Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
It is the end of the semester at Shenandoah Conservatory and as students prepare for their juries, I am hearing a lot of complaints of stress induced vocal problems. Students are reporting loss of range, power, intonation, etc. Mental stress can no doubt cause vocal issues and it seemed rather timely when I picked up the May/June issue of the Journal of Singing to find an article about applying yoga principles in voice therapy. The authors state:
“Professional voice users often experience adverse emotional responses to a voice disorder. These responses may themselves alter laryngeal biomechanics, potentially contributing to visible tension, sustained contraction of the laryngeal strap musculature, use of ventricular (“false vocal fold”) phonation, and a high “resting” position of the laryngeal apparatus. Active use of focused relaxation and breathing techniques seeks to alleviate these physical manifestations of psychological stress.” (p. 512)
It is important to point out that voice teachers (including myself) are not voice therapists. In fact, in many states there are laws forbidding anyone who is not a licensed speech language pathologist from offering rehabilitation services. However, we all see singers with stress induced vocal fatigue and it is within our scope of practice as professional singing voice habilitators to use exercises from voice therapy literature in the process of habilitation. The authors outline a four-part protocol that includes centering, warm-up, balance and endurance, and cool-down.
This step focuses on developing awareness and relaxation of tension. Ask the student to scan their body for areas of tension and relax those areas while centering the mind by focusing on breath and physical relaxation. Analyze the student’s breathing and address any physical tension that you observe. Pay special attention to expansion in the abdominal and lower rib cage region with passive contraction during exhalation. Ratio breathing (i.e. “breathe in for 5 exhale for 10”) can be used to help improve respiratory coordination.
Have the student gently stretch their shoulders, neck, back, and chest. Gentle is the keyword, these stretches should never feel forced. Next have the student bend over from the waist and roll herself up focusing on stacking one vertebrae on top of the other. Chakra and/or energy center work can be also used in this step. Since the jaw is a common place of tension in singers, the authors suggest spending time massaging the jaw muscles. You may also spend a few minutes on laryngeal massage if that is part of your training. Next it is time to introduce easy and gentle vocalizations. Example include yawn sighs, lip trills, tongue trills, humming, etc. The intervals for this work should be a fifth or less. Next focus on loosening the articulators with simple exercises such as “blah, blah, blah,” then transition into words and phrases.
Balance and Endurance
This part of the process focuses on resonant voice. Use a combination of sustained and gliding hums along with chanting and nasal consonants and vowels to cultivate a sensation of vibration in the oral cavity, lips, and face. During this step it is important to make sure that the student does not constrict in the throat. After working on simple sounds, move on to single words and phrases. Begin easy and slowly increase amplitude as appropriate, but only as far as the student can go while maintaining freedom. After cultivating a resonant voice, you can work on range extension. Semi-occluded vocal tract and vocal function exercises are great options for this stage. Next introduce messa di voce exercises as a tool for teaching students to improve respiratory and laryngeal coordination while developing strategies for producing greater amplitude with ease and relaxation. Finally, work these concepts into your traditional vocal exercises and repertoire.
After any type of physical workout, it is imperative to cool-down; singing is no different. The exercises used in the warm-up are appropriate for this section as well. The focus should be on returning to vocal production at conversational amplitude and effort levels. You can return to focused breathing exercises and conscious relaxation exercises, as well as centering the mind and scanning the body for tensions and releasing them.
The article in the Journal of Singing is much more in-depth than what I have presented here. Hopefully this teaser will lead you to read through the original article and explore this systemized approach in your own teaching as I will be this week. These exercises are not necessarily new or unique, but the system presented is very thoughtful and it makes a lot of sense functionally. Do you use other philosophies from yoga in your teaching? If so, I would love to hear about them in the comment section below. As always, thanks for reading and I hope to see you this summer at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute!
Source: Vocal Yoga: Applying Yoga Principles in Voice Therapy by Adam Lloyd, Bari Hoffman-Ruddy, Erin Silverman, and Jeffrey L. Lehman from the May/Jun 2017 issue of the Journal of Singing, the official journal of the National Association of Teachers of Singing