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Extreme Singing III: Distortion

The sounds you want can be produced damage free. Vocal Coach Dane Chalfin shows the way.

It is possible to be so seduced by a “cool” vocal sound that you forget to maintain your vocal health.

Performing extreme singing in a healthy way isn’t all about learning technical principles.

I hope that so far in this series you’ve seen that these sounds are often produced in healthy ways when we are at play or by imagining certain movements.

This is just as true with distortion; often the way ahead lies through vocal-play.

Are You a Distortionist?

Distortion is defined as using laryngeal or pharyngeal structures to disrupt the sound stream – or to add a noise to the sound stream.

There are different types of distortion for a typical scream; you can have an Axl Rose, Steven Tyler, or Stevie Wonder scream, a Louis Armstrong growl or the heavier grunting-distortion featured in Death Metal.

Distortions are effects that are added to a core sound; however, very often singers will get seduced by the noise of the distortion and forget what they are doing underneath.

If the sound you are trying to produce underneath is not being maintained below the distortion, then there is a very high risk of doing trauma to the vocal folds.

It’s a “Mastery Level” Vocal Effect

If you are producing a distortion safely, then you should be able to sing a clean note, move into distortion and then back into the clean note without any disruption.

You must remember that distortion is a mastery level vocal effect; it is easy to err with distortion in ways that will be traumatic to your vocal folds.

Distortionists should never experience a painful, scratching sensation in the larynx; nor should their voice feel husky or hoarse after producing these sounds.

Have Fun: Vocal Play

In my opinion, the best way for learning healthy distortion is through vocal play: mimic the sound of diving airplanes—very often the sound comes out spontaneously without you even thinking about it.

Or, pretend to be a roaring lion/growl like you are playing at “monsters”– these play voices can help you to find distortion in an unpressured, non-technical way.

If the process for learning distortion feels too technical, singers feel self-conscious and don’t learn as freely. That’s why I actually have much more success in teaching distortion through play rather than technique.

The reason vocal-play works so much better than imparting muscular or structural theory is that you are accessing pathways in your brain that already exist.
At one level, your body already knows how to do this and this approach is more efficient than trying to teach your body something new.

This is true with all sound; in fact, increasing traditional exercises is not the only way forward with your voice.

After all, which is likely to help you more: a logical but complicated guide to distortion or practicing the sound of a diving airplane?

According to the available research, distortion produced correctly should produce no or little negative results to the vocal folds – this is exactly as I find it “on the ground” working with vocalists all over the world.

This Works

I teach six days a week, sometimes up to eight hours a day, and these sounds will make it every day into what I teach as my clientele tend to favor extreme voice use.

Even after eight hours of singing, I do not experience voice loss or hoarseness – though that was not always the case. I also know dozens of rocks singers who use these sounds regularly and their voices are fine.

There is only one caveat to this conviction: we do not have any long-term data.

We don’t yet know the effects of fifteen or twenty years of distortion, for example, on the larynxes of these singers.

There is naturally some concern over the wear and tear of certain joints in the larynx but we won’t know anything for certain for another decade or so.

Although we can’t be one hundred percent sure that extreme singing done healthily is completely risk free, we can say that there are plenty of healthy larynxes out there belonging to singers who practice these sounds according to the ways described in this series.

If you are in any doubt about the health of your voice from producing these sounds, then get “scoped”. Get your doctor to refer you to a laryngologist (an ear, nose and throat doctor who specializes in the larynx); do your own research and make sure that the specialist you see has experience in working with professional singers!

And remember, because all of these sounds, produced incorrectly, can cause trauma, they are best learned under the supervision of an expert coach who knows and understands the latest research.

Extreme Singing with Extreme Success

What I’d like all singers to take away from this series on extreme singing is that while these effects require physical effort, there should be no adverse affect on the voice.

Scratching, hoarseness or voice loss are NOT signs that you are doing good, hard work with your voice but rather, that you are working foolishly.

Remember that you are doing vocal work for the long-haul; you are worth taking the time and care over to get these voices right.

Besides, as you work for greater vocal health, your audiences will be able to enjoy your voice just as much in your last set of the night as they did in your first.

Dane Chalfin is an industry vocal coach and the only officially contracted voice rehabilitation specialist working for the National Health Service in the UK. His clients include well-known artists and actors and his teacher training courses attract professional vocal coaches and singing teachers from around the world. He is a director of the British Voice Association and Principal Lecturer in Voice at Leeds College of Music, Europe’s leading contemporary conservatoire.

To find out when Dane’s next article in this series is released, sign up here for our free content emails (aka. Monday Morning Vocalist Motivators).

Useful Links

Extreme Singing Part II: Belting

Extreme Singing Part I

Your Voice’s Early Warning System

Dane Chalfin & Associates

The 21st Century Singer

The British Voice Association