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Vocal Problems – Top 5 Causes

Vocal Problems - Top 5 Causes

A loss of vocal range and vocal fatigue can have many causes. Here are 5 frequent suspects – says Leontine Hass.

I’m going to describe a common vocal challenge and then give you 5 different causes that are common among my students.

You might recognize an issue that you have been facing and find some relevant facts that you can address.

Of course, if you are experiencing vocal issues, you will want to get insights from your vocal coach as well as the medical community – I talk about what a laryngologist can do for you at the end of today’s article.

A Common Problem

You can only sing loudly. If you try to sing in your head voice your voice is weak and breathy.

You can make a loud powerful belt sound but there is nothing in between. You are losing vocal range and your voice seems to be getting lower.

Your speaking voice is raspy and/or breathy. After gigs you are vocally tired. You often worry whether you might loose your voice in a long session.

You can only sing every second day otherwise your voice is too tired.

5 Possible Causes

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact problem –especially in an article. If this is an ongoing situation, book an appointment with a laryngologist and have a scope done in order to assess this accurately.

However, the likely cause is swollen, thickened vocal folds which are not adducting (or, meeting) properly. This can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • 1. Singing Loudly without Warming Up.

    If you are in a Rock band and use a loud belt quality frequently, without warming up or practicing, your vocal folds will thicken and loose flexibility.

    Imagine an athlete training with heavy weights in the gym several times a week without stretching or working on cardiovascular fitness and flexibility.

    The athlete would develop bulky, large muscles that do not work finely.

    Vocalists need to practice their head voice or ‘thin folds’ even if in performance they are only belting.

    It is vital to stretch the vocal fold mass out and to work the voice on thin folds whenever you practice.

    How is this done? Try to make a small and very clear and connected ‘i’sound. Practice scales and arpeggios going up and down from the bottom of your vocal range to the top.

    Warm up before every gig in your ‘smaller’ more ‘classical’ sounding voice.

    Practice gliding between notes. Voices love to glide. It stretches out the vocal fold mass. Glide between thirds, fifths or octaves.

    Practice ‘sirening’. Sirens are wonderful for voices. Practice them on an ‘ng’ sound like on the end of ‘sing’.

  • 2. Acid Reflux

    You may have acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when the acid from your stomach travels back up the oesophagus at night when you are lying flat and ‘bathes’ your vocal folds in acid.

    Your vocal folds end up red raw and swollen.

    The answer is to elevate your mattress with a pillow so that your head is slightly higher than the rest of your body. Try not to eat too late. Avoid acid producing foods such as alcohol, coffee, meat, dairy and sugar.

    Eat more fruits and vegetables and pulses. Drink lots of water.

    If there is no improvement you can go to your Doctor and ask for a prescription of an anti-acid medication such as omeprasole.

  • 3. Nodules

    You may have nodules, be pre-nodular or have a polyp. Polyps are particularly difficult to diagnose as they tend not to affect vocal fold closure.

    You can still make a well-connected sound but your voice tires easily. They tend to have to be removed surgically but this is fairly straight-forward.

    Nodules are easier to spot as the singer will find it almost impossible to sing high in their range and even lower down the tone is not clear.

    If they are soft nodules (pre-nodular) then a few months working with a good vocal coach on your technique should get rid of them.

    If they are established nodules you may need surgery.

  • 4. Vocal Fold Gap

    You may have a slight gap at the back of your vocal folds. This is called Muscle Tension Dysphonia.

    It is important to find a good speech therapist and/or vocal coach to deal with this.

    The goal would be to decrease excessive tension so that your vocal folds can function effectively again and close properly.

    Technical aspects which should be addressed include improving posture, improving breath control and support, avoiding excessive neck and shoulder tension, avoiding tongue root tension and jaw tension.

    This will take time as muscles which are overloaded take time to retrain.

  • 5. Bad Speaking Habits

    If the way you use your every day speech voice is unhealthy then you need to work on this.

    We use our speech voice much more than our singing voice. If you rasp, speak breathily and cough a lot or excessively clear your throat, then you need to re-train yourself to speak with a clear, well-connected voice.

Consider a “Scope”

All of the above are the most common causes of voice problems which I encounter in the studio.

If you do have recurring voice problems it is vital to get this checked out by a specialist as the underlying causes can be difficult to diagnose and there are many possibilities which are not mentioned here.

To diagnose the problem 100% you will need to be scoped.

This is a very simple procedure where a laryngologist puts a camera down into your larynx in order to have a look.

It takes about 5 minutes and is more than worth it. It is also very helpful for your vocal coach as they will know the specific answer to helping you fix the problem.

I work with two laryngologists on a regular basis who always look at my students if I suspect a problem.

You can either arrange this privately or you can ask for a referral by your Doctor.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Rachel Bearinger Rachel Bearinger - Rolling Stone (Cover)

You have a lovely voice and play guitar very well. This is a good video and you are proficient. You use your voice in the same way throughout the song. It would make it more interesting to put more vocal color into it. One way of doing this is to find more depth in your voice. Technically, this means lowering your larynx a notch now and then to make it sound a bit more soulful. There is also room for more vocal connection. You have a tendency to get a bit breathy. There should be a section in the song where you ‘take off’ vocally. This section should require you to work much harder vocally and to connect more at the vocal fold level. This, in turn, would heighten the emotion. A repetition of emotion always becomes boring. Figure out how you can add the sense of going on a journey to this song. On the whole you are very good, so it would be exciting to see you take more risk and take this further.

Leontine Hass

Leontine Hass BA, Melb. Uni, BMus. Kings College London, Dip. RAM is a singer, actress, vocal coach and Director of The Associated Studios and WAM.Co (The Word and Music Company). As a vocal coach, Leontine has a busy private practice comprising professional singers and recording artistss