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Vocal health, voice care, food & drink dos & don'ts, singing techniques, free voice analysis software

Friday, July 20, 2007
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Some teachers, singers and actors in particular may suffer vocal problems, but they're not the only ones - many of us have difficulties with our voices from time to time. It's not surprising: apparently in a typical day a teacher's vocal folds (a more accurate name for them than vocal cords) open and close about a million times, yes that's a million times in one single day. And an opera singer's vocal folds can do the same in just a few minutes. I heard all that plus more at some recent events "Voice Makeover" and "Blagger's Guide to Singing" at the Dana Centre.

This isn't so much a review as a selective summary of some things I learned there - see this Telegraph article for a good preview of the Blagger's event, including a video (not for the squeamish) that was shown there of Jeremy Fisher's vocal folds moving while singing My Way, and what happens in terms of muscles etc when you speak or sing.

The speakers at these events, in alphabetical order, were:
  • Steve Durevitz, sound engineer from recording studio 2002 Studios
  • Jeremy Fisher and Gillyanne Kayes vocal coaches from the Vocal Process
  • Carrie and David Grant vocal coaches of TV's Fame Academy fame
  • Mary Hammond, vocal coach and Head of Musical Theatre at the well known Royal Academy of Music, London
  • Tom Harris, consultant laryngologist and ENT surgeon at Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, Kent (which has a specialist voice clinic), and Sara Harris, speech & language therapist at Queen Mary's (and yes, they're husband and wife).
    • From contacts in the UK professional (classical) singing world I know that Tom Harris is considered the "go to" consultant for voice problems, and that Sara Harris is a lovely person who has helped singers as well as others with speech difficulties.
  • Dr David Howard, engineer and senior media fellow holding the personal chair in music technology at the University of York, and a singer himself.
At the Blagger's event the video I've mentioned was shown, Tom and Sara Harris spoke as did Gillyanne Kayes (who is doing a part-time PhD on how female singers in commercial music deal with the break or gear change in their voices), and Carrie and David Grant gave some useful tips on singing including interpretation and performance. At the Makeover event attendees were split up into smaller groups and rotated round to hear Steve Durevitz, Mary Hammond and Dr Howard in turn. Both events ended with a (don't shudder) participative singsong. Ironically, given tips heard later about mike technique, Tom Harris didn't have the mike close enough to his mouth and was barely audible!

In no particular order, here are the points I found the most interesting. (David and Carrie Grant were excellent and inspirational as well as entertaining, but I won't deal with what they said in this post.)

Food and drink, and vocal care

Some tips from the session with Dr Howard, a very enthusiastic speaker who was able to impart information about voice production, what nodules are etc very clearly, with the helpful use of demos, models and a hands on trial:
  • It's important that your vocal apparatus, including the mucus on your vocal folds, stays sufficiently hydrated. (If you're delicate, look away now - but the colour of your urine is a good clue, if it's too yellow it's too late to re-hydrate, you shoulda had that water a few hours ago.)
  • Water, water, water! Any water you drink goes first to your stomach, liver, kidneys etc - it's only excess water after that which goes to your saliva and vocal folds, so if you're not drinking enough water your vocal folds etc won't be properly hydrated.
  • Do (good for voice). Water is best. Do drink lots of it. Professional singers and actors can drink 4 litres a day in addition to the water they get from their meals. Teachers should sip water often, a lot more than many do.
  • Don'ts (bad for voice!). Within at least the hour, preferably longer, before you are due to sing (or act). don't take dehydrating drinks like coffee, tea, Coca Cola or Pepsi (anything with caffeine in it), alcohol.
  • Don'ts (bad for singing!). Avoid eating foods and drinking drinks which contain fat or anything else which coats your mouth or vocal folds and prevents water getting to your larynx, like dairy products (milk, ice cream, yoghurt etc), chocolate, bananas. (Which to me proves one thing: don't try to troubleshoot Firefox shortly before you have to sing, act or lecture! Sorry, in joke, you had to have read these comments too.)
  • Do (good for singing). As well as water, do take what clears the fat etc, like steam (obviously not direct from the kettle!) and (this was new to me) citric fruit juices especially lime juice, lemon juice, and orange juice (in that order of preference, it seems). Possibly even have a squirt of Jif Lemon, aiming carefully down the back of your mouth to avoid the teeth! Interesting hands on demo - Dr Howard gave chocolate to the attendees to munch, then water to drink, pointing out how drinking water didn't clear it but adding some lemon juice to the water would. And it certainly did.
  • Don't. Coughing is very bad for your voice. The best way to cough is not to do it!

Different vocal styles / techniques - and how to belt?

Mary Hammond took us through trying to sing the same few excerpts in different ways - what she called "speech quality", twang or belt, pop (breathy, whispery, lots of air), and spitting-out-the-words Gilbert & Sullivan / classical. (Sirens are by the way apparently good because they get blood going to the operative parts. What's a siren - views seem to differ on what the right vowel/consonant is to use it on, and you need to go to the original page to see the video clip.) She was very good but unfortunately she just wasn't given enough time to do more than touch on how those different sound qualities were produced.

Big red warning. Many English classical singers brought up in the choral tradition, especially women, have trouble getting away from that posh vibratoey classical or operatic sound to achieve a contemporary music theatre "belt" or rock / pop quality (pop in the general Madonna / Aguilera etc sense rather than the soft, breathy sense which Mary Hammond meant during her session).

In vocal pedagogy or voice pedagogy (i.e. the art or science of teaching singing) there is a well known school of thought, to which it seems Mary Hammond, and certainly Jeremy Fisher, Gillyanne Kayes and others, subscribe, chiefly popularised by Jo Estill and her trademarked techniques. This holds that a high larynx is the key to producing that sound. I just want to add a warning note that many other vocal technique experts think maintaining a high larynx etc is positively unhealthy and bad for you, and that you can still produce that quality of sound with a low larynx - as exemplified by Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey (taught from childhood by her mother who was an opera singer at the New York Met, father part African American part Venezuelan, grew up listening to gospel, R&B and soul - a killer combo really). There's an excellent Wikipedia article which summarises the belt controversy very well.

I have no idea either way personally, as I'm no vocal production or singing pedagogy expert, but I certainly don't want to risk damaging my voice, and someone whose knowledge of vocal anatomy, physiology and singing I trust absolutely believes strongly that the Estill view is wrong. So don't take as gospel everything you hear about voice production and the best way to belt. Bear in mind that there is more than one view, so it would be sensible for you to find out all you can about the different approaches and then make up your own mind - it's your voice and health we're talking about here.

Voice processing using sound editing software

Steve Durevitz gave a great explanation of some basics, with a demo on a Mac and a brave volunteer/conscript singing Frère Jacques.

Dynamic microphones are much more robust, cheaper, you can generally swing 'em round and drop 'em on a stage; condenser mics are more expensive and more sensitive. You can get a variety of microphones with different directionality in terms of where they pick up sound from, e.g. even 180 degrees. But with most mics you do have to speak or sing very close to them.

Pop shields between your mouth and the mic stop the p-p-p pop sound on p's and similar noises; a cheap way is to bend a coathanger into a circle and stretch tights over it. A windshield stops the sound of the wind, which can be a big interference in outdoor recording (thuds, booms and other nosies, I know, I've had that with outside recordings!). A de-esser reduces sibilance - different people are sibilant at different frequencies, and you can get rid of that (reduce the volume at those frequencies) during recording or afterwards.

His demo used GarageBand which those lucky Apple Mac people get for free with their Macs. Audacity (see Wikipedia) is another audio recording and editing tool he recommends, I use it myself and there are versions for PC and Linux / Unix too.

Autotune (there's a basic version in GarageBand) moves a note to the nearest note in the key you're in; the most famous use of auto-tune, for effect, was in Cher's Believe. For very bad singers unfortunately the nearest note may well be the next note down or up from the one they were aiming for, so something like Melodyne works better there. Some singers even use auto-tune in real time in live performances (so even if they're off when they sing into the mike, the audience hears the right notes coming out of the speakers), - some of them even feed the pitch-corrected sound back to their own headphones to help them keep in tune better. I've certainly heard some chart toppers who ought to use autotune live!

He also described the main effects used in processing vocals - compression, reverb, equalisation - which again can be done using basic software tools including Audacity.

More tidbits. After editing together the main vocal from many takes, Steve often gets another take for the right side, and another for the left, to fatten the sound - the equivalent live would be using a chorus effect. And I never knew this but apparently Madonna is well know for using shadow singers who sing along with her when she performs live, mainly for the effect, but if she goes off occasionally you'd also never notice!

Other resources including free software

I've researched the speakers since the event, and found some further interesting resources.

The British Voice Association, which it seems all speakers for the event except Steve Durevitz have connections with, has some articles and tips for singers etc on things like:
Dr Howard has links like:
I've noticed that the Harrises and Dr Howard have collaborated on a book, which seems to be for medical experts or hospitals mainly, but if anyone is interested it's The Voice Clinic Handbook (Exc Business and Economy (Whurr)) - I've not read it myself but the synopsis says "The first half of this book provides an outline of the structure and function of a voice clinic, a review of the structure and function of the vocal tract and an outline of the most common forms of voice disorder likely to be encountered in a clinic. It also provides brief descriptions of the various forms of therapy available for the treatment of non-cancerous voice disorder and suggests appropriate treatment modalities. The second half of the book is based in science and contains an overview of the instrumentation available for the investigation and documentation of voicing."

Rumbles about Dana Centre events

A rumble rather than a rant, and bearing in mind I am an A type who likes to know exactly where I am: but when I go to a talk I want to know who's speaking and what their expertise is. Not everyone reads or remembers the website descriptions.

Maybe it was my own woolly ears, but as far as I could tell the compere for the Makeover event, Tracy Collins, didn't even announce her own name or job properly (c'mon, if you have an opportunity for self-promotion like this, use it - no one will mind!). More to the point, when she announced the speakers, she spoke their names far too quickly and mumblily - and I know it's meant to be informal an' all yeah, but it would be nice to hear surnames, not just their first names. I had to peer at their namebadges while trying not to be too obvious about it (really peer - the lettering was tiny). But then I guess I'd only be happy if there was a large slide with speakers' names and job titles on display throughout the event. As for announcing their areas of expertise, it was only afterwards on looking at the webpage again that I realised David Howard was a media lecturer at the University of York. Furthermore, from other sources I see he's "Dr" Howard, but that wasn't mentioned. I feel speakers' names and roles should always be given slowly clearly at the start, and then again for each individual just before they speak.

Another rumble: as I mentioned above, there simply wasn't enough time e.g. for Mary Hammond's mini-session, which merited a full event of its own on the exact means of achieving the different sound qualities, and which in fact I had thought was the main point of this event. I hope the Dana Centre takes note and programmes accordingly, on another occasion.

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