Among classical singers, the most frequently discussed topic is maintaining vocal health. While other instrumentalists must practice good technique and posture, this is arguably most vital for singers as we only have one voice. We do not have the luxury of being able to buy another instrument if ours breaks. It therefore goes without saying that we have to take care of the voice, ensuring our technique is healthy during every practice session. That being said, what happens when we run into bad habits? By exploring new techniques, even the singers at the top of their game have found that they have taken certain aspects of technique to the extreme. Renée Fleming recalled covering her voice too much and having to revisit aspects of technique after her masterclasses abroad. Similarly, Janet Baker spoke of her caution in her last year of opera, stating she would mark rehearsals to preserve energy for the final performance. Whatever the context, there are endless measures that singers need to take to preserve vocal health. Here, I propose a few habits to help keep an awareness of vocal health.
Firstly, it is important to assess how much practice is suited to you. This varies for different people due to availability of time, attention span and, of course, vocal maintenance. Some may practice and hour a day, while others may break their practice up throughout the day due to rehearsals and concerts. Mathilda Marchesi herself went so far as to suggest a maximum of half an hour’s practice at a time. While this may be a bit on the short side, it may still be an option on a day that you have less repertoire to learn or you feel a bit tired (mentally or physically). Typically, I would suggest an hour but this really does vary. Similarly, many choose a set time to practice on a typical day. That being said, although schedules can be helpful in busy times, it is important to know when to have a break when you notice you are developing unhealthy patterns.
Often, we do not notice unhealthy vocal habits, or we choose not to. Especially after a lesson or masterclass with someone we really admire, it is difficult to admit that something does not work within our existing technique. I, myself, have definitely ignored signs that were trying to tell me that certain things just are not healthy. Recently, I have been trying to be particularly inquisitive with teachings on technique. This does not mean I am unwilling to explore new suggestions – it just means that when I am taught something new, I will question it and closely assess whether it has a positive or negative effect on my vocal health. In such cases, it is important to ask your teacher to explain it in more detail if it does not immediately make sense. Due to the extremely metaphorical style of many singing lessons, you may find that what your teacher is saying can be adapted or interpreted in different ways to match your style and approach. There are always different extents to which you apply certain techniques, such as covering and the emphasis on consonants. All in all, if you are in doubt about a technical aspect, ask yourself these questions:
Is your voice cracking?
Does your head hurt?
Does it feel like the sound is only resonating within your jaw?
Are parts of your body tense during or after your practice?
Is your voice tired after your practice?
Does your larynx feel like it is fixed in a lowered or heightened position?
Is your neck stiff?
Has your atlanto-occipital joint locked?
These questions can be useful both when considering the benefits of new approaches to technique and whether you need a vocal break. It may be that your voice does not hurt at all, but you notice tension in another part of the body after singing. Of course, if it cannot be solved on your own this is often where your singing teacher comes in or an investment into body awareness classes.
Singing is not just about the vocal mechanism – it involves your whole body. You can learn all you want about the vocal cords, the muscles and joints around it. However, often a problem within that (take, for example the tensing of the sternocleidomastoid muscle) can be fixed by altering another part of the body altogether. Therefore, don’t just bash out notes and hope it gets better the more you sing – take time out to get to know your body. Physical health and awareness can work wonders on your singing. If in doubt, it is often more productive to take a break for a while and then come back to your practice with a fresh approach – especially now when you have more time!
Natalka Pasicznyk, August 2020
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Baker, Janet, Full Circle: An Autobiographical Journal (Julia MacRae: London, 1982).
Fleming, Renée, The Inner Voice: Notes from a Life on Stage (London: Virgin Books, 2005).
Marchesi, Mathilde, Bel Canto: A Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method (New York: Dover, 1970).