Singers often take time off during vacation or between various performance obligations. However, the pandemic has redefined what taking time off from singing means for many.
The music industry has been hard hit during the global public health emergency (PHE). This has impacted live performance, studio work, music sales, and marketing. Many vocal performers have been out of work and have had to get creative to stay connected with their fans with more live streaming and even performances in outdoor movie theater venues.
In our clinical practices, we are seeing singers from various walks of life. We may evaluate a touring performer who is resuming rehearsals after a long hiatus and notes a change in their voice; or we may treat an avocational singer who is returning to their community choir after a nearly two-year hiatus and now has concerns related to vocal fatigue. This choral singer has not done much singing during their time off and is now required to wear a mask during their weekly three-hour rehearsal.
As the world begins to open again and more public singing resumes, vocal performers are returning from a widespread period of voice disuse and SLPs must consider specific factors during assessment and treatment.
1. Understand the Singer’s Goals
As clinicians, we evaluate a patient, identify a problem, make our diagnosis, and strive to provide techniques for patient driven recovery. However, in our assessment of a singer, we may identify a problem or a voice characteristic that does not cause an issue for the person (e.g. a raspy or breathy quality in a pop singer’s voice).
It is important to not simply rely on our evaluation but to understand the area of concern that brought our patient to us (e.g. vocal fatigue and reduced stamina for this breathy/raspy singer). Taking time to learn where the singer started, what limitations they are currently experiencing, and how this impacts their goals will help guide the development of common therapeutic goals.
2. Define Vocal Demand and Expectations
What does the singer need to do with their voice and what have they been doing with their voice? We must work to define how the ‘need to do’ and ‘have been doing’ align. We can then develop a treatment plan with home exercises that will move the patient toward meeting their vocal demands.
When evaluating or treating a patient who will be wearing a mask while singing, here are some important considerations:
- Find a mask that fits appropriately while moving the mouth to sing.
- Remind patients to stay connected to the breath and exhale to make voice (cue to feel warm air in the mask).
- Use the mask as a resonator. Feel the sound in the mask and don’t push from the throat.
- Let clear, crisp articulation work for you—not against.
- Try hard not to try hard!
3. Focus on the Speaking Voice
Speaking and singing are two branches of the same tree. Singing is more ‘athletic’ than speaking but they both require the same three subsystems—breath, vocal fold vibration, and resonance—for voice production. Speaking-voice use patterns can impact singing and vice versa. Staying in tune with this inherent connection can help get the voice back on track.
4. Meet the Singer Where They Are
Coming back from a PHE is something most people have never done. We have all been impacted in different ways and there are many unknowns. It is important to incorporate meta-therapy principles to help guide discussions in voice therapy. The goals of meta-therapy are modified cognitions, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and intention connected to voice. This includes:
- “the process of vocal improvement during treatment”
- “the patient’s role in treatment”
- “the role of self-efficacy in treatment”
- “how the patient’s relationship between their voice and identity can affect treatment”
- “how affective states can influence treatment”1
These principles can facilitate a framework for developing therapeutic goals to empower the patient to understand their ability to impact change in their voice and take ownership of this process.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Singers are vocal athletes, and just like any athlete, physical (vocal) conditioning routines are necessary for their success. Vocal conditioning routines are patient-specific and will be tailored based on individual needs considering style/genre of singing, training, and time to performance, speaking voice demands, among other factors such as those described in the previous section.
There is a general lack of research to guide the development and execution of vocal conditioning programs. It is helpful to consider exercise physiology principles2 and be systematic by gradually increasing the duration and complexity of singing exercise.
This might look like three sessions of vocal practice per day, with two 10-minute sessions of voice therapy exercises, and one 10-minute session implementing therapy techniques while practicing repertoire for one week. In the following weeks, voice therapy exercise practice would stay the same and practice with repertoire would increase in five to 10 minute increments based on the performer’s response. Employing motor learning principles like task specificity related to genre and style can also be useful, such as ensuring that a jazz singer is practicing note patterns relevant to their repertoire.
Keeping these five tips handy in the clinic can be helpful when evaluating and treating performers with voice concerns, whether they are someone who has taken extended time off from singing or more specifically a singer who is trying to get their career back on track as we all recover from the global health pandemic.
To further expand your skill set for working with singers and others with voice concerns, I offer a two-part course that reviews the anatomy and physiology of singing voice production and vocal pathology, as well as an overview of treatment in this population with emphasis on therapeutic goals steeped in the science of voice production.
- Helou, L. B., Gartner-Schmidt, J. L., Hapner, E. R., Schneider, S. L., & Van Stan, J. H. (2021). Mapping Meta-Therapy in Voice Interventions onto the Rehabilitation Treatment Specification System. Seminars in speech and language, 42(1), 5–18. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0040-1722756
- LeBorgne, W., & Rosenberg, M. (2017, December 6). Application of exercise physiology principles for vocal athletes during Vocal Injury Recovery and Performance Maximization. ASHA Wire. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/2018_PERS-SIG3-2018-0003