Drugs, Alcohol – and Singing.

We examine the affects of drugs and alcohol on the voice.

Drug addiction and alcoholism is a dangerous liaison for any individual –but for singers, there’s an added drawback.

These demons can steal the unique nuances that makes our instruments truly beautiful.

How, specifically, is the voice affected?

VoiceCouncil Magazine speaks with Dr. Ingo Titze, a vocal scientist and executive director of the National Center for Voice and Speech at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and professor at the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Iowa.

What are we talking about when we refer to the “voice”?
The vocal folds are simply layers of tissue that rely on moisture in order to vibrate and create sound successfully. The skin surrounding them acts like a blanket to those layers, and inside of that, there is a gel-like ligament. Good singers are capable of slowly progressing with the voice. They know their sound and know how to work lung pressure and airflow to create it.

How can drugs and alcohol affect the voice?
They dry out the voice. And, when this happens they can’t vibrate properly and become highly irritated. It’s not easy for them to work. When smoking, plaque forms on the vocal cords, creating a rough-sounding voice. Vocalists suffering from this tend to work too hard to compensate for the voice not being as pliable as it once was. As a result, hemorrhages – ruptured blood vessels – and polyps can form, creating an even rougher sound. It’s detrimental because that plaque is not something that can be removed surgically from the vocal cords.

What other effects do drugs and alcohol have on the voice?
The main detriment is muscle-covering – that is, the singer’s sensation of the voice becomes dampened, so they are no longer connected to it. The substances themselves include damaging factors, but when a singer is vocalizing without any sensation, it can be very dangerous and damaging. Likely, they could be pushing the voice to compensate for that numbness or lack of feeling they are experiencing when they sing.

We seem to see so many popular singers with demanding schedules and enough challenges in maintaining their voices without engaging in these “extracurricular activities.” How are they able to work around addiction when it’s present, and why do they continue to do it if they know the risks?
It amazes me how many singers can. In the case of classical singers, there is a certain standard set. We’ve heard enough good sopranos or good tenors to know what those are supposed to sound like. But with popular singers, many invent themselves with a sound that is totally unique to them. Some of these popular singers might already have vocal damage and continue to market it along the way because it works for them. But they can’t compensate forever.

I suspect many singers who are engaging in damaging behaviors like drugs and alcohol do it because its part of the lifestyle. They get caught up in it and forget the instrument. And, there are so many demands on them professionally, many simply give in to it.

Is there a point you feel a singer reaches a point of no return after their voice starts to wane after drug and alcohol abuse?
The vocal folds need to be able to vibrate symmetrically. When they have lost that ability to vibrate the exact same way, it can be very difficult to fully regain the voice.

How do you think singers struggling with their voices due to drug addiction are faced with these challenges emotionally?
It must take a major toll, especially if the singer loves their artistry and not just the attention they get from performing.

What advice can you offer singers struggling with addiction for their future of their voice?
I would promote vocal exercises – vocal sirens on “i” using only the front vibrating edge of the esophageal passage – to test the soft and high parts of the voice. If it’s difficult — if singers using drugs experience any crackling or breaks in sound, or if they struggle to create the full dynamic range between powerful vocals and soft, breathy vocals — there is a good chance that some damage has been done. The first thing to usually go is the highs, the lows and the softer elements of the voice.

What further advice can you offer singers?
I’d also say to take a year out, let the voice redevelop and work with a good teacher or coach to regain the full dynamics of the voice. Remember how good it feels like to sing with a light, soft voice. Singing full force, or putting too much meat into the sound too soon can be too big a price to pay. It’s a slow process to rebuild.

And, all singers need to be clever enough to have support from parents, managers and good friends. The fallout can sometimes be from people only taking an interest in them for their own benefit.

Megan Gloss is a classical vocalist and writer based in the United States.

Man in Picture – GregPC on Flickr

Useful Links

Whitney Houston’s Final Vocal Work

Shania Twain’s Vocal Comeback

Adele’s Vocal Challenge

Dream On – Switched Off. (on Stephen Tyler)

Garfunkel’s Elusive Voice

The Day Jordin Sparks Stopped Singing

John Mayer’s Vocal Challenge

  • DDDry

    Great article and good to point out that even over the counter drugs such as allergy and also prescription cold and asthma medicines can also contribute to vocal dryness. I am always battling to have a clear sound, but find myself extremely vocally fatigued in the Winter because of the additional dryness.