If you see clients who complain of voice problems, it’s important to know if they sing in any context. Patients don’t have to be professional singers to be “rockstars” in the car or shower, so make sure you investigate all ways or places voice damage might occur.
We don’t switch out our speaking vocal folds for singing ones, but some folks speak much differently than they sing. Billy Corgan, for example, speaks in a low vocal fry and sings in a high-pitched nasal way. Here are a few pointers to aid in helping speakers who are also singers get the most out of each session.
1) Treat your diaphragm like a well-oiled machine. Whether you’re singing or speaking, you must have air flow through the vocal folds to achieve oscillations. If you force too much air out at one time, you sound breathy. If air is extremely rationed, you sound strained and strangled. If you treat a classically trained singer, chances are he/she knows proper breath technique for singing, but there’s always a chance that breath for speaking was never addressed in any teaching. Knowing your vocal dynamic science helps your treatment approach. We all breathe with the same organs, and voice disorders caused by poor breath support can be easily corrected with proper breath training. Remind your clients and yourself that the best breathing for both speaking and singing is with the powerhouse muscle that is your diaphragm.
2) Speaking or singing both cause tension in muscles surrounding your vocal folds. The larynx/voice-box hangs in muscles and ligaments from one bone: the hyoid. It does not have a strict skeletal frame to keep it in place, so tension can very easily impact the vocal fold movements during sound production. If singing or speaking fatigues your patient, laryngeal tension can reduce that sore, tired feeling. For singers, try singing through a straw to facilitate proper production and throat alignment, then immediately sing a line of a song to practice maintaining that decrease in vocal fold collision forces. For speakers, use straw phonation to speak a sentence or paragraph then immediately speak the same thing normally with no straw. The patient will feel the freedom of decreased glottal impact and can learn to recognize this and aim for it in normal speech.
3) Hone Your Cavity!! Resonance modifications to the oral cavity during singing and speaking, instead of recruiting excess muscular effort, can increase intensity. Opera singers have a distinct, but loud sound. Megaphones help cheerleaders project over the roar of the crowd. Each uses time and space to amplify sound to keep from overworking the delicate vocal systems. With the operatic style of singing, the soft palate and oral cavity raise and open in the back, similar to a yawn. Vowels are modified to sound similar to the word being sung, and volume’s achieved with this mouth position. Megaphones and wide-mouthed singing (belting) use very little muscular effort, but singers and speakers must also create the right space with their mouth. With each type of oral cavity construction, the larger amount of space created equals high volume as the sound bounces off the walls before leaving the mouth. (Source-Filter Theory anyone?) Use the diaphragm for this in speaking and singing to avoid strain in the throat.
The vocal subsystems of breath control, vocal fold vibrations and resonance work simultaneously in a delicate balance for us to speak and to sing efficiently. We are communicating when we do both, so let’s learn to speak the language of coordination.
Kristie Knickerbocker, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and singing voice specialist in Fort Worth, Texas. She provides voice, swallowing and speech-language treatment in her private practice, a tempo Voice Center, LLC, and lectures on the singing voice to area choirs and students. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 3, Voice and Voice Disorders. Knickerbocker blogs on her website at www.atempovoicecenter.com. Follow her on Twitter @atempovoice or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/atempovoicecenter.