Vocal Fatigue Part 2


So…to continue a discussion of vocal fatigue. There is a good possibility that I may go off on a bit of a rant but I’ll try to stay on point long enough to give some advice on conquering fatigue and rehabilitating the vocal mechanism. I find it important, however, to take a quick left turn and provide some background for my method.

I spend a lot of time in my lessons discussing what I call “vocal mechanics.” The human voice is produced by a machine made up of levers, tubes, reservoirs, intake manifolds, exhaust systems, tone generators, resonators, springs…Jesus, it sounds complicated, doesn’t it? The truth is, yes, it is extremely complicated. The good news is that most of these systems operate involuntarily and with utmost efficiency with every beat of your heart.

Singing can be a very simple process, and I try to keep technique as simple it can be. But vocal fatigue is a symptom of one or more of the many components of the mechanism being operated in a manner that causes other components to be overworked. At that point it becomes important to carefully analyze the singer’s technique with a mechanic’s eye toward detail and efficiency of operation.

Most singers suffering from fatigue experience discomfort or pain in the throat, hoarseness and inflexibility in the upper register. This indicates that the vocal cords are being misused. Now, try to move your vocal cords. Go ahead, move just the left one, now move the right one. Can’t do it, can you? So how can you expect to correct the abuse of the vocal cords without ascertaining precisely which component of the mechanism is not doing its job and causing the vocal cords to work overtime?

The vocal cords, or “vocal folds” as they are sometimes called, can more precisely be described as a valve. This valve’s primary function is to act as the last line of defense in protecting the breathing mechanism from foreign objects. When you swallow, the epiglottis closes over the airway to cap the opening. Below this cap, the vocal cords close across the airway just in case anything gets past the epiglottis. The vocal cords, or “valve” is closed when swallowing. Hum. Now try to swallow while humming. Impossible.

The function of the vocal cords as the “tone generator” of the vocal mechanism is secondary to survival, but primary for communication. It’s the architecture of the human mouth with it’s ability to form words that separates humans from the non-speaking species. The process by which tone is produced by the vocal cords is discussed in detail in my post from May, 2006 entitled, “Bernoulli, Doppler and Natural Vibrato'” found in the archives.

To illustrate how the abuse of the cords results in fatigue, hold your hands in a praying position with palms flat and together. Pull your hands three inches apart and put them together again twice per second lightly, so they just touch. Repeat this for the length of a short song…say, two minutes. This is a simulation of the action of the vocal cords when singing. Now repeat the process, only this time clap your hands firmly together, again, twice per second. Do this for two minutes. How do your hands feel? They hurt, don’t they? If you put your palm against your face, you’ll feel how hot they have become. This is precisely what happens to the vocal cords when you scream, yell or sing with crap technique. And as small and delicate as the vocal cords are, it’s no surprise at all that an ounce of abuse can require a pound of rehabilitation.

If you slap your hands together for an extended period, callouses will form at the points of most violent contact. When these irregularities form on the leading edge of the vocal cords, the surface of the cords are not able to come to a complete closure and some air flows through the opening(glottis). The resultant tone is breathy or hoarse, and there is a build up of heat and pain from slapping the cords together. Voila…Vocal Fatigue.

Okay, so I took a wide left, but let me get back on the road and suggest the first step in alleviating vocal fatigue. Step one? Stop talking! Don’t say another word. When you speak with a worn out voice, you just aggravate the cords. Step two, if you can afford to, don’t sing. It hurts and you sound like shit anyway, so just stop it. You’re doing something wrong and until you discover what that is, you’ll just continue to cause damage. Usually the fault lies in two areas. These are Breathing and Support, and Vocal Architecture, also covered in the archives. Step three, deep breathing exercises. There is no short cut. It all starts with breathing and it doesn’t have to be complicated.

In a future post, I will go into more detail as to the exercises that may be helpful in rehabilitating abused vocal cords. In the meantime, If you suffer from vocal fatigue, SHUT UP, DON’T SING, and BREATH DEEP.