Brown, O.L. (1999). Maintaining vocal health. Teaching Music (April), 33-35.

      Maintaining Vocal Health

      by Oren L. Brown

      Oren L. Brown is voice faculty emeritus at the Julliard School, private voice teacher in New York City, and faculty member at the Voice Foundation.

      Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle said, "Although nature has gifted us all with voices, correct singing is the result of art and study." Everyone owns a musical instrument that is not made in a factory and cannot be purchased in a store. Unfortunately, few realize whata special gift this instrument--the voice--is or have any idea of how to take care of it.

      A common misunderstanding of the voice is epitomized in the story about the guest choral conductor who had worked with a group of high school singers. After the performance, a mother thanked him for the wonderful experience it had given her son--and especially for leaving him hoarse (and quiet) for the rest of the weekend!

      Although a youthful quality in young persons' voices is something very special, it is possible that this director expected to hear the kind of choral sound that would come from a group of adults. It is true that in high school athletics, competitors are expected to give their all. But do choral directors know that the vocal cords develop on a different schedule than arm or leg muscles? The body hasn't finished growing, on average, until about age twenty-one.

      We all receive false impressions of what natural voice quality is like by listening to radio, television, recordings, and the amplified sounds in movies and Broadway shows. Many performers in these media, in fact, have very short careers because they overuse their voices. The important thing for conductors to know is what a voice can do naturally--not what it can be "made" to do.

      A choral director working with singers might be compared to a coach working with athletes. Just as a coach should know how to throw a ball, so anyone working with voices should know something about his or her own voice, as well as what constitutes healthy singing. In fact, choral directors actually act as singing teachers, since very few students receive private voice lessons.

      Unfortunately, not all singing teahers are aware of some of the important principles that need to be kept in mind for voice training. Part of the problem is that there are no set standards or regulations for determining who is qualified to give individual voice lessons. Even many of the best teachers just assume thatteaching voice is primarily an art and hope for good luck with naturally talented students.

      Presented below are a few basic principles that any voice teacher should be aware of. These principles are based on researh as to what is healthy for the voice and on my experience teaching voice since 1932. If you can follow them as you continue developing your own voice, you will be able to use them to help any studenet who wants to learn how to sing.

      Before you sing, start with stretching exercises to relax your whole body. You will find that your muscles can be tense anywhere, from the feet up. Wherever you sense tension, find and use an exercise that will relieve it. Simply using your intuition and imagination to observe tension and performing relaxation exercises to relieve it can be a help.

      Because your body is the instrument, proper alignment (posture) is essential. The various parts of the body cannot interact freely if posture is not given attention, and if the posture is good, the rib cage will be comfortable when it is elevated in singing.

      As the breath is taken in, you should feel an expansion in the area betwen the bottom of the ribs and the belt line. The area below the belt line remains firm. This type of breathing, often called abdominal breathing, may have been lost and will have to be relearned. You can see how naturally it occurs in a sleeping baby.

      When singing, just let the air flow out naturally without pushing. Although the vocal folds adjust automatically to your preparation for singing a particular pitch, a flow of air actually activates them (B. Wyke, "Neurological Aspects of Phonatory Control Systems in the Larynx," in Care of the Professional Voice, Part II, 1979). An easy flow of air will draw the folds into a vibration that is known as the Bernoulli effect (J. Van der Berg, "On the Resistance and the Bernoulli Effect of the Human Larynx, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, no. 29, 1957). When working with students, you can demonstrate that just letting the air flow out naturally is all that is needed by having them form an easy hissing sound and letting the air flow do the work: "Hsssssssss."

      Another easy way to initiate a sound is to vibrate the lips in what is called a "lip roll." If a lip roll cannot be accomplished, perhaps the rolled "r" can be used. If that doesn't work, try sliding a sustained "s" into a soft "z": "Sssssszzzzzzz." Slide these sounds in a downward inflection. A "Prrr" with the lips or a "Trrr" with the tongue may also be practiced lightly.

      Vocalizing from the bottom of the scale up is one of the most damaging practices in vocal training (J. S. Rubin, et al., Special Considerations for the Professional Voice User, 1995; H. H. Curtis, Voice Building and Tone Placing, 1973). Especially in early practice, start tones from above and let them flow downward in a pattern of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, or 8, 5, 3, 1, in an easy, medium range. Let the second scale be a half step lower and continue in a descending sequence to a comfortably low note. Then start again a bit higher than the first time and repeat the exercise. Use an "m" hum or "Hoo" or "Huh" when you teach beginners. Any vowels that are easy to sing without face or jaw tension can be used.

      To sing higher notes, it is necessary to use a set of throat muscles called the cricothyroids, which are not brought into play in ordinary conversations (Ingo R. Titze, Principles of Voice Production, 1994). While no one can hear his or her voice the way it sounds to someone else, everyone has a quality of voice identified with speaking tha covers about the lower third of the range, and every healthy voice has the potential to sing in the upper two-thirds of his or her range. To discover the quality of voice found in the cricothyroids, it is necessary to lighten up the vocal production. Because the upper part of the voice will seem strange at first and high notes will sound very weak, singers may mistakenly try to make these notes sound like the lower speaking-quality tones. It is important to remember that high notes have a difference quality than low notes in all musical instruments, including the voice. Remember, if it feels easy, it is probably right.

      To allow the upper and lower parts of the voice to mix or combine, it is necessary to let the larynx rest in a low position without pulling it down (J. Sundberg, "The Acoustics of the Singing Voice," Scientific American, March 1977). When an easy breath is taken the larynx has a tendency to lower naturally. Try to let it stay there in all singing. Use the voice in a light, easy manner in the beginning. In time and with practice, it will grow to its natural potential.

      In ascending passages, all weight should be taken out of the voice. Scale patterns of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 or 8, 5, 3, 1, 3, 5, 8, 5, 3, 1 can be introduced to gradually ascend the scale. Going up the scale might be compared to a roller coaster going over the second rise on its own momentum, with no extra push or force.

      Ten minutes of vocal exercise at the beginning of each rehearsal can work wonders, and your students will prosper if you can understand the above principles and learn the techniques associated with them as they apply to your own voice. Vocalizing with a light quality is best for all age groups, and a good choral rehearsal exercises the brain as much as it does the voice. New music can be read thru very lightly at first to establish pithes, rhythms, and tempos, as well as diction. Singing that observes the music's dynamics can then follow in a natural manner (O.L. Brown, Discover Your Voice: How to Develop Healthy Voice Habits, 1996). Teaching using this approach all the way from grade school up through high school and college should produce a sizeable pool of talent for choral groups, as well as a number of voices to choose from for solo parts.

      Trust your common sense in working with your own voice and in training others. Remember, if something isn't easy for you, it probably isn't right for students. It is better to do too little than to do too much. Also bear in mind that voice development progresses at different rates, depending on the age and the individual, and that voices vary in potential size, range, and quality. In the entire world, no tow people are exactly alike, and each comes from different backgrounds and experiences.

      All sorts of bad sounds can be made on almost any musical instrument without damage to the instrument itself. With the human voice, however, every time sounds are being practiced, habits are being formed that can be either good or bad. If the sounds are not easy to produce, the chances are they are harmful. Excess volume can damage any voice, as well as displease the ear. Voices need time to grow. Be patient, and both you and your students will be rewarded by having developed healthy voice habits.

      By following the basic principles presented above, you can train your choir singers without straining their voices or making them hoarse. Abuse of the voice in the early years can affect the health of the larynx in later life. And, while many high school athletes may push themselves as they struggle for success, I sincerely doubt than any choral conductor wants his or her choir to work so hard that it sounds like a cheering squad.