stages, whether that be through the sound of our mother’s heartbeat, or by radio playlists that get cranked up in the car. My niece did a whole series of uterus wobbles in the audience of ‘Dreamgirls’ (either really enjoying the performance, or annoyed at being belted awake by Amber Riley). From the moment we enter the world we create sound, announcing our arrival with a cry, but Mariah Carey didn’t pop out singing whistle register, neither did Pavarotti pierce the amniotic sac with a chilling round of ‘Nessun Dorma’.
We have all been there: sat on a train tucking into a meaty chapter of a book, or in a restaurant enjoying a bowl of Spaghetti, when a baby’s wail pierces the peace. If an adult were to, randomly, start screaming in the middle of Costa Coffee, we might:
So, why might a baby create vocal hell and escape the damage?
A baby’s only real communicative tool is their rainbow of noises: a beaming smile and a giggle can tell us that the baby is content (or has wind), and those penetrative shrieks indicate there is something wrong, from hunger to armageddon in their nappy. Unlike in an adult, the baby’s larynx is positioned high up in the neck and sits behind the jaw, which allows the baby to feed and breathe at the same time. The high set larynx is optimal for creating a loud ear-splitting screech, something which cannot be easily ignored by the carer.
Survival and attracting attention are the only real requirements for the vocal mechanism at this age. As I touched upon in a previous blog, the primary function of the larynx is to keep us alive by protecting the airways against unwanted objects like food and drink. It just so happens that this survival kit also gives us the gift of music. Special, really!
As we toss the nappies to one side and emerge from babyhood, we can expect:
At approximately 7 years old, children can start forming good singing habits, like efficient breathing technique, creating a clear sound, releasing from strain and exploring the upper range. At any age, we might experience vocal limitations, whether that be due to the size of our vocal tract or through our lifestyle choices. For the child, their limitations could be linked to the size of their instrument and it’s stage of development. However, we can continue to encourage a child’s sense of play, their inquisitiveness and imagination to help produce healthy singing storytellers.
“The limits at this age are still, to an extent, pitch range, loudness, flexibility and stamina.” – ‘Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults’ by Dr Jenevora Williams.
When I was a kid, I distinctly remember:
Singing can be enjoyed on a long car journey or with friends at a sleepover and, for some, this enjoyment develops into a passion for performance. ‘Billy Elliot,’ ‘Matilda’ and ‘School of Rock’ are popular Musical Theatre shows that continue to entertain audiences around the world, and all require the employment of child performers.
Abigail is a young singer of 12-years old and first started singing lessons with me in 2017. She has aspirations of working professionally in Musical Theatre and is currently a member of West End Kids. Abigail attends Stage Coach and, last year, auditioned for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘School of Rock’ for the role of Katie. Speaking to Abigail, she explained what she finds tricky with singing, gave an insight to West End auditions for her age bracket, and shared some tips on dealing with rejection.
Hi Abigail! Tell us – what do you love most about singing?
A: Everything! It just makes me happy.
What have you found the most tricky when it comes to singing, and what are 3 valuable things that you have learnt whilst having lessons?
Our lungs continue to develop until we reach our early to mid 20’s. Children will, most likely, need to take more breaths during singing compared to an adult, simply because their lungs are smaller.
Tell us about the audition process for ‘School of Rock’. How did you first find out about the audition, and what did you have to do?
A: My mum found out about the auditions online. For the first round, I had to record an audition tape of me singing whilst playing bass guitar. I got through to the next round in London and, for that, I had to prepare a monologue, a piece to play on the bass guitar and something to sing a cappella. Immediately after the audition I was told I had been offered a recall for the third stage and, for this, I had to learn material from the show. We spent the day playing our instruments, singing and then performing together as a band. It was fun!
What helped you to feel most prepared whilst you were going through the audition stages?
A: I watched lots of youtube videos to get to know Katie as a character, and I practised lots. I had extra singing and guitar lessons to work through the material to make me feel as prepared as possible.
How did you control your nerves?
A: I was very nervous but, by the third stage, I had made friends with some of the other people auditioning, so it didn’t feel as scary.
You did brilliantly getting to the third round but, unfortunately, you weren’t offered the part. What helped you deal with rejection?
A: I was really sad and had feelings that I wasn’t good enough, but I tried to think of 3 positive things I could take away from it:
I threw myself into other opportunities and, shortly after, I auditioned for West End Kids and got offered a place in their training group.
What is your dream Musical Theatre role?
Either ‘Matilda’ or Katie from ‘School of Rock’, because I am exactly like them: I love music and books!
You might not be clad in a fluffy bathrobe and slippers, and you probably won’t be handed a flute of bubbly, but a trip to the vocal spa is a worthy investment for your instrument which will benefit from the freedom which massage gifts it.
Essentially, this treatment is like a sports massage for the vocal athlete; it is a tool used for maintenance, healing and prevention against injury by identifying and getting rid of unnecessary tension in the body. Anyone can have a vocal massage, but those who are heavily dependent on their voice as part of their vocation, or whose lifestyle includes much vocal overloading would highly benefit, including:
And, you – the singer.
Tension can carry out it’s intrusion of our bodies as a result of many things, including being hunched over at the computer or from suffering anxiety. Some tension, however, is necessary. For example, we have a muscle called the ‘cricothyroid muscle’ which is, predominantly, used when we sing higher pitches. In order for us to sing these higher pitches, this muscle has to help the vocal cords lengthen and tighten, therefore creating necessary tension.
It’s the tightness in the entourage of neck, jaw and tongue muscles (amongst some) that we don’t want to entertain. Some tension is both audible and visible, making us resemble Bruce Banner’s transition into the Hulk (with the exception of turning green); we might notice our neck muscles bulging, have a swallowed sound, a protruding head or a clenched jaw, for example. Other tensions are silent fugitives that you may not even know you have been harbouring until they have been released. Either way, tension can dampen our sound, limit our stamina, quash some ruddy good potential and, even, develop into a vocal pathology.
You won’t experience a vocal rebirth as you hop off the massage table, suddenly finding that you are a classical soprano. However, if you were to ask: ‘Will this give me vocal freedom? Could this unlock some vocal accessibility that I didn’t know I had? Will this help me maintain my important instrument? Could this make me question the existence of witchcraft?’ Well, to those, I would answer ‘yes.’ To read about more ‘vocal magic’, Click here
It doesn’t have to. Pain is subjective and, for me, some routines can be uncomfortable, but it depends on the therapist and their practice.
I had been noticing some jaw tension, and would often sit at my husband’s feet of an evening and ask (nay, demand!) a neck rub; being a vocal coach, I knew it was time for some release, so I had made an appointment with Stephen King (not the literary figure), a vocal coach and therapist at King Vocal Diagnostics. I had experienced vocal massage before – something which I chose to have after a long cruise ship contract and knowing full well that I attract tongue tension as if it were a persistent lover. I had had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen King on several occasions, hearing him talk about his work with ‘Myofascial Release’ something which, since developing a new obsession with healing, I wanted to experience.
In this instance we aren’t talking about the coverings of cupboard doors or some other fixture disguise. Bodily ‘fascia’ is, basically, connective tissue that hugs our muscles and organs – it’s a bit like sellotape on a wrapped gift: it’s what holds us together. ‘Myofascial Release’ is the approach of freeing up sticking points in the fascia which, in turn, releases tensions throughout the body. It includes the whole body exclusively as part of the healing process, which offers the opportunity to identify the potential culprit of the tension that is creating symptoms in other parts of the body. Singing is a whole body experience, so tensions harboured in one part of the body, could impact our vocal function.
Imagine that the body is a town, and that all the different areas of the body are small neighbourhoods with impressive architecture and sweet little valleys running through them. Some of these neighbourhoods have earned themselves a bad reputation because of the way the inhabitants and owners have behaved. It is within these parts where you might find the potentially dangerous family who go by the name of ‘The Tensions’ (a bit like ‘The Mafia’, if you will). Regardless of where they claim home they often send hate mail to other parts of the town to stir up trouble, even though they may live miles apart. Vocal massage is like the town sheriff, locating the trouble (or Tensions) and evicting them from the town, leaving the neighbourhoods to live in peace.
Looking at fascial trains (or the way in which this connective tissue weaves within us), a therapist could work on a singer’s abdominal area which could then free up the jaw – and that is exactly how Stephen King began my session. Whilst working on the abs, I was surprised to feel the jaw area begin to tingle. Later, with the attention on the fascia at the neck, I felt the same tingling sensation in abundance in my legs. Fascia-nating! (I’m not even going to apologise for that one!)
Stephen King has described how, after experiencing vocal massage himself, he discovered more vocal flexibility, giving him access to approximately 5 extra semitones within his range. After my session, I had:
And – it was all pain free.
The importance of vocal maintenance is paramount for the professional voice user. We can’t escape the Godzilla of ‘tension’ in our day-to-day lives, but we can help prevent it wreaking so much havoc. In the 19th century, when Charles Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’ circulated, the spiritual was challenged. ‘Myofascial Release’ and manual therapy is scientific, but there is something spiritual about the natural human-to-human contact, and the discussion between one individual to another’s fascia through the power of touch. ‘Myofasical Release’ is now showing up in Yoga and is a used to treat people with chronic pain, of which cancer patients and Crohn’s disease suffers make up some of the clientele.
Could the process of healing be the point where the spiritual and scientific meet in harmony?
How do we create sound with an instrument we can’t see? Okay, so you haven’t been sleeping under a rock and missed the 8th instalment of the Harry Potter series, but voice production is magic (well, and a bit of science)…
In school, science classes saw me:
It goes without saying that I was more of a ‘Seamus Finnigan’ than a ‘Hermione Granger’ when it came to science. Until, that is, I discovered voice science.
Absolutely not! It isn’t necessary for a singer to name each anatomical cartilage, or to have dissected a larynx in order to sing well and communicate meaning. However, unlike a guitar or piano, the voice is, mostly, an invisible, sensation-based instrument. If we could chant ‘Alohomora’ at our throats to unlock them and take a peek, boy, would that be helpful! But, seeing as we can’t, exploring some scientific elements can give us more vocal awareness, and help us to understand our instrument more deeply; in turn, this may then lead to better control over it – consequently making us better singers.
So how, in the name of Nicolas Flammel, do we create sound with an instrument we cannot see?
The lungs sit inside the ribcage and look like two slabs of ribeye (yum!) They are important for voice production because they are our PROVIDER or GENERATOR. When we inhale, a curved-shape muscle called the diaphragm contracts, pulling the lungs downwards. As a result, the chest cavity expands and experiences a decrease in pressure, meaning we are able to gobble up some oxygen.
When we exhale, the diaphragm and lungs return to their resting positions. The pressure in the chest cavity builds again because the lungs are deflating; this makes us blow air (or carbon dioxide) out of the lungs, sending it on a journey through our vocal cords and out of our mouths.
It is this meeting between the air and the vocal cords where a sound wave can be created.
In order for sound to be produced, we need VIBRATION. The larynx (or voice box) is where our vocal cords live, and is responsible for vibrating the air which is sent from the lungs. The amount of time a vibration occurs determines the pitch we hear; for example, if we were to sing a middle C, we can expect our vocal cords to be vibrating approximately 261.63 times per second. As pitch ascends, the rate of vibration increases. For instance, if we were to sing a C6 (two octaves above middle C) our vocal cords would be vibrating at approximately 1046.50 times per second. Whoa!
The larynx’s primary function is not to help us sing, but to act as a bodyguard, protecting our airways from any unwanted visitors (like masticated chocolate frogs or Butterbeer).
Known as the RESONATORS, the throat and mouth are two acoustic chambers, separated by the tongue, which are responsible for giving the sound wave energy – a bit like a bag of smarties does to a kid. Both the throat and the mouth can boost certain parts of the sound wave (but that gets into the juicy nugget of formants and harmonics, and that subject can initially feel like two weeks spent in the company of a mandrake!)
The ways in which we choose to shape the throat and the mouth, and how we arrange the tongue and the lips (for we have control over them) add personality and colour to the sound wave. For example, you can create a warmer, more dark tone by narrowing the lips, or create a more bright and brassy sound by widening them; really – it’s a bit like choosing an Instagram filter for the voice! These orchestrations are how we form vowels and, ultimately, how we communicate with each other through language.
Airflow + Vibration x Resonance & Human Emotion = Magic
“(Einstein) wanted to understand the laws that govern all of time and space, not because it was useful but because it was beautiful, to satisfy our innate desire to make sense of creation and our place within it.” (BBC Icons; 2019)
It is from this factory line of lungs-to-larynx-to-resonators that, out of the mouth, comes tuneful stories riding on a stream of air, otherwise known as: Magic (and a bit of science). Now, there is no need to don the lab coat and goggles – you can sing without them. However, through our own intrigue to explore the world of anatomical cogs that whirr beneath our skins, we might just bond with our voices better. Perhaps, we might even find ourselves a reliable, healthy invisible friend with whom we can cast our spells.
Do you want to discover how to breathe more efficiently for singing? How about learning more about the vocal cords, and getting a less breathy sound? Perhaps you find your tongue is a busy-body and gets in the way. Leave a comment or get in touch!