10 Common Problems of Singers

10 Common Problems of Singers

1. POOR POSTURE: The alignment of the body is of primary importance to voice production. Problems in posture range from “collapse” of the chest and ribcage, with a corresponding “fall” of the head and neck, to those patients with hyper-extended or “stiff” posture that results in tension throughout the entire body. Proper posture during singing and in mobile performance voice introduces better kinesthetic awareness. Many patients study Hatha yoga or Alexander technique to develop this further.

2. POOR BREATHING & INAPPROPRIATE BREATH SUPPORT: Some beginning voice students seem to “gasp” or “suck in” air and exhibit clavicular or shallow breathing patterns. Trained singers, on the other hand, use primarily diaphragmatic breath support. The muscles of the lower back and abdomen are consciously engaged, in conjunction with lowering the diaphragm. As the breath stream is utilized for phonation (voice), there should be little tension in the larynx itself. Sometimes, in an attempt to increase loudness (projection), a well-trained singer may over-support or “push” the air stream. This extra effort may affect vocal quality by producing undesirable harmonics.

3. HARD GLOTTAL ATTACK: “Attack” or “onset” (a preferred term for singers) occurs with the initiation of sound. Some singers (possibly related to poor speech habits) use a glottal attack, which is too hard (produced by too much tension in closing the vocal folds). Vocal fold nodules may develop with habitual use of a hard glottal attack. The opposite problem is the “aspirate” attack, in which excessive air is released prior to phonation. While this type of attack rarely damages the vocal folds, it causes a breathy tone quality.

4. POOR TONE QUALITY: Many terms are commonly used to describe a singer’s tone, and among those familiar to singers are: clear, rich, resonant, bright…dark, rough, thin, breathy, and nasal. Although, “good tone” is highly subjective, according to the type of singing and personal preference of the listener, in general, a tone that is “clear” (without extra noise) and “resonant” (abundant in harmonic partials) is acknowledged as “healthy” and naturally will have sufficient intensity for projection without electric amplification. Opera singers strive to develop a “ring” (acoustic resonance at 2500 to 3000 Hz), which enables the voice to project over a full orchestra, even in a large hall. However, for other styles of singing, the use of amplification may allow a singer the choice of employing a less acoustically efficient vocal tone for reasons of artistic expression. A breathy tone, for example, may be perceived by the listener as “intimate” or “sexy”, and even a “rough” sound, such as was used by traditional Blues singer, Louis Armstrong, may represent a unique persona of a performer.

5. LIMITED PITCH RANGE (Difficulty In Register Transition): Typically, untrained voices have narrower pitch range than trained singers, due to lack of “register” development. The term “register” is used to describe a series of tones that are produced by similarly mechanical gestures of vocal fold vibration, glottal and pharyngeal shape, and related air pressure.

Some common designations of registers are the “head”, “chest”, and “falsetto” registers. Singing requires transitions from one register to another; each of these transitions is called a “passaggio” (“passageway”). Lack of coordination of the laryngeal musculature with the breath support may result in a “register break”, or obvious shift from one tone quality to another. Untrained male voices and female “belters” tend to “break” into falsetto/head voice in the upper range. Regardless of the style of singing, a “blend”, or smooth transition between the registers is desirable.

6. LACK OF FLEXIBILITY, AGILITY, EASE OF PRODUCTION, ENDURANCE: Traditional voice training in the 18th to 19th century, “bel canto” (“beautiful singing”) method places emphasis on vocal flexibility or agility – for example, the singer’s ability to execute rapid scales and arpeggios. Virtuosic technique demands excellent aural conceptual ability, coordination of an abundant air stream with energetic diaphragmatic support, and clear, resonant tone quality. The use of rapid melodic passages in vocal training helps to develop a relaxed, yet vital voice production, that contributes to the development of increased vocal endurance.

7. POOR ARTICULATION: Pronunciation with excessive tension in the jaw, lips, palate, etc., adversely affects the tonal production of the voice. Problems of articulation also occur when singers carry certain speech habits in to singing.

The longer duration of vowel sounds in singing necessitates modification of pronunciation; the increased “opening” of certain vowels in the high soprano voice, or elongation of the first vowel in a diphthong, are examples. Retroflex and velar consonants (such as the American “r” and “l”) need careful modification to allow sufficient pharyngeal opening for best resonance, and the over- anticipation of nasal consonants (“m”, “n”, “ing”) may result in a “stiff” soft palate and unpleasant tone.

8. LACK OF DISCIPLINE, COMMITMENT AND COMPLIANCE: As any athlete knows, regular practice is essential for optimal development and performance. Unfortunately, the need for disciplined training is not always apparent to singers. Furthermore, “artistic temperament” may contribute to a lack of compliance with the advice of teachers on issues of vocal technical development. When teacher advice is contrary to a singer’s own established ideas and word habits, the singer may tend to overwork, over-perform, or simply “try too hard” in practice. The singer’s practice and performance regimen must be sensible, productive, and acceptable to both teacher and student alike.

9. POOR HEALTH, HYGIENE, AND VOCAL ABUSE: Many students ignore common sense and good vocal hygiene. The physical demands of singing necessitate optimal health, beginning with adequate rest, aerobic exercise, a moderate diet (and alcohol consumption), and absolute avoidance of smoking. College voice students often test the limits of their vocal health by overindulgence in “partying”, alcohol or drugs, and by screaming at sports events. Many singers try to be careful with their voices but abuse their voice by employing poor speaking techniques.

10. POOR SELF-IMAGE, LACK OF CONFIDENCE: Although many singers appear to have “healthy egos” and may display the aggressive behaviour that is known as “prima donna” temperament, such behaviour is often a cover-up for anxiety and/or insecurity. Since the slightest aberration – phlegm, for example – can result in momentary loss of voice (even in the greatest of performers!). Singers often feel that they are always in a state of vulnerability. Despite unpredictability in vocal performance, the singer does gain confidence through repeated performance and increased self-awareness.

(Radomski, T., Assistant Professor of Voice and Theatrical Singing at Wake Forest University)

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