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The Specialists You Need

“Would you ask an otorhinolaryngologist to teach you a blues riff?” –asks Kathy Alexander

No, your otorhinolaryngologist can’t teach you a blues riff, but she can tell you if there are nodes on your vocal cords.

Your speech-language pathologist can tell you if you put them there.

What about those cool riffs you want to learn? Try a vocal coach.

There are throngs of specialists out there who work ‘nine to five’ helping singers develop the most fantastic voice possible.

If you understand who does what, you can take charge of your vocal development and success.

Ear, Nose and Throat Doctor (ENT)
If you think there might be something wrong with your voice, you need an ENT to give you a proper diagnosis. ENTs are also called otorhinolaryngologists (oto-=ears, rhino-=nose, laryng-=throat), or just laryngologists when dealing with the voice. Your ENT may prescribe voice rest, medication, surgery or other treatments to heal your vocal apparatus. That may not always be enough, especially if your voice problem was caused by the way you use your voice. “To completely treat nodules, it is essential that you change how you use your voice, both in performance and socially. Often, a singer can modify their vocal technique, but continues to abuse the speaking voice, either due to habit or because of the demands of a day job. So, a complete evaluation and vocal overhaul is necessary, under the watchful guidance of an experienced voice therapist.” Dr. Anthony Jahn, ENT.

Speech-Language Pathologist/Therapist (SLP/SLT)
If the way you use your voice is contributing to a voice disorder or injury, then you need an SLP to rehabilitate and retrain your voice, both to overcome the problem and prevent re-injury. Your SLP will figure out the underlying habits or circumstances that caused the problem. Shelagh Davies, a registered SLP with the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists, says she helps people find natural, efficient voice function: “My job is to bring the voice back and to restore confidence.” This may not be all that a singer needs, though. Most SLPs only work within speaking range and few specialize in the singing voice. Davies, who specializes in both speaking and singing says, “to work with singers, SLPs need to be singers themselves or work closely with a singing teacher.”
(Note: speech-language pathologist and speech-language therapist are used synonymously for the purposes of this article, though in certain regions the two terms indicate differences in qualification.)

Singing Teacher
Whether it’s opera or punk rock, singing requires your voice to do expressive and athletic feats. There are ways to do these feats without hurting yourself: it’s called singing technique. Good singing technique helps you get more sound, power and flexibility out of your voice in a healthy way. This training also helps you understand how your instrument works including things like breathing, resonance and how to let your passion come through in your voice. The term “singing teacher” is usually used by people who teach technique. Los Angeles singing teacher, Noreen Smith says, “[I teach singers] to master their instrument for whatever genre they wish to sing.”

Vocal Coach
Mastering your instrument is only part of a killer performance, though. Cool riffs you might sing in a pop song are different from riffs you would sing in R&B. Every genre has musical and stylistic conventions that must understand and rehearse – as well as unique performance pressures. The term, “vocal coach” can be used by experts in a genre who help singers prepare for a specific performance. “A vocal coach is able to choose [songs] and “coach” their students through [them] with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of how these songs are to be performed and interpreted” says Smith.

Blurred Boundaries
Many people are puzzled about the exact meaning of the terms ‘singing teacher’ and ‘vocal coach’ because they are used in various ways; often, one teacher offers

both skill sets. This is an area where the boundaries are not always precise. It is always a good idea to ask your teacher/coach if they teach singing technique and if they have expertise in your genre of interest. Do this before you commit to your first session.

The World of Voice Science.

The list above is not comprehensive as there are so many fields relating to voice science, vocal rehabilitation and vocal health; yet, if you know more about the major areas mentioned here, you will be well on your way to knowing how to address issues that affect your singing.

Final advice:

Remember that singing teachers/coaches do not claim to be experts in managing voice disorders, and even though they may judiciously identify and even help solve a possible voice condition in a student, they will – hopefully – not be shy about directing a singer to a ENT or SLP for full diagnosis and treatment.

The best way to view these specialists is as a ‘team’ whose expertise matches different kinds of challenges on your vocal journey.

When specialists work together to help you, you’ll benefit from a professional collaboration which will further release the passion of your song.

After all, a healthy and unforgettable voice is what it’s all about.

-Kathy Alexander

You can use this chart on vocal specialists to help you figure out your steps ahead.

The author wishes to thank Shelagh Davies M. Sc., SLP, Vancouver, for giving such a comprehensive interview for this article. Also Noreen Smith, a singing teacher from L.A. Voicecouncil also thanks Dr. Anthony Jahn for his many letters and contributions to the magazine.

Kathy Alexander is a writer, singer, vocal coach and choir director. She has appeared in Vision TV’s Let’s Sing Again, The Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra and the Victoria International Jazz Festival (main stage). You can see more of Kathy’s work here.