Your Voice's Early Warning System

Originally published October 11, 2009 on www.voicecouncil.com


Are you a vocalist who simply tolerates pain, hoarseness and even voice loss? Dane Chalfin challenges conventional thinking in this exclusive 3-part series.





It’s time for all singers to recognize that within their body there is an early warning system that can assist them in finding positive ways forward for their voice.

Certainly voices do get tired, but a tired voice is very different from a hoarse, painful or lost voice.

In this article, I am going to introduce you to five early warning signals that demand an immediate response.

Just before we do that, we need to make sure that you are focusing your vocal effort in the right places…




Working Harder than You Need To?

If one’s technique is solid, then one should have no acute signs of trauma or loss—no matter how heavy one’s vocal “loading”.

It’s no secret that human beings like to work harder than they need to—this is especially true of rock and pop singers who may think that if they don’t feel a sensation of pushing or straining when they’re singing, they are not committing emotionally to their material.

The “pain sound” is often the desired aesthetic—but it should be produced painlessly!

Singers often misplace their efforts; effort should certainly be made in the postural muscles in the head, neck and torso and the core stability muscles in the abdomen and lower back.

The same, however, is NOT true for the muscles around the larynx.

Relaxation, then, is not a cure for all voice problems; the idea that Stevie Wonder, Bono or Pavarotti felt their high C in state of physical relaxation is ridiculous—just look at their videos and you will see there is postural stability work.

Now, let’s turn to those signals calling out for the attention of every singer.


Warning System no. 1: Acute Pain

It may sound silly and obvious to say that acute pain is an early warning system but a lot of singers who don’t know any better accept pain as an occupational hazard.

The use of falsetto, belting or hard rock styles should not cause any sensation of acute or vocal pain. The sensation of pressing, constriction or scratching on your vocal folds will make you want to cough—this is an immediate warning that the sound that you’re making is not being produced efficiently.



Certainly voices do get tired, but a tired voice is very different from a hoarse, painful or lost voice.We looked at the first early warning signal: acute pain; this week I am going to introduce you to two more early warning signals that demand an immediate response.


Warning System no. 2: hoarseness or huskiness in either the singing or speaking voice.

Very often singers find that their voice feels hoarse, especially after a gig or recording session. No matter what sound you are making, you should be able to make those sounds effectively without traumatizing the vocal folds. If you do feel hoarse or husky after singing, it’s a strong indication that you have caused some trauma to the vocal folds.

Here’s the essential theory: the top layer of your vocal folds is called the epithelium. It’s a highly specialized skin, only four cells deep and you can just imagine how easy it is to disrupt that thin layer. When we feel hoarse or husky it’s a sign that we have caused some kind of disruption to that layer and it has become inflamed. Very often we simply ask a singer to reduce the effort of feeling in the larynx without changing the tone they are making; this results in immediate and positive change.


Warning System no. 3: Morning Voice The vocal apparatus is always a bit stiff in the morning. However, watch out for signs of severe morning voice: your upper range is gone, it takes you considerable time to warm-up and your full range only comes back later in the day.

If this is your experience, you may be experiencing acid reflux. Other warning signs for reflux include (but do not always present): waking up with a bitter taste in the mouth; raw or irritated sensation around the larynx and the back of the throat; heartburn.

Reflux is often called the “Silent Killer”, though it is relatively straightforward to treat.

During the sleeping hours, acid that naturally forms in the stomach sometimes creeps up the esophagus, into the larynx, and bathes the vocal folds.

In order to confirm whether you are suffering from reflux or not, you need to have laryngeal imaging; ensure that you do this before taking any anti-reflux medication.

There are also many lifestyle changes that one can make to reduce reflux including diet, eating time and hydration; information on this is widely available on the internet.

Do not think that lozenges, sprays or teas will help with reflux or hoarseness. None of these ‘treatments’ has accepted research attached to them; they contain natural or manufactured anesthetics which actually mask your body’s early warning system.The only medically accepted forms of relief for swollen vocal cords are steam inhalation and rest.

If one’s technique is solid, then one should have no acute signs of trauma or loss—no matter how heavy one’s vocal “loading”.


Often rock and pop singers may think that if they don’t feel a sensation of pushing or straining when they’re singing, they are not committing emotionally to their material; the “pain sound” is often the desired aesthetic—but it should be produced painlessly!





Warning System no. 4: Losing Your Sound

When voices become inflamed, they often “cut-out” intermittently. The technical name for this is intermittent aphonia—literally meaning “without sound”. If you make an effort to produce a note and you get a second of sound without a noise, this is a 100% guarantee that the vocal folds are not happy. The more extreme version of this vocal swelling is a complete loss of part of the range—usually the upper range. If your high notes stop working you’re in trouble and we can be pretty sure that the vocal folds are inflamed and swollen; there may also be severe constriction in the muscles above the vocal folds. The loss of the upper range could also be an indication of more sinister injury such as vocal fold hemorrhages, polyps or nodules. If you continue without making healthy changes, you could face our last sign of trouble:


Warning System no. 5: Complete Voice Loss

Voice loss is not always abuse related; complete voice loss may be a symptom arising in association with certain viruses or psychological disorders. If there is a sudden loss of voice (complete aphonia), it warrants an immediate investigation. The standard accepted guideline for vocal behavior is that if your voice behaves abnormally for two weeks, then you should have a check-up with a laryngologist (this is an ear nose and throat surgeon who specializes in the larynx and voice).


Your Voice Can Bounce Back


By paying attention to the signs above and receiving appropriate treatment, you may be surprised at how quickly you can return to vocal health. I was recently called into a recording studio because a lead singer was struggling during the recording session. He manifested several of the signs outlined above but was trying to ignore them; scoping subsequently revealed significant evidence of vocal abuse and reflux. We spent six weeks on technique and lifestyle changes and engaged in some anti reflux measures—the band was due to play Wembley Stadium six weeks later. Although in medical terms the singer’s larynx didn’t make a perfect recovery, he was able to play the series of career-changing gigs without trouble.





Don’t wait for a New Year’s resolution to make vocal health your priority; it begins by watching keenly for those telltale early-warning signs


—and it begins today.






#singingtips #vocalhealth #extremevocals #singersvoiceofreason

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