Vocal Fry

The rise in use of Vocal Fry is a cultural phenomenon, but it also has health implications for your voice.

If you don’t know what vocal fry sounds like you can listen to examples from two different NPR shows here and here. Both are compilations of words, one from a female host and one from a male.

Culturally, vocal fry has been appropriated by millenial women. It is hard to pay attention to any pop culture and not hear it (Kardashian sisters and Katy Perry, for example). But, as this use has arisen, it has become another way in which women are judged for their voices.

There is at least one study that found “relative to a normal speaking voice, young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable.” The same did not hold true for men and the use of glottal fry. If you aren’t sure of the other ways women are judged for their voices you can read this piece, called Talking While Female elaborates on the top ways women are judged for the voices or simply google Hilary Clinton Voice – the top hit is “Why Do People Hate Her Voice.” Our culture has yet to embrace women’s voices in the workplace.

Clearly, we’ve got a ways to go before women can use their authentic, authoritative voices and not be judged for it and I want to lead the charge on getting there.

I want to banish vocal fry because I know you can’t use your voice effectively all day long if you are speaking that way. You can’t produce a sound that is engaging to others when you use it.

You aren’t speaking with your authentic voice that emanates from the core of your being.

And, when we add in the cultural issue that you won’t be taken seriously or will be considered less competent, well that’s just more fuel on my fire.

Infrequent use of vocal fry – for example at the end of a sentence, especially when you are physically tired – won’t produce problems. Habitual use of glottal fry is considered by the medical community to be a ‘misuse’ of the voice that will produce problems.

So, what’s happening? Ideally when we make sound our vocal cords close with just the right amount of muscular tension and are vibrated by just the right amount of air blowing them open. You can watch a quick video here to see how vocal folds vibrate in a healthy manner.

When we speak with vocal fry, the cords are brought together with a lot of force (muscular tension) and then the flow of air that should blow them open is both too low and irregular. Interestingly I couldn’t find any videos of vocal cords in action while using vocal fry.

So, what happens when you speak constantly in vocal fry?

  1. The combination of excessive muscular effort and low air flow is a recipe for vocal fatigue.
  2. Let’s say you are speaking in glottal fry and you need to get louder. You can’t do that very easily and so to try and speak louder you up the tension level in the throat/neck/shoulders.
  3. Because the cords are closed with excessive force they are less flexible. That means you don’t get variety in pitch and color in the voice and you sound kind of monotone.

Let’s get rid of vocal fry and take a small step towards removing the reasons why women are criticized for their voices. Your natural, authentic voice is clear, it has a pleasant pitch, is produced effortlessly, full of color and texture. It is healthy. It makes people want to stop and listen to you because what you have to say is valuable.

 

Vocal Fatigue

Vocal fatigue is multi-factorial and it is cumulative. That means it has taken several elements combining to make your voice tired and those elements probably happened over the course of many days before they caught up with you.

I’m writing this on a Friday and I noticed this morning as I read a story to my son that my voice is tired. It took me a moment to track back through the week, but here’s how I ended up this way:

  1. We turned the clocks ahead, losing an hour of sleep.
  2. Early in the week I gave a workshop in a large cavernous room where there was no microphone.
  3. I learned a new vocal exercise and while continuing to work on mastering it, I am doing it less than skillfully and have expended more vocal effort than I will ultimately.
  4. I have not slept enough (see number 1 above coupled with small children and a restless husband).
  5. I have not adequately hydrated my body.
  6. I have over-used my voice through teaching, reading, talking over ambient noise at a concert and singing.
  7. I strayed from my morning vocal warm up routine.

If you are a professional voice user (meaning you need your voice to succeed at your job….lawyer, teacher, minister, podcaster, coach, singer, actor) you may find that you end up feeling vocally tired, hoarse or with achy, tight neck/throat muscles, by the end of your work week.

The answer isn’t total voice rest  – in part because that usually isn’t realistic and because totally resting a muscle isn’t the best way to help it function more efficiently.  Yes, your voice is a muscle and it needs to be treated as such. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say your whole body is your instrument (the voice) so you need to look at the whole body when you encounter vocal fatigue.

When you find yourself vocally tired here’s what you can do:

  1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. The outer layer of your vocal cords is a mucousal coating that is water based. As you talk your vocal cords bang into each other and wear away that protective coating. Without the coating, the heat and friction caused by talking cause the cords to swell (think about what would happen if you clapped your hands together hundreds of times per second – they would get a bit red, swollen and hurt). Your body needs to be systemically hydrated to be able to replace that coating – that means what you drank a day or two ago is impacting your voice today. Pee pale, we say in the singing world. Then you know you are hydrated.
  2. Speak at an appropriate pitch. We all have an optimal pitch for our voice. For women it is usually around middle C – we don’t want a monotone voice, but if we average your pitches out, we want it to be somewhere around there. Often we speak too low and that is putting one of the muscles of your voice in hyperfunction and tight muscles mean tired muscles.
  3. Sleep more. Vocal fatigue is about your whole body being tired. Sleep is also part of what helps that protective coating I mentioned above to regenerate. Cellular regeneration happens when we sleep.
  4. Be smart about your voice use – don’t try to talk above ambient noise in crowded areas, at concerts, on subways and at cocktail parties. You will subconsciously strain to be loud enough. Use a microphone if you are in a large space needing to be heard by lots of people. Don’t imitate voices. Don’t take that phone call from your friend with whom you end up chatting for hours.
  5. Massage the muscles in your neck and shoulders. They are often tight if you are straining to produce your voice. Stretching your whole body is very valuable too. If your voice muscles are tight, the rest of you probably is too.
  6. Work with a voice coach/teacher to establish a 10-15 minute routine you can use daily to connect to your breath, find your optimal pitch and warm the voice up. That way you are set up for optimal voice use all day long and all week long.

I’m going to go make myself a cup of tea and do some yoga to help my voice start to function better!

 

 

 

The Power of Being Allowed to Struggle

I have been the voice student who was ‘fixed’ in each lesson. The teacher skillfully guided me with constant verbal cues to produce an optimal sound. She fixed me at every mis-step, rather than letting me explore with my own body to find the desired sound. Of course, when I tried to practice outside of lessons I couldn’t reproduce what I had done so skillfully in my lessons and I was frustrated: I hadn’t been given the chance to struggle in a good way.

This week I was reminded to remember the value of struggle as it relates to helping us learn.

I had the chance to hear Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure speak at a talk in my town. She reminded me of the power of letting my children struggle because when they do, real learning takes place – their brains form new road maps and they develop the ability to push through frustration and solve their own problems. I have to remind myself of this with my children when it comes to putting on socks or zipping up a jacket. It would be easy for me to do a given task for them and I am tempted either because I want to end the whining or get out the door on time, but I know they learn when they can struggle, feel their body and figure out the task.

In graduate school I heard Kittie Verdolini Abbott present her research on how we acquire skills. This article sums up a lot of what she spoke about that day, though I don’t know if it is the exact paper she presented.  She offered the anecdote of how frustrated she was as a younger singer when her voice teacher didn’t give her frequent feedback in her lessons. She felt lost much of the time, but her voice improved. She was allowed to struggle and therefore her brain built a new road map for how her voice functioned and she learned. My main take-aways from her talk were:  1. Don’t offer constant verbal feedback to clients. 2. Encourage them to develop an awareness of their own body while they are using their voice. 3. If you want your voice to work well in your professional environment it needs to work well in the rest of your life too.

This week in my voice work, I allowed a client to struggle with the task I gave her (singing through a straw) which she could not do though I knew she intellectually understood the task. I encouraged her to try again and focus on relaxing her throat and feeling the breath move. I then allowed her to explore it for a while trying again and again. She was able to find a few short moments of accomplishing the task. She is diligent about practice and I have no doubt that her time of struggle in our session gave her body the chance to learn enough that she can practice and find greater success on her own.

Knowing about struggle and learning is one of the reasons why I find body work such a powerful tool to access the voice. It isn’t about my fixing your body and getting you into the right position to produce your best voice, it is about you beginning to feel your body as you are making sound so you can reproduce it when I’m not around. Truthfully, I’m trying to work myself out of a job!

Struggle on folks, it is worth it in the long run.

 

 

Your Voice is Not an Island

Yesterday I listened to a podcast from Liberated Body about the Myth of Core Stability. Eyal Lederman, the doctor being interviewed offered up these thoughts (I’m paraphrasing a bit) that struck me as so simple and yet so profound:

There are no sub systems in the body. There is not a subsystem called core muscles. There are no muscle chains. They just don’t exist in human movement. The muscles aren’t organized into those kinds of categories. They are organized according to the task a person is performing. Every movement involves the muscles of the trunk. You don’t have a muscle in your body that is categorized as a stability muscle – and when we do categorize them that way we think they are carrying all the load. 

This really struck me. Our whole body depends on all of its parts to do anything and our voices are no exception. Producing sound requires our whole body to work well. Our diaphragm doesn’t stabilize the voice. Our transverse abdominus doesn’t stabilize the voice. The cricothyroid and thyroarytenoid muscles don’t work alone or as an independent pair. The entire body is involved in standing, sitting and moving and therefore the entire body is involved in sound production.

Aristotle told us, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

If a voice isn’t working well, we do ourselves a disservice by reducing it down to just the voice box. Look at the rest of your body and you will find a solution. The shoulders, the neck, the trunk and breath, the pelvis, the legs, the feet. All. Of. Them.

I’m just going to leave this here. Let me know what your thoughts are.

Vlog: How to Sit Better

Sitting is a reality in our modern lives. But, how much we actually need to do it is up for debate. I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines screaming SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING in Huffpost, Forbes, NBC News and even Runner’s World. Most of those articles focus on the potential for earlier death due to increased disease rates brought about by our sedentary lifestyle….kinda depressing. And, hard to wrap our mind around when one doesn’t have type 2 diabetes or heart disease right now. But, what you might have right now is shoulder and neck pain or low back pain or maybe your knees hurt. All of these can be caused and aggravated by misaligned sitting posture. AND, all of these can impact how your voice is functioning.

I am definitely not an advocate of sitting more than we all need to, but the reality is our lives often require it – for instance, I spend almost 2 hours in the car one-way to get to Cambridge on a Thursday to teach voice. Then, I sit at a piano for most of the day. I do get up and down several times within each 45 minute lesson, but that’s a whole lotta sitting. If I’m not careful about it, I will end the day with a tension headache and my low back will bother me.

You may be at a choral rehearsal that requires you to sit, or you may have a job that doesn’t have the potential for a standing work station (here’s a note, standing isn’t automatically better, but more on that in another post). If you are sitting at work all day, sitting in your car to get to rehearsal and then wondering why your voice isn’t functioning optimally, switching up how you sit can make a big difference.

Basically, this post is to say, sitting isn’t great, but if you HAVE to do it, here’s how to do it better, so your immediate physical aches and pains might lessen, your voice will be freer and along the way you can start to make some choices about how to incorporate more movement into your day.

I made a little video tutorial on how to sit better. It doesn’t get into what to do when you have to hold your folder of choral music too, but I’ll do another post on that later!

Click on the link below to have a watch on YouTube and see how you can shift your sitting posture today.

How to Sit Better

Align Body, Mind and Voice: The Feet

One of the first things we learned in yoga teacher training was the feet are our foundation. When we have problems in our ankles, knees, hips, spine, shoulders or neck, look at the feet first. We were taught to have students lift and spread their toes in tadasana as a way of stretching and strengthening the muscles of the feet.

But, there is so much more to know. Of all the bones and muscles in our body, 25% of them live in our feet and the feet are meant to be very mobile. It is estimated that 1 out of 4 people have problems with their feet – bunions, hammertoes, plantar fasciitis along with other aches and pains. I’ve been working on my left big toe joint for a while after it went wonky from wearing thong slip ons (before I knew better) and these stretches help a ton. Problems with the foot often trickle up the body –  many, many people have problems with knees, hips, spine, shoulders and neck that originate in the feet.

Where do the problems come from? Footwear for one: We wear shoes with heels. By putting our feet in shoes with heels, from running shoes to stilettos, we throw the body out of alignment. Shoes with heels and stiff soles mean that the 26 bones, 100 muscles and 33 joints aren’t moving and footwear like flipflops that don’t attach to the foot force our toes to grip to keep them on. In addition, we sit too much, we stand wrong and we don’t walk enough. I wrote about overall alignment in this post, but let’s look at what you can do to start to make your feet happier!

If you have foot problems, a great place to start is just spend time walking barefoot in your house or out in your yard as I wrote about here. Here are some items to have on hand to help your foot health. There are things you can buy  though you can also use what you likely already have in your house just as effectively.

IMG_7012

Pictured from left to right:

half foam roller/rolled up towel

yoga strap/belt

yoga therapy ball/tennis ball

my happy feet socks/foam pedicure inserts

FOOT EXERCISES:

Just standing with your feet aligned to a straight edge and lifting the toes is a great beginning (remember to keep your weight backed up over the hips so you aren’t leaning forward). Click on the link above to remind yourself of what aligned standing is so you can find that before you spread and lift your toes.

IMG_7016IMG_7017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toe Stretch:

We need to spread the toes because the toe boxes of shoes are often too narrow. If you look at your feet and see your big toe moving toward the little toe (a bunion is the extreme example of this) you need to get those tootsies spread out! To help your toes get used to spreading out, you can put spreaders between them – just ones from a drugstore to start, for a few minutes at a time. You could work up to wearing something like the my happy feet socks overnight to bed. They do make a big difference. I was surprised at how good my feet and hips felt after sleeping in them. Again, you work up to being able to sleep in them over night.

IMG_7015

 

Calf Stretch:

Stepping the ball of your foot onto the foam roller or towel, let your heel drop to the floor. Again, keep your weight backed up over your hips so you are stacked vertically. Once you have done this for a while you can step your other foot forward – but only do that when it doesn’t make you hinge forward too. You can do this at a standing work station, while standing at the stove or while watching tv. Get creative about fitting it into your life!

IMG_7013

 

On the ball:

Using your tennis ball (start there, the yoga therapy balls give more resistance), place it under the ball of your foot and bring your heel to the floor. You can apply as much pressure as you can withstand (no points for agony either). Work from the big toe side, out to the little toe side pressing the foot down against the ball. Then move the ball back to mid-foot. Go as far as you can until you need to lift your heel off the ground. I do this one while I dry my hair every morning.

IMG_7014

Reclining big toe pose:

Be sure in this pose to keep the hamstring (back of the leg) of the leg that is on the ground, on the floor. Keep the strap around the ball of the foot and be sure to keep the leg in the air straight – which means it may be closer to the ground than your nose. This is one of my top 10 poses and you can read more about it in this post.

DSC02845

Stiletto Asana:

I don’t really know what the name of this pose is, or if it has a name, but we called it Stiletto Asana in my teacher training and it stuck with me. Basically you are turning your toes under and sitting back. It may be way too sensational to start with putting your full weight on your heels so keep your hands on the ground and ease back to find a place that feels ok.

IMG_7039

Integrating these into your daily life along with getting your feet out of shoes will make a big difference!

Resolve or Discover your Dharma?

I love what the new year represents – a fresh start, a new beginning and the idea of a clean slate. But, I’ve learned not to do much in the way of resolution making. They just don’t work for me. Resolutions are the things two weeks at the gym are made of. You know, the first two weeks in January where the gym is super crowded with folks who have resolved to get fit, exercise 7 days a week and lose 50 pounds by bathing suit season. But what about the other 50 weeks of the year?

Why don’t we keep our resolutions? What’s missing, I think, is the connection to what your soul wants. When your soul speaks it has a purpose – to set free our deepest, most heartfelt desires. This is the stuff of your dharma, or your purpose in life; what you are put on this planet to do.

Your dharma answers the question, so well put by Mary Oliver in her poem The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life?”

There is a process to discovering your dharma which involves understanding your gifts, embracing your uniqueness and identifying what it means to fulfill your distinct purpose. This comes from tapping into the voice of your soul and understanding how our desires both material and spiritual and our longing for pleasure and liberation manifest. Our greatest power lies within and it is from here that we can realize our potential.

Once you identify your dharma, you need to figure out how to get there.

In yoga, we call these steps, or resolutions, sankalpa. The word sankalpa breaks down into san, meaning, from the heart and kalpa, meaning, unfolding over time. It is the next most important step you can take in achieving your dharma. These aren’t meant to be pie in the sky ideals. They are the nuts and bolts, practical steps that will work to liberate your greater purpose.

It won’t all be smooth sailing, you’ll encounter resistance, both external and internal, but with a sankalpa that is about the greater purpose of your life and not just about what you want short term, you have a better shot at staying the course.

So, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Join me January 9th to discover at Empower Your Voice 2016.

 

Waiting to Begin

Are you waiting until the right time to begin your practice?

The truth is there is no right time. At any given moment there are any number of things that can grab your attention. Waiting for it to be calm and clear means you could be waiting forever.

It is the ultimate yogic approach to simply accept the chaos and go for it anyway.

That is what my practice looked like today. This morning I settled down into my little yoga corner, a space that is just wider than my mat and not much longer either. My kids are on winter vacation and I knew it would be a day full of parenting so this was my shot at zen. I didn’t even bother to take my jammies off. I just got on my mat and began.

Usually it feels cozy to be in my yoga corner, tucked away from the rest of the house.

However, this morning, it ended up looking like this.

IMG_6928

My son brought his giant crane truck over and then my daughter joined him. And they argued over who would hook up what vehicle, how to wind the crane, where to turn it, where to dump it all while sitting about 6 inches away from me when they could have been in any other spot in the house.

Just out of the range of the camera was my 75 pound dog who wanted to be RIGHT next to me.

If I waited until the perfect circumstances presented themselves, I would never practice. That’s just reality. Today I knew I needed the practice and so I did it. For a full hour. An hour that was, in many ways, anything but peaceful, but was still filled with stillness. And I am the better for it.

Don’t wait to start. Just go do it.

The Problem with Posture

As of this writing, googling “Noble Posture Singing” gets 533,000 returns of articles, books, blog posts etc. that address the topic. Clearly, there are a lot of thoughts out there about how to stand while singing. I am going to add my voice to this chorus, but I want to rethink the noble posture based on biomechanics.

The concept of the “noble posture” emerged in the 19th century from the Bel Canto school of singing and every major pedagogical treatise on singing has a description of how the body should be positioned to achieve it. In my opinion some of them come closer than others to describing how a body is actually aligned, but the desired end result is the same – a body that is free to create a glorious sound. If you want to read specific descriptions and get yourself utterly turned around on how to achieve the noble posture, check out page 81 of Garyth Nair’s Craft of Singing, where he describes the ‘proud posture’, page 16 of William Vennard’s Singing – the Mechanism and the Technique, page 78 of Richard Miller’s Art of Singing, or see figure 7 in Meribeth Bunch Dayme’s book, on page 19 – in which, the entire body is leaning forward so the weight is more toward the toes and her line of alignment passes through the center of the arch of the foot).

BUT! But, but but….our modern lives don’t exactly lend themselves to being well aligned. We sit for most of our day, drive where we need to go, wear heeled shoes, spend quite a bit of time typing and texting and slump into very cushy, cozy sofas and chairs. Our shoulders are tight and internally rotated, our abs are weak and our glute muscles are non-existent (hello flat butted sisters and brethren). Well-intended teachers and conductors ask students to open across the front of the chest, raise the sternum, throw the shoulders back and stand tall. Attempting to adjust our posture without understanding what actual alignment looks like only leads to more postural problems and less freedom of the voice.

Here’s the thing. Posture is how you are doing it and Alignment is how you should be doing it.

When we are aligned, you can draw a straight line down from the shoulders to the hip to the ankle. The body’s weight is mostly in the heels, but the forefoot is still active. The pubic bone and ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) are in the same plane. The bottom of the ribcage is in line with the ASIS of the pelvis, the shoulders are open and not internally rotated and the head is balanced on the atlas occipital joint. (see my fabulous drawing of the body in the top left of the lower picture).

However, because we don’t use our body as it is meant to be (squatting, swinging, walking etc.) our feet, pelvis, ribcage and shoulders are not in the place they should be. What I see most often are necks and rib cages that thrust forward on top of pelvises that press forward, and feet that are turned out.

To get to aligned you have to visit the land of reality and understand just where your body is right now. You will probably look something like the bottom picture that I have so aptly drawn. The top left pic is an aligned body. The Not Aligned is what I see a lot of in students. The bottom is where you go first – when you line things up we see just how rounded the shoulders are due to the excessive internal rotation from all we do. I’ve written about that a lot already so I won’t revisit here. The thing is, if you can find the place where you are aligned and spend time standing there, walking in that position, singing in that position, stretching to release held tension and building strength in your weak muscles, your body will work its way back to having a spine that isn’t so rounded over. Your sternum can be in the ‘high’ position so many pedagogues espouse, but it will be there without your rib cage thrusting forward. Your breathing will be better because when the ribcage isn’t pressed forward, the lower back ribs can expand – and the diaphragm can experience its maximum excursion of close to 2 inches.

IMG_6826

 

I’ve spent time since the beginning of this year understanding my own alignment in a new way and this fall decided to bring it into the studio and see what happened to student’s voices when they were placed in a position of being aligned. So far they’ve all been willing to do it they report various things – they feel stretch in the low back (yes!), they feel stretch in the base of the neck (yes!), their feet feel tired (yes!)  AND they feel the abs engage (YES!). As they continue to stand and move in the aligned position their body adjusts and they move away from being so slumped over to having a rib cage that can be elevated without being thrust forward, a pelvis that is neutral and weight that is more in the heels, but the forefoot (just behind the toes) is activated – and yes, they are singing while barefoot in my studio.

What I have found most fascinating is the sound that comes out of their mouths when they are in alignment, which initially makes them look like they are majorly slumping over. It is reported to be more easily produced, male singers can sing past their break without flipping into falsetto and the sound is glo-ri-ous. My current theory is that while singing in an aligned position the abs are recruited in the right way to do work simply to help the body, rather than in an artificial way, the ribcage is free to flare open in the lower back rib area, and the larynx has less pull from extrinsic muscles.

Posture doesn’t have to be a problem! If you want to see how you actually stand have someone take a picture of you from the side and then look at the line down the side of your body – where are you pushed forward or back? Then you know what your posture is and you can experiment with moving into an aligned position. Feel free to share your photos with me, I’d love to see them!

 

 

 

On the chance to look again

The morning after I received the news that my father committed suicide, I went out to run errands to be ready to travel home for the funeral and it was as though the world I was living in had transformed from black and white to full, vibrant color. I recall stopping on my steps because I was struck by the intense green of the leaves and deep blue of the sky. It was an overwhelming contrast to the haze of grief I felt. Such a massive loss brought me jarringly into the present and gave me the opportunity to see the world again through a very different lens.

This fall I was reminded of this when I made the decision to just walk in the mornings without listening to podcasts or music. As a result I’ve stopped on the sidewalk many a morning while the dog pulls to get to the next spot to sniff, to just breathe and watch the sun appear on the horizon as a giant orange ball, casting its pinkish glow. With each street the color will change from pink to orange to deep lavender until the brilliantly blue sky appears. I’ve also found that almost every day I see a cardinal, my favorite bird. A bird that is said to be the sign of support and love from a loved one that has passed.

In the the past two weeks the leaves on the trees in our neighborhood have shifted from green to yellows, oranges and reds. There is one tree in particular that I love. It is a stately maple, the perfect tree for climbing really, in our neighbor’s yard. We stand across from it each morning as we wait for the bus to pick my daughter up.

 

Tree!

Watching the tree change from green to yellow and finally orange, I was reminded of my experience standing on my front steps fifteen years ago. Just as they did before, the colors I see outside appear more vivid; as though mother nature lit New England on fire.

The opportunity to see things again is one we can easily take for granted as we go about our days never really noticing the world around us. It took great loss for me to be brought to the present to the beauty of the world. However, the ability to be present is available to all of us, and I, for one, am so grateful I stopped to notice the beauty of nature this fall. Seeing a cardinal never fails to bring a smile to my face as I remember my dad. The leaves have moved past their peak now and are turning rust color as they fall to the ground. We’ll have a long winter of looking at bare tree limbs before mother nature graces us again with the vibrant greens of spring leaves. I know I’ll be watching for them, will you? #30daysgrateful