There are many occupations that demand extensive use of our voices. Teachers, salespeople and lawyers, just to name a few. But what if you also happen to sing in your spare time?
Then it’s important to know that poor speaking habits can affect the quality of your singing voice.
As a singing teacher, I often see the effect of vocal overuse and poor speaking habits on my students’ singing voices. It’s certainly not uncommon for people who work all day in a sales role or spend a lot of time on the phone to show signs of speech issues.
In fact, I listen and watch very carefully to my students’ speech and body language from the moment they walk in the door. Here are some of the tell-tale signs:
- Tension in the throat, shoulders and neck.
- Vocal fry, a creaky sound that stems from constriction in the throat.
- General poor breathing – often shallow and high.
- A girly, breathy sound – common in women, particularly those who work in childcare or teaching.
- An artificially dark, pinched and nasal sound – common in men.
Even professional singers are not immune to these problems. During my days as a professional opera singer, I spent a lot of time working on my voice with a speech pathologist. It was when my children were young and the only time I didn’t use my voice was when they were asleep!
With my speech pathologist, I worked on raising my soft palate, combining front and back sounds and ensuring my consonants and vowels cooperated. In fact, I put singing lessons on hold for a few months to attend weekly sessions with a speech therapist and then religiously worked on my exercises.
It’s why I often refer singing students to a speech pathologist, as tackling voice issues first is sometimes the best way to build a strong vocal foundation.
Lana McCarthy, communication coach and speech pathologist from Word of Mouth in Sydney, is one of my preferred partners and I spoke with her recently to get her take on this issue.
“Taking time to do technical work on your spoken voice is a good place to start to improve your singing voice,” said Lana. “And the most common cause of speech issues that I see is muscle tension. Tension in the shoulders, neck, throat, tongue, larynx, face and jaw. Even postural tension.
“Fixing it starts with awareness; making people aware of poor habits like holding tension in their larynx or shoulders.
“I sometimes use mirrors to visually show the problem, such as not opening their mouth wide enough. Or it can be a matter of contrasting various grades of tension, by allowing them to feel the difference on a scale ranging from tight to relaxed.”
“Getting speakers and singers to use a laugh quality is another key way to release tension,” said Lana. “Laughing requires ‘good and open’ muscle effort in the throat, so it’s a matter of gradually pulling that technique into your spoken and singing voice.”
Breathing low in the body
Another cause of tension is poor breathing technique. “What people often do is drive their voice from their throat,” said Lana. “Singing teachers will often ask me to help their students release throat tension. What singers need to do is drop their breath into their lower lungs or abdominal area. They can then power their voice from there, ease it through their throat and then the sound comes up and forward into their mouth.”
As you can tell, these changes take time and practice to master, as well as professional support. But it’s well worth the effort and can not only benefit your singing, but also help you to maintain a strong and stable voice in other areas of your life.
It has certainly helped me as a singing teacher. What I learnt from my sessions with a speech pathologist still holds me in good stead today, especially on those days when I have a 9-hour stretch of lessons!