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What Singers Can Learn from Whitney Houston

In my teaching work, I think I refer to Whitney more than any other artist – says Rachel Bennett.

The reason for this is not only that she was one of the most astoundingly gifted and charismatic performers the pop world has ever seen, but also because one can see that her singing career went through three distinct stages – and singers can learn something from each of these:

1. Fresh, raw but needing training

If you watch some videos from the mid 80s, you will hear an astoundingly strong and expressive voice but her technique was apparently absent.

For example, in the video just below you will see a good deal of glottal effort as well as an absence of placement.

Her falsetto and head voice are quite weak and her top modal tones are pure belt at times, sounding tight and a little flat; that said – what a gift!

By this point Whitney may have been receiving technical support but may not yet have been implementing it in her already fast moving career; it takes time for a young singer to absorb and apply technique automatically.

That glottal effort is happening because at this stage, Whitney had seemingly little awareness of the whole of her skull as a resonator.

She also didn’t use any clear mixing in her mid high range so would be likely to tire quickly after several performances.

2. Perfect control

The second stage is Whitney’s middle years in the mid to late 90’s when, as a rising world-wide star, touring and a crazy social life demanded better coaching and vocal care.

Watch the video just below and you will Whitney placing her top tones in her mixed register beautifully. Her resonance is at its height in her modal mix and she is easing through her whole extended range – no sweat!

She is also clearly anchoring* those power tones with perfect control in those final lines

*Anchoring is that flexing of the abdominal oblique muscles, the shoulders and head/neck back; you can see the shape of a small V forming at the base of her larynx – this is the evidence of that anchoring those power tones.

3. Vocal and Personal Struggles

The third stage is Whitney’s final years around 2010, when her voice was clearly becoming tired and her body probably reacting to the pressures of [reported] drug abuse and a marriage that was constantly in the press for reasons none of us will ever really know the truth about…

Whitney’s vocal depth is still evident in this film but her breath control appears weak and her vocal cords are sounding as if there could be pathology there – such as possible inflammation or possibly pre-nodules.

I say this with the utmost respect for a phenomenally gifted star who is clearly struggling to reproduce the kind of performances from her second stage.

As a teacher of the voice, if I hear a student with that raspy or dry sound that breaks on the glottis, I usually send them to have a vocal scope to check their vocal health.

A rasp can sometimes mean nodules (growths on the folds usually caused by consistent abrasion) and singers may even have these removed surgically.

Of course, this means no performance for some months whilst they heal and Whitney may not have felt she was in a position to do this.

What is critical for all singers to remember is that, with proper training, technique and vocal care, one can have a strong voice for decades.

Given Whitney’s belief in the power of music and her manifestation of that power in such magnificent performances I feel certain she would want all singers to learn from her life.

Rachel Bennett is a London-based vocal coach and singer songwriter. She is the lead singer / songwriter of RAIE and a Musical Director for theatre, television & recording studios across London. She has associations at WAC Performing Arts and Media College and Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama. You can learn more about Rachel on her Website or Facebook. You can see more of Rachel’s writing here.

  • Beautiful article Rachel, thank you. Whitney has been my idol for all my life and the plethora of her performances continue to inspire me.

  • Brian Wright

    Whitney literally lost her voice in early 2005. She could speak only in a whisper. This is when she (or Clive) invested in the voice coach Gary Catona to bring her voice back. When Gary first spoke with Whitney, she was a chain smoker. She had been a smoker throughout her career. He asked her to quit, she refused. You can even see her smoking on Being Bobby Brown in late 2005. Apparently, after Gary began working with her and her voice began responding, she could at least speak again. By 2009, after Gary had gotten her voice back to about 85%, she stopped seeing him, recorded I Look To You and went on tour. Gary was hoping to work with her a bit longer and get her voice above 90%. It wasn’t that her voice was tired, it was that it was shot. Gary brought it back from the brink and helped her to achieve one more album and a kind-of tour, such that it was. What you’re hearing is not a tired voice, it’s a voice that Gary helped bring back from nothing.

    In fact, Whitney was already losing her voice by 1998. You can hear it in the raspiness, the deeper smoker’s tone and the occasional breaks when she speaks. By 2009, I believe Whitney may have been suffering from emphysema and shortness of breath. When she was on Oprah in 2009, you could hear her gasping for breath even just during conversation.