After (1) making sure you’re not doing any harm to your student, and (2) figuring out why their voice was lost in the first place (both discussed in my last post), you can…
Third, get to work!
Now that any doctor-prescribed voice rest has been honored, and the cause(s) of voice loss discovered, we can develop a protocol for working the voice back.
CAUTION: It should go without saying, but a vocal coach should never promise or guarantee results until they are attained.
Every person is unique, but here are some common steps in recovery that have worked for me and my students:
1. Stop the guarding.
When a singer or speaker experiences vocal loss or limitation, the instinct to protect the voice kicks in with a counter-productive coping mechanism we can call ‘guarding’. Like over-protective parents, the muscles surrounding the larynx tense around it, limiting its function. The posture of the body tends to ‘cradle the vitals’, collapsing the bottom of the ribcage and giving the diaphragm too much slack, limiting its control of breath. This is a recipe for disaster… tension, too much breath, and a tight throat channel. To reverse this requires that the student TRUST the teacher, who can win that trust by suggesting something that immediately makes the voice feel better.
- Do some physical stretching, deep breathing and other space-opening imagery exercises.
- Try wall work. I first learned of this from vocal coach Chris Beatty. Have the student place their back, head and heel against the wall. For people with thick shoulders, you can put a towel behind the head. If they are doing this correctly, it will instantly improve the posture and in turn, open the bottom of the ribcage. Now have them try singing or speaking. Ask if they feel a difference.
- Remind them that vocal recovery is a process. Using better technique should improve the feeling of the voice, and that’s enough for now. Every day the tissue can heal a little more, as long as the vocal abuse stops. Trust the process.
2. Do SOVT exercises
Semi-occluded voice tract exercises (SOVT)can be great for improving breath efficiency, encouraging breath support while controlling breath and easing off abusive breath pressure. In the easy middle of the vocal range, have the student slide the voice up and down using:
The lip bubble
The tongue trill
BUT… I find it extremely better to imagine ‘pulling’ these sounds out rather than ‘pushing them’. What I mean by this is to pull the voice from a spot above and behind the head, instead of push it from the throat. Powered from the pelvic floor, the sensation is that of lifting the voice up and back (open), and then pulling by articulating the syllables or words. Vocal coach Jamie Vendera calls the resulting breath efficiency the ‘inhalation sensation’. Ask the student to use as little pressure as possible to create and maintain the bubble, trill or raspberry. Pulling the head levelly back with a slight twist helps them do this.
Some people can’t do any of the above. Individual anatomy dictates this. Not to worry; I find the following great substitutes: The straw and the balloon!
Try Dr. Ingo Titze’s straw phonation exercises. Mark Thress, with whom I trade classical and contemporary voice lessons, introduced me to these, and I prefer using the small straw to develop the most nuanced breath efficiency and connected tone. You can find Dr. Titze demonstrating the straw on Youtube.
Try my balloon exercises. After using the straw for a while, I decided to try a small balloon. My clients and I find it even more useful! You can also have the student sing a song using the straw or balloon. If they are doing it correctly, they should sense the voice emanating from the mask or the ‘third eye’, as opposed to the throat area, with no glitches or disconnects in the sound.
Here is a YouTube video I created demonstrating how to use the balloon. My deep thanks to Mark Thress for his assistance:
3. Work the head voice
If the student can get into their upper register at all, have them pull gentle sirens, slurs and small scales there. Slowly and carefully extend the voice upwards, trying for a clear, not breathy sound. The rule: no breathiness and no strain. It’s ok if nothing comes out.
When I lost that octave and a half of range, I was devastated. I was a professional jingle singer, now out of work, and had no vocal coach to help me. But I had my book of 24 Italian Art Songs from my college days. One day I started one of the songs and noticed it felt better to my voice than speaking did. Little by little, for two years, I worked from that book and got almost all of my voice back myself! I believe working the head voice created flexibility in my injured vocal folds. I moved to Nashville, worked with Gerald Arthur who helped me stop guarding, and had a very successful career afterwards as session singer and recording artist. Though my artist genre was contemporary country, I would finish my pre-concert warm-up in the back of my bus with those Italian Art Songs!
4. Do staccato exercises
As the voice comes back, it’s helpful to pump interstitial fluid out of the vocal folds and tone the muscles of the diaphragm with short staccato scales. Start small, then extend the scales and the range as it is comfortable to do so. Again, don’t push forward and down for the short staccato notes, instead try to pull up and in, as in the feeling of panting or hiccups.
5. Mix the middle voice
When the voice is unmixed, symptoms include vocal breaks and strained high notes. I have students pull the voice SOVT scales from chest to head while pressing fingertips together to widen the ribcage. I love Alexander technique practitioner Peter Jacobson’s ‘yes nod’ technique. Ask the student to try a gentle yes nod down while pulling back slightly for high notes. It tends to blow their minds.
6. Reassure them the ‘helium effect’ is not a sign of trouble.
When they first begin vocalizing after healing, they may experience a feeling of light hoarseness I call the ‘helium effect’. This is not a feeling of throat strain. It’s just a temporary loss of low notes. It’s important that this effect not be caused by excessive breath pressure or a tight throat channel. Don’t be afraid to take the student back a few steps if it seems they are challenging the voice too much. In my experience, AS LONG AS THEY ARE NOT USING TOO MUCH BREATH PRESSURE, the voice feels better each morning after, and the ‘helium effect’ goes away after about 3 or 4 days.
Fourth, build stamina and good habits
Once most of the vocal range is back, the singer or speaker can start challenging the voice again with longer practice, wider-range exercises and songs. They need to both challenge and protect their recovered voices, so here are some points to pound into their heads:
- Rule #1 is… NO STRAIN! It’s ok for nothing to come out, not ok to push or strain for it!
- Rule #2 is… KEEP DRINKING WATER!
- No slouching, no guarding posture.
- Volume should come from resonation, not excess breath pressure.
- Develop the habit of warming up before performance and cooling down afterwards.
- Don’t be afraid to sing out. How loud is safe? How long is safe? Your voice should feel better, not worse, by the next morning after practice or performance.
- If in doubt about your voice, get in fast for a vocal lesson😊
Fifth, don’t forget to protect yourself!
Here are some things to consider to protect yourself and your teaching studio:
- Decide what you want your ‘sick’ policy to be. Is it ok for someone with a cold to come in? How sick can they be? Or would you rather teach that student online? What about when YOU are sick?
- Make it a habit to wash mic screens and clean surfaces, door handles, etc. with alcohol wipes.
- Notice when you touch someone. Retain a sense of that touch and don’t touch your face or anyone else until you wash your hands.
- It’s my opinion that coaches don’t need to go it alone. Have at least one other trusted voice coach or specialist that you can contact when your own voice needs some analysis. Take good care. You are needed out there!