Vocal Fatigue and Irritation Concerns

Weekly Teaching Tip – May 30, 2011

QUESTION: I have a student that is hurting her throat when she sings.  She sings pretty quiet, so I have been giving her all kinds of nasal sounds and little sounds to help her learn to keep her vocal cords together, but she is having a hard time grasping any of the concepts.  She does okay with the exercises and sometimes it sounds like she is connected, but as soon as she starts singing, I can tell it is hurting her throat.  The longer she sings, the more tired her voice sounds.  I don’t want her to hurt her voice.  Not sure what to do here.  Any advice?  Thanks,

ANSWER: As far as your student, it is difficult to say exactly without hearing her, but there are a couple of issues here. First, it might be such a new sensation to her to feel her vocal folds coming together and since she feels something when she is used to feeling nothing sometimes this can be frightening to singers even though there is no abuse going on. They are afraid there is abuse because they feel something. Also, it is quite common when singers are first working their voices to get a bit of an “airy” or “tired out” sound after vocalizing for a while as the vocal folds stretch. This usually does not mean that the singer is doing anything wrong. They may just be having a good workout.
However, you do want to be careful because the last thing we want to do is hurt voices. If the singer is using the “outer muscles” or “swallow muscles” to force the vocal folds together this can definitely lead to fatigue and abuse so we definitely want to make sure that she is not doing that. We want to make sure she is using the “inner muscles” to bring the vocal folds together. I would recommend backing off the hard “nay, nay” type exercises and instead do exercises that bring the vocal folds together more gradually and naturally such as “kee, kee” and “koo, koo”, then moving to “gee, gee” and “goo, goo” to help her feel an even deeper cord closure. These exercises bring the vocal folds together, but only briefly so the singer can feel the cord closure without leaving the folds together too long so there is less irritation and friction. It is the excessive friction that actually causes the vocal problems. The friction gradually wears down and dries out the mucous membranes which protect the vocal folds and create lubrication to lessen the friction. “Nay, Nay” creates more vocal fold friction then “koo, koo” because the vocal folds are pressed together for a longer duration. “Nay, nays” also tend to hike the larynx a bit which also creates greater friction.
(Along this same line, some bodies have a lot of natural moisture, others are more dry. If this singer is one of the singers that is more dry she will feel the effects of the friction faster than someone who has more moisture. Perhaps she needs to drink more water or inhale steam as we discussed in a previous Teaching Tip. There may also be reflux issues. See Teri Stock’s article in the blog about this.)
Sometimes “shock therapy” by forcing the vocal folds together with “nay” and “nagh” or “agh” can work, but I like the more natural approach if it works so the student can feel cord closure without forcing things. Even “squeaky mm” or “nn” or even “french nasal vowels” of “oh” and “ah” and even “ng” can work in a less aggressive and more natural way.
Remember that gradual successes are good. (We don’t need to try and make her sound like Christine Aguilera in 3 lessons – if ever – haha.) “Slow and steady wins the race” you know. So even the bubbles or “slovenian z” or “zzzz” can provide at least a little cord closure and you can be more subtle and gradual about bring the vocal folds together.
Whatever you do, make sure she is not using the outer muscles of her neck to force the sounds. We are trying to relieve pressure and bring the vocal folds together naturally. Little successes can lead to more successes. You don’t have to get rid of all the airyness in one lesson. Just let her feel some cord closure, then build into that once she is comfortable to get an even stronger sound.

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  1. Also, make sure that the singer is singing the same way they are vocalizing. It doesn’t do a lot of good to do the exercises correctly, but then sing incorrectly. Sing songs using the sounds that are working on the exercises until they can do the words with the same feelings.

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