Your Voice's Early Warning System

Originally published October 11, 2009 on

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.