Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Singing teaching and vocal abuse

For a while now, I've been teaching someone who has damaged her voice. She has vocal fold nodules which reduce with rest but never really go away. Normally one would suggest complete vocal rest for her,'s been a long time, and there is a real risk that the muscles will start to waste. So I'm working with her to try to establish a safe singing technique so she doesn't do further damage.

She has had singing lessons in the past, and it was evident in talking to her that the problems with her voice started AFTER she had lessons. Now this is odd. Vocal fold nodules are primarily caused by poor technique, so singing lessons should reduce the chances of getting them. I wondered whether the cause was over-use rather than poor technique, but again, it didn't seem she was doing excessive amounts of singing. So what was going on?

Listening to her and "filtering out" the breathiness caused by the nodules, the middle of her voice was far too dark and lacked clarity.  There was no edge on the voice at all (what the Americans call "twang").  Now this student sings mainly musical theatre which requires the singer to make a lot of sound in the low to middle part of the voice.  She admitted she had taken to pushing her voice in order to make more sound, which is undoubtedly why she had developed nodules. But why was she having to do that? She doesn't have a high voice, so this isn't a problem caused by singing at too low a pitch. It's a problem caused by inappropriate vocal quality.

Lack of twang makes it very hard for the singer to project the voice. Twang is the "cutting edge" that allows them, for example, to be heard above a big orchestra.  Some voices are naturally short of twang, and singing teachers prescribe exercises for them to make the best use of what twang there is. But in this case, there didn't seem to be a fundamental shortage of twang. The lowest part of her voice could be heard across the street. So why did the twang disappear in the middle?

I asked her to forget everything she had ever been taught, and simply sing the way she did before she had lessons - and to help her, I gave her a song she had sung at school but never studied with her teacher. She sang it simply and beautifully, and produced an enormous, bright, clear sound in her middle voice. The dark cloudy timbre disappeared completely.  I asked her why she didn't sing like that normally. Her answer shocked me. "I was told it was wrong", she said.

It appears she had studied with a teacher who didn't like twang. My first teacher was one of those. I still remember being told there was an "edge" on my voice which we should try to "round off". And we did, for nearly a year. By the time I went to music college I couldn't be heard beyond the front row and my professor wondered what I was doing there, because he couldn't hear a voice. He spent the next year trying to put the twang back on my voice, with me resisting him all the way. Finally in desperation he cried "Why won't you do this?". And I answered "I was told it was wrong". I explained that my first teacher didn't like the edge on my voice. He was horrified. "But you need edge, or you can't be heard!" he said.

And so I now know how my student got nodules despite having singing training. Her teacher had systematically removed the twang from her voice. The price she paid for this was serious reduction in her ability to make herself heard, which led her to push her voice to the point of damage. 

To my mind this is vocal abuse and that teacher should be shot.

And the moral of today's story is - choose your teacher carefully. There are no professional standards for singing teachers and little agreement on technique. And there are some seriously bad teachers out there. 

Interestingly, my student didn't actually like the way her teacher sang.  So my advice would be, when choosing a singing teacher, listen to them singing, or if they are past it (some are, but may still be good teachers) listen to their students. If you don't like what you hear, DON'T STUDY WITH THEM, however highly recommended they are!