Body, Mind and Soul: A Holistic Approach to Vocal Health
by Anne VanEtten
Beautiful singing is born of a carefully balanced coordination of physical, emotional and mental factors. Singers often assume that when the voice is not functioning well, it is due to mechanistic or medical factors. But life circumstances also profoundly impact vocal function, and an emotional crisis can be equally devastating, leading to complete voice loss.
Classical singers know that the singing voice can only be as healthy as the body that houses it. From early stages of training we are warned of all that can go wrong with the vocal mechanism. It seems a miracle that many singers do have long healthy careers! Organic as well as functional voice disorders caused by inappropriate voice use are numerous: Polyps, laryngeal nerve paralysis, acid reflux inflammation, chronic edema, bowed vocal folds, phonastenia, and the most dreaded problem, vocal nodules. Pressed phonation and hard glottal attacks may lead to the development of nodules. These are best treated with voice therapy. In advanced cases, when nodules have calcified, complete voice rest or surgery may be necessary.
A good vocal technique will help singers to steer clear of most problems. But, what is a “good vocal technique?” All methods do not fit all singers. It can be argued that a “good technique” is one that is in agreement with acoustical and physiological laws. A dependable vocal technique, as well as regular maintenance of good vocal and mental hygiene, are prerequisites for healthy vocal functioning. Most problems related to vocal technique fit into the ”too much” category: Too much, too long, too high, too low, too loud! “Sing on the interest rather than the principal! ” is good old fashioned advice.
The legendary teacher Emanuel Garcia recommended three half hours of singing per day, interspersed with rest periods. Singing repertoire that is age and voice appropriate is crucial. Unfortunately many young opera singers sing a Fach too heavy, and as a result fail to develop lasting careers. Vocal warm up prior to performance should be a part of any singer’s routine since the vocal folds, just like other muscles, depend on efficient blood circulation for optimal functioning.
Hydration is of utmost importance to keep the mucosa of the vocal folds healthy. Eight glasses of water a day is not too much! Drugs, both recreational and medicinal, are harmful and must be avoided. Acid reflux problems are common in singers due to late night meals as well as stress. This condition causes inflammation of the arytenoid area of the vocal folds, leading to incomplete vocal fold closure and a breathy and hoarse sound. Avoiding meals and alcohol three hours prior to sleep, and also sleeping with the head elevated, will help. In serious cases medication will be necessary.
Daily vocal maintenance must include adequate rest, a healthy diet, and a reasonable amount of exercise, which should include both aerobic and strength training. Classical singing is not weightlifting, but does require the flexibility, endurance and strength expected of athletes. Simple routines such as washing hands frequently with hot water and soap, and daily flushing of the nose with a saline solution (1/4 teaspoon salt to one cup sterilized water) will cut down on the number of colds and sinus problems.
A Nepapot is handy, but, a clean cupped hand will do, too!
Singing is an expression of self, and singers sing for many different reasons. Singers who sing “to be loved’ rather than to express love, are at risk for depression when singing fails to satisfy that need. At the deepest level, singing is a form of primal communication, which is why singing has the power to move people so deeply. When loss and depression happen, the singer’s ability to communicate through singing is deeply affected. The voice loses luster and seems dull, flat and lifeless. The loss of voice equals a loss of self. The right teacher, one who understands that the problem is one of the soul rather than of vocal technique, can be of tremendous help in such cases. However, the teacher should not take on the role of therapist, but refer singers who suffer from depression and mood disorders to a mental health professional.
In my studio I have worked with singers who suffer from extreme perfectionism. Perfectionism seriously impacts vocal freedom and joy of singing. These singers are convinced that they are never good enough, and eventually they lose all vocal spontaneity. Seeing only the goal – perfection – they fail to enjoy the journey. Such singers must learn to give themselves permission to fail. Often, they also suffer from muscle tension “armoring”. Fearing free expression of emotion, the singer holds the voice in a muscular stranglehold, which makes flow phonation and expression impossible.
A teacher who understands the problem, and who possesses patience and empathy, can help. To overcome this problem and gain vocal freedom and health, the singer must be willing to examine underlying issues. As Sondheim puts it: ”Anyone can whistle, why can’t I? “
The singer who pays attention to the physical health of his voice but who neglects to take care of his mental and emotional health, is at a disadvantage. The singing voice is the expression of a total human being, who desires to communicate musically from his inner being. The voice must last a lifetime. Take good care of your body, as well as your soul!
Ms. Van Etten, a native of Norway, has maintained a large successful private voice studio for 26 years, and also taught as an Adjunct Professor at the Community College of Aurora, Colorado, where she initiated and directed the opera workshop “Black Box Opera.”
Ms.Van Etten majored in Comparative Literature at the University of Oslo, and earned her MM in Vocal Performance, with Honors, from the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston. She also did doctoral course work in Vocal Pedagogy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her students have been winners and finalists in National and Regional competitions. Most recently, two of her students were National Semifinalists in the “Classical Singer Convention” Competition in Chicago in 2009. Teaching voice is her passion, and she considers herself a lifelong student of singing and singers, physiology, acoustics, and psychology. She is especially happy to have had the satisfaction of successfully helping many singers who came to her seeking help with major vocal issues, back to vocal health and beautiful singing!
Ms. Van Etten can be reached at www.annevanetten.com