Jun 29 2012

Q&A - Losing My Voice

Hi Michael
I’d love to ask a question. I’m a soprano, hedging towards full lyric with coloratura. I always lose my voice after singing. It feels like my cords get swollen and my voice goes up in pitch and gets scratchy and I lose my tone and lower end; and it takes about 6 hrs for it to settle down. I can’t sing for longer than 10-20 mins before this starts to happen. I know it’s bc I’m squeezing and applying pressure or “trying” to make my voice happen, and I also know that doing that is counterproductive but it’s such a habit I can’t seem to stop doing it, and just talk when I sing. Do you have any suggestions for fixing that problem?


Thanks for your question.

What you describe sounds to me like the symptoms of too much unvocalized breath escaping through the glottis. Which is a very common problem. There are many reasons it can happen, but the underlying factor is insufficient participation of the larynx.

The mainstream teaching we have access to as a developing singer generally overlooks the responsibility the larynx has in the singing coordination. We often hear statements such as “the breath is everything”, or some variation of that.

This attitude neglects the natural partnership of the breath and the larynx. Without the larynx the breath serves no purpose. And like the majority of singers you are experiencing the effects of neglecting the role the larynx plays in our vocal gesture.

As I said, there are many possible reasons for this condition. One might be a mis-identification of your true instrument. This usually exists when a singer under-sings because of thinking of their voice as lighter than the natural weight of the instrument.

I am intimately familiar with this particular condition because I faced it myself. It is quite common for singers to under-sing. Especially coming from University training with the typical “everybody is a lyric something” attitude.

For naturally larger voices this can be terribly unhealthy because we unconsciously try to sound like what we think we are. So if we think we are a lyric, or worse a light-lyric, when we are actually a Spinto or Dramatic we will create a lot of problems by not connecting fully to the full capacity of our natural voice.

(Now, I’m not saying necessarily that this is definitely the case for you. But it is so common I am comfortable presenting it as a possibility. Perhaps with some discussion and experimenting together we could find out if it is accurate.)

See, in order to make ourselves sound like a lighter voice than we naturally are we de-vitalize the source vibration by allowing unvocalized breath through the glottis. This immediately disconnects the voice from the strength of the body and breathing creating an incomplete phonation.

Because of the incomplete phonation there is subsequently an incomplete resonance and loss of acoustic energy. So even if you aren’t a fuller voice, you definitely have more fullness that is going untapped. It is just a matter of learning how to coordinate your instrument to realize it.

The thing to know about the squeezing and applying pressure is that they aren’t actually the problem. They are also symptoms of the under usage. And there is nothing you can do to correct them directly. The body compensates automatically to make up for what is lacking.

And like I said above, your other symptoms point to a lack of activity of the larynx. When the larynx is not providing a stable counter-balance to the air pressure the throat will squeeze, and often so will the body, which creates the uncomfortable pressure. This is where breath coordination comes in as being critical as I discuss in my “#1 Mistake” article.

One myth that we have been led to believe is that we should be relaxed when we sing. It is not really relaxation that makes the act of singing enjoyable. It is coordinated action. We do want freedom of action, but relaxation tends to be too passive. When the parts are working together there is teamwork and there is no opposition to cause effort. But it can’t be accomplished by trying to be effortless. It only appears when all of the systems are working together in a balanced way.

If we try to be relaxed or sing effortlessly we will let some part, or all parts, be under-activated. The body responds to that with compensation, which we experience as tension and uncomfortable interference. Basically your body has to “try to make the voice happen” because it is no longer able to function spontaneously. This is because of the impairment that sets in as a result of the swelling you correctly observe.

This is a good example of why we need the reflex actions I talk about. There is a great deal of physical activity involved, we truly are athletes. But the activity must be a reflexive response of the nervous system to our desire to express vocally. Otherwise we end up trying because it is our only recourse.

I hope this gives you some ideas to consider.

Please comment below.

Contact me if you are interested in a consultation or assessment. I am running a Summer Special on recorded consultations. Name Your Own Price! Just record yourself demonstrating your question on a song or exercise and send me the file (if it is small enough) or the link to where you have it posted. Use the PayPal button on my Services page to pay whatever you choose and I’ll record my response.

  1. DEANNA DELORE

    Michael,

    With all due respetct, I would like to address this answer you have given. Although you seem to relate to this problem either by experiencing it yourself or seeing this as a common problem among singers you work with, you are doing her an injustice by telling her that she is most likely not involving the larynx. I agree with you that it is most likely a laryngeal issue, connected to the whole mechanism working well together, but you failed to tell her just what the answer is in concrete terms.
    In my opinion, through my own 25 years of vocal training, college education, professional singing, and teaching private students vocal technique, the cause for her strain, vocal fatigue, and all the other symptoms is a HIGH larynx. I suffered from this for years, high notes were not coming, despite my”classification” as a lyric soubrette. Not even my collegiate teachers discussed the larynx AT ALL, and I went to a prestigious music conservatory that has a high reputation for vocal excellence. I was done a disservice.

    This gal needs to stabilize her larynx, which means that as she bridges ( or registrates into higher ranges in a small span of notes between the registers) she needs to lower her larynx, compensate slightly down in the larynx, to create space to make the higher tones! :-) She also needs to learn proper narrowing of the vowels in the bridges and as she ascends so the tone is going into a more vertical space. Narrowing the vowel also stabilizes the larynx naturally.

    It is not a forced muscular sensation, but rather a natural way of singing with total freedom and ease just by narrowing and singing lighter through those bridges ( or passagios as they called them in college).

    This is based on sound Bel Canto method, and is more than 300 years old in its effectiveness and use.

    Please go back to her and give her my explanation. The way she is singing is TIGHT and harmful, and painful. If she really is pursuing a career in opera, she needs to retrain to get this correct muscle memory action in her throat. The voice will correct sooner rather than later as soon as she adopts this concept into her singing.

    Thanks for the great blogs, Michael. Keep em’ coming!

  2. Hi Michael,

    Excellent response and a great reminder to every singer to focus on the reflex and not the mechanical actions to get us to a desired sound.

    Thanks!

  3. Thanks, Iris. Absolutely true. I like to think that we are dealing with mechanics of the body, but we don’t want them to be mechanical.

  4. Deanna, thank you for your comment. I’m not sure of your motive for posting. My comment filter spammed your two posts. I am slightly amused by your attempt to show me up with your assessment and instruction to bring your answer to her.

    I now need to be the one to respectfully disagree. My answer was not an injustice. It was an accurate diagnosis based on limited information. All of the things you elaborated on are elements of what I am talking about. Specifically your assertion that she needs to lower her larynx.

    Yes, when the larynx is insufficiently participating it will likely be elevated to some degree more or less. But contrary to your certain proclamation, just lowering it does not remedy the situation. There are plenty of singers who lower their larynx and still don’t have the necessary involvement that I am discussing.

    When the larynx is active, it lowers as part of the vocal gesture to coordinately meet the breath pressure to create a balanced vibration of the glottis. This foundation then allows for the proper register transitions that you describe.

    But just lowering the larynx deliberately, alone, doesn’t allow for the coordination that I describe. There needs to be more than just arbitrarily lowering the larynx. That is a result of the proper behavior, but it isn’t the behavior itself.

    And the negative effects of a high larynx are actually the things I described in my answer. The raised larynx is actually a result of poor glottal and laryngeal opposition to the breath. In other words the larynx rises because of the breath pressure escaping through the glottis. It is not the cause.

    Thanks for reading, but please don’t try to troll for students on my blog.

    P.S. I deleted your website addresses from your posts. That is what probably triggered the Spam filter

  5. Dear michael
    Would you please tell me how I can lower my larynx.
    Thank you keep up the good work
    May

  6. Hello May – I would advise you that we shouldn’t lower our larynx. The larynx lowers as part of the overall condition of the instrument. It is better to not focus on individual details like lowering the larynx and instead focus on the overall condition. Like stretch and hollowness of the airway, face, rib cage. Coordination and reflex of the breathing cycle, articulation of the vibration. Stimulation of the larynx. These are the things that make our singing happen. Not lowering the larynx. You can lower the larynx and still not have any of these things happen. It is a very small part of the whole. Doing it deliberately will have no real benefit. Doing these other thing will create the instrument we are after. And the larynx will be in a lower position because of these other things. And you won’t even be trying to lower the larynx. My larynx is nearly to the bottom of my neck when I sing. But I never think about lowering it. Hope that helps.

  7. Thanks for this, my teacher also said I’m under-using my larynx & I had the same symptoms. It’s getting better, just wanted to add that the more forward and pure (focussed) the vowels are, the less chance there is that this excess air will escape. I have found this to help me enormously so I thought I would share. Another good tip is to literally say the words to the phrase and then sing it, imagining that one is still saying it. Sometimes, we think we have to “do something different” when we sing, and that makes us do weird stuff. Sure it is a lot more supported than speech and more complex, but the link to speech is always there. I’m not a vocal coach, just passing on the tips from my teacher which have helped me.

  8. Dear michael
    How can I know what I am (spinto…) and if I am unconsciously tryin to sound like what I think I am I just want to find my real voice! My throat is hurting and I don’t know what to do ! I also am scared of getting a teacher who will aggravate the problem please help me.

  9. Great article. I sometimes have a similar problem with loss of lower tones and speaking voice after practice sessions, but oddly enough I don’t feel fatigued when singing, or rather I don’t notice fatigue until I start talking. Usually I can rest the voice for 30 minutes or so and then I am back to normal. . .anyhow, I am wondering if the lack of proper engagement in the larynx you’ve described could also be described as a lack of sufficient appoggio, or what my voice teacher describes as coming off the core of the voice. Great blog and glad I found your website!

  10. Yes, these are various way to describe it. Remember, appoggio means “to lean”. So we are gently leaning the larynx into the breath to find balance. Most of us sing with the breath overpowering the larynx. This is actually the likely cause of you having difficulty after singing.

  11. Hi I was wondering if you could explain positioning of the tongue correctly when singing and its relation to the larynx I too suffer with some loss of voice sometimes after singing and my teacher said it could be related to tongue positionign and to keep tongue in ng but cant do this for ah it flattens a little and holding it and pushing tongue up while singing ah makes it worse

  12. Hi Leanne. Thanks for your question. In general the tongue should feel like it is going up instead of going down. For many of us it tends to go down which will put pressure on the larynx and block the air. Then it can’t vibrate freely so we might push more air to get it going. This will be more than the larynx can handle and irritate the folds. But like I talked about in my most recent blog post, we really need to make sure all of the pieces are working together. Just fixing the tongue won’t necessarily help. I wrote about this before, you might be interested in this post, http://vocalwisdom.com/ng-tongue-position/
    Thanks.

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