Waking the Body Up

 

Isn’t it strange how on certain days your voice works and on others it doesn’t? On the latter days it usually leads singers to warm up for hours on end and provided that hasn’t worked a singer may convince themselves that its because they are getting sick that their voice is just ‘not happening.’ Usually this theory is accompanied by a ‘hot and toasty’ feeling in the throat and in part is due to the length of the warm up. What a singer has actually done is that they’ve warmed their voice up to wear it out AND they haven’t even began their performance yet. I always feel that in this situation the end scenario is going to be a disheartening one for the singer as they get on stage feeling anxious about their voice.

Overall, I feel this issue of the voice working well on some days and not on others has tended to make singers feel insecure about the reliability of their voice and incredibly frustrated. So… I want to scratch the surface of this issue and address whats really going on and dispell a few myths about the warm up and give some effective solutions!

Let’s ascertain one thing; the body is the singers instrument AND singing is muscular. Usually what goes hand in hand with those days that a singers voice is “not happening” is that they are tired, run down and possibly it may even be that “time of the month” (if they are a female). In a nutshell; the body is lethargic and if this is the case, the muscles will be slow to respond hence the voice will have difficulty ‘waking up.’ On the flipside, have you ever noticed how it is so much easier to sing when you are feeling happy, enthusiastic or physically energised?  Or perhaps you have noticed that your voice sounds better later on in the day/evening- say compared to first thing in the morning? Many students complain to me that they can’t sing in the morning. Well I’d like to say that it needn’t be that way- that we can get our voices in the same mint condition they are in at night, as in the morning- or at ANY time (provided we’re in good vocal health). All we need to do is get the body feeling awake and invigorated and this is something we especially need to give ALOT MORE attention to when we’re NOT feeling energised.

As singing is muscular, then in conjunction with specific vocal exercises (that should not be overdone- remember the ole ; ‘warming -the -voice- up -to -wear -it -out’ scenario) our warm up must include something that warms the body up, or more specifically: WAKES the body up.

Some very effective body exercises, (which will wake the body up quickly) are listed below;

  • Jump up and down on the spot for 2 minutes.
  • Go for a 5 minute run.
  • Do some silent shouting (keeping the vocal folds open so as to prevent constriction). Make sure to get your whole body in on the act, (so best to stand) -just as you do when you are shouting. Wave your hands in the air and think of winning the lotto and shouting out “YAY!!!” or alternatively pretend you are calling out to a loved one who is across the street who you haven’t seen in a long time.
  • Another great body warm up I learnt (which is very effective to do with a whole band to get everyone psyched up before a show) is to vigorously shake the right arm for a count of 8 (count out aloud), then the left arm, then the right leg, then the left leg. Do this again but half this number to 4- starting with the right arm again and following the same sequence as before. The next time through halve the number to 2 and do as before and then halve the number again (1). Once you’ve finished this then jump up and shout “Yeah!!”.

Some of these suggestions may sound strange but it will make a big difference to the length of time it takes to warm your voice up.  I would encourage you to try incorporating into your daily vocal warm up routine something that will also wake the body up and notice how much less time it takes to get the voice working.

Jo Estill

 

I was saddened to hear recently that Jo Estill, who created The Estill Voice Model, had died a few weeks before Christmas. Fortunately, she had lived a relatively long- and full life- leaving us at the age of 89. Her life is one marked by significant achievements, both as a professional performer and in the later stage of her life; as a contributor, researcher and educator of voice science and technique.

Many actors, singers and professional voice users may be familiar with the Estill Voice System (13 Compulsory Figures for voice and 6 voice qualities), through attending Estill Workshops. No doubt, many have also been indirectly influenced by Jo through their own teachers, who may teach/ have taught many of her techniques- without even knowing the true origins of those techniques.

Jo Estill was born in 1921 in Pennsylvania, USA and began singing from a very young age. As an adult she had a successful career as an Opera singer in America and also toured throughout Europe. Despite her level of vocal proficiency and all the lessons she had received, she was aware that none of her teachers had ever TRULY explained to her how the voice worked, thus she was unaware of how she was actually able to make the sounds that she did. Even more importantly; she was unaware of how to fix things when her voice wasn’t working. It has been quoted that she often said to herself “how am I doing this?” and that it was this fundamental question that led her to leave behind her performance career and go back into education to undertake an MA in Music Education to uncover the answers. Much of the information obtained from the research conducted during her MA (and subsequent years of research) paved the way for the Estill Voice Model.

It was with Jo’s passing that I realised just how grateful I feel towards her efforts and her dedication to uncover the answers to the questions that she- and so many other singers have asked. I also feel immense gratitude for her generosity of knowledge and the fact that she has shared this information with others. I have found the Estill model excellent for obtaining real and tangible vocal results as opposed to many other teaching methods that I have also been exposed to that have no grounding in scientific facts or reality and consequently… results are elusive. Knowledge is power. The more you know about your voice and how it works the more likely you are able to improve and be able to make adjustments or fix things yourself (when having problems), without needing the constant assistance of a teacher. The Estill technique has given me that.
I feel that without Jo Estill many singers would not be where they are today; many would have not reached their true potential and there would still be an abundance of teachers teaching damaging vocal techniques or blaming their students for a lack of talent because they do not know how the voice functions or how to teach. Her discoveries and her training system have revolutionized the teaching of the voice and peoples understanding of how the voice functions.
So… thank you Jo!

I would encourage anyone if they are interested in developing their vocal ability and their knowledge and awareness about the voice to do an Estill course. You can find more information about Estill courses below.

http://www.estillvoice.com/

Water Anyone????

In my previous post I mentioned the importance of cooling down the voice to ensure good vocal health but I also wanted to add some other suggestions as to “DO’s and DONT’S that will greatly improve your vocal longevity. A huge part of maintaining good vocal health is to retain lubrication of the vocal folds and anything that compromises this should be avoided when you are needing to sing. So what are some of the things you should and shouldn’t do?

1. One of the most obvious ways is to drink plenty of water!  However, if you’ve already reached the point at which you’re noticeably dehydrated it is worth noting that it takes at least a couple of hours for the water to be absorbed by your cells at the level of the vocal folds and for them to return to normal hydration. Make sure you don’t get to the point where you’re noticeably parched by bringing a bottle of water around with you as you go about your daily activities.

2. Steam! Steam! Steam! Steam!  (This is one of the best!) You can purchase a steam inhaler from most chemists. Add boiling hot water to the steamer and inhale. Alternatively if you can’t get a steam inhaler get a big pot of water (DON’T add eucalyptus, tea tree or olbas oil as these tend to be quite drying) put a towel over you head and inhale. Steaming is also one of the best things to do when you have a cold and you still have to use your voice.

3. Avoid consuming anything particularly drying or irritating to the voice directly before singing such as antihistamines, cold and flu tablets and excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol.

4. Too much abdominal pumping (excessive breath pressure) causes tightening within the throat (scratching) and dries out the vocal folds. Avoid this at all costs. Many singers find this hard to let go of as they find a quick and instant connection between pumping/pushing from their stomachs and volume. Needless to say it is not a safe loud. Pushing is a surefire way to lead to vocal trauma and yet in some singing studios some teachers are still teaching this method???!!!!

6. Avoid excessive breathy singing by singing with clear, clean tone.

7. Avoid smoking. Your vocal folds are like the guardians of the airway- anything that reaches your lungs has to pass by the vocal folds first. We all know what smoking does to your lungs- its effects on the voice are equally as bad with one of the most noticeable aspects being a diminished ability to hit high notes, sing cleanly (without breathiness) and to sustain long phrases and notes. The same is even more so true of wacky tabaccy (marijuana).  Whatever your crutch or addiction I am not advocating going cold turkey but if the desire is there to kick the habit find professional help to do so!

8. Stand and sing with good posture.

9. Develop your technique by getting singing lessons AND practice.

10. Warm the voice up with soft vocal slides- avoid singing a song to warm the voice up.

11. Avoid excessive throat clearing.

Your body is your instrument and singing is muscular. This connection between the body and the voice is never more highlighted than when one is sick and does not have the physical energy or stamina to sing. Needless to say it is important that you look after your physical health by getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising (I know- its common sense stuff but I am never ceased to be surprised by how many singers forget about the “voice-body connection” on occasion and this is usually the time that coincides with their own vocal problems).

There has also been a significant degree of research into the link between one’s mental state and ones physical health. Thus maintaining a positive attitude and frame of mind is also hugely important- especially as it is during times of increased emotional stress is when vocal difficulties surface. Activities such as meditation, yoga and tai chi are great to regain the balance!

Cool Down

 

During my time as a teacher it has concerned me how many singers run into vocal trouble; particularly contemporary singers (however, as the scope of singers I work with are only contemporary- I have to plead ignorance to the reality of vocal problems with classical singers). Unlike the classical musical genre there has not been a substantial tradition of training the rock/ pop ‘voice’, I feel that this is largely due to the fact that the popular music industry is so much newer in comparison to the classical or operatic world. Also, the demands of the contemporary singer are different to the classical singer- particularly as there are so many styles and so many different vocal qualities from one genre to the next (this is not a personal aesthetic preference/ validation of either style but something that I feel is a reality). This is particularly evident when one looks at the difference in vocal qualities and tone needed from folk, pop, gospel, rock to country- it is huge. You can not use a ‘one size fits all’ vocal quality for every contemporary genre.

Many of the singers birthed from the pop music industry are considered ‘natural’ singers through the very fact that they have taught themselves to sing through listening to others who inspire them and (as is normal) to varying degrees there is mimicry involved. Alternatively, they may come from a family of musicians and thus music is as much a part of everyday life as is sitting down and eating dinner together. In these situations a singers ear may be well developed, as is there kinesthetic awareness of what feels ‘right’ as they sing.

However, I still continuously come across many singers who appear to be doing everything ‘right’ whilst singing and who have a sound vocal ability who still develop a vocal difficulty of one sort or another over the course of a year. On the odd occasion it can be that the singer has sang whilst sick and the vocal folds which are already dehydrated and swollen become even more so after singing (leading to huskiness or voice loss). However, sickness aside, oftentimes many of these singers are not doing anything wrong whilst singing but it is the absence of what is happening after that leads to the vocal problems. So what is this problem or absence that I am referring to? It is the lack of a vocal cool down. Singing is muscular; it involves coordinating a variety of different muscles. An athlete never runs to warm up the body- they always stretch, as should a singer stretch the vocal folds through warming up as opposed to launching into a song to warm up. After a fitness workout it is also strongly recommended that you stretch AGAIN- the reason being is that through exercise the specific muscles you have been using have contracted/tightened and through stretching it releases those muscles back to their natural resting posture so that you do not injure yourself. Despite the fact that singing IS muscular and your instrument IS your body this same theory has not translated into the world of singing and this is particularly where it is needed.

Muscular effort in contemporary singing is often felt through maintaining fold mass or ‘core’; as is seen in belt and speech quality (or a middle mix) and through the larynx having to rise and the great deal of support that other muscles give to stabilize the larynx and maintain this level of effort; namely the tensor palatini (one of the soft palate muscles) and the sternocleidomastoids- and a host of other muscles. This is fundamentally where the problem lies after singing; these support muscles remain contracted and the larynx becomes ‘fixed’ quite high in comparison to its normal resting posture and once an individual begins talking without ‘resetting’ or cooling down the voice it becomes incredibly tiring on the vocal folds (which have also contracted significantly in order to sing high pitches). Consequently these muscles become even more tense the longer they are in this position, which then leads to vocal fatigue, huskiness, neck pain, headaches, jaw pain and general physical fatigue. Trying to counteract this by talking at a lower pitch will not solve the problem- you actually need to get the muscles back to their original resting posture.

The sternocleidomastoids (which as stated above are part of the larynxes support network) are a group of muscles which are incredibly strong. Theses muscles which wrap around the neck (from the mastoid process-just behind the ear- to the front of the larynx; sternum) form a V shape and can be felt if you turn your head from one side, to the next. Once these muscles get into a state of rigidity (because of a lack of a cool down/ or just general over-use) they influence the mobility of the larynx and impact on the muscles that help a singer to move higher in pitch thus resulting in an inability to ascend into the upper part of the voice, resulting in a loss of range. Once these muscles are overworked they are also the ones primarily responsible for headaches (and neck pain).

There are specific things you can do to re-set the larynx and bring it back to the level which is your normal resting posture but this must be done immediately after singing. However, sometimes the muscles become so fixed and tight through frequent voice use that you may need a manual therapist to get in there ‘unlock’ everything. There are several osteopaths and physical therapists  (who are in high demand) and who specialize in voice related massage techniques but unfortunately they’re all in the UK.

So if your voice is your livelihood remember that although a warm up IS important so is a vocal cool down.