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Q. Every time we have practice or do a gig, I get hoarse. How can I stop this? We are going on tour!

A. You are using the wrong part of the vocal mechanism to get a result - that is, the muscles around the throat.

Hoarseness comes from swelling of the vocal cords. Swelling occurs from overuse or abuse. Vocal cords are made of muscle tissue. When you overuse or use them incorrectly, they swell and will not close properly.

Normal Vocal Cords

Normal Vocal Cords
Swollen Vocal Cords

Swollen Vocal Cords
Let me explain:

There are two moving parts to the voice machine. They are:
1. Breath pressure from the lungs
2. Vocal cords (at the top of the windpipe)

The vocal cords prevent the complete release of air from the lungs by opening and closing very quickly. This also creates sound.

Here is an analogy:
When you blow out birthday candles, you put air in your cheeks, close your lips and blow. The combination of two elements - air pressure and obstruction - creates and controls the strength of the air needed to successfully blow out the candles. With vocals, the air pressure is not in your cheeks, but in your LUNGS. The obstruction creator is your VOCAL CORDS (not your lips). What you are probably doing now is trying to create the strength with vocal cord closure instead of air pressure. To correct this problem you need to learn proper air management. The human voice machine works best when we learn to store air in the lungs WITHOUT holding the breath. An accordion player does not smash all of the air out of his instrument for each note. He works off "the top of the tank." Your "tank" is in your lungs. And you will create it by learning RIB-RESERVE breathing.
Rib Reserve

CLICK HERE for Rib Reserve Animation.
Rib-reserve breathing involves creating a "reserve" of air that you never use. By maintaining the expansion of the floating ribs (see animation) that you coordinate at the precise moment of the intake of air (just a seemingly small sip of air exactly at the same time you expand the floating ribs), you create the reserve tank. You will continuously refill this tank with additional "sips" of air and never let it all out at once. By NOT using the muscles in the upper chest to inhale, you prevent the locking back or holding of the breath that occurs when you inhale too much. Contrary to what you might have thought, you do not need more air to sing loud or high or to hold long notes. In fact, taking in too much air causes you to HOLD your breath instead of using your breath. When you don't use breath, you have to use your throat! Not using the upper chest (clavicular breathing) also prevents your esophagus from rising and causing tension in the muscles around the larynx. The reserve of air pressure in your lungs effectively replaces the need for using your throat.

Sounds really complicated, right? It's not. But you will need to isolate your awareness of (1) the muscles in your upper chest so you can STOP using them, and (2) the muscles around your ribs (intercostals) so that you can START using them. When you practice or rehearse, become aware of the connection between your diaphragm and your voice so that it becomes second nature for performance. There are some simple exercises in The Zen Of Screaming DVD that you can do for a few days before you go to sleep at night that should fix your air management problem. By isolating these muscles, you will be able to do this rib-reserve breathing automatically without thinking about it!

Now, why else (besides poor air management) do you use your throat?

Reason 1. Emotion grabs you by the throat when you express yourself.

You are trying to make yourself "feel" the way the music sounds. In other words, you want to sound aggressive, so you translate that to "I need to feel aggressive" - meaning you use unnecessary force to mimic intensity. When you were a child, maybe you would "squeal" with delight when you got excited. This would have been a natural response and it was probably perfectly produced without strain, because you were not "thinking" about it. But now you're a singer, not a squealing child. Feelings are in your soul, not in your instrument. The warm-up exercises included in my DVD will connect you to your true voice without using unnecessary muscles.

Reason 2. You imitate that amazing lead singer on the CD you've being listening to since you were nine.

You try to sound "like" something or someone, or to sound "good" or "nice" or "mean" or "angry" or "badass." You are SO barking up the wrong tree! The voice is operated by a process in the brain involved in communicating. Communication starts in the "imaging" part or imagination in the brain. If you are not truly communicating, but rather judging yourself by listening or imitating, the breath flow required for good sound is interrupted. The practice of exercises in the DVD develops proper technique to replace your judgmental and imitative mindset with a presence in the moment and with (as opposed to against) your own voice. This will get your message across without contrivance, strain, and wasted energy.

Reason 3. You are trying to compete with drums, bass, and guitars, etc. in a small space, and your PA system can't compete without feeding back. You overcompensate in order to hear yourself.

Hello, reality! Small rehearsal space, loud instrumentsÉ everyone wants to "get off" and turn up. Guitar player can't get the "tone" without the volume. Drummer hits hard, bass player can't hear himself - this is the typical scenario that singers have to deal with. JUST DON'T PUSH. Yes, it's not fun being persecuted by everyone's volume. And it's also not fun having to act like a sissy diva to get everyone to turn down. So you must learn to trust that you are singing the right way even if you can't hear. Talk to yourself. Repeat "I will not push, I will not push," even if it's not fair and not fun. It's good practice. Most of the crappy clubs you play at in the beginning have bad monitors or lazy sound guys anyway. In the best of all vocal worlds, everyone would turn down so that they could hear each other once in a while - it makes for a better set, but most bands can't do it or don't see the value of it. So just deal.

Reason 4. You are not specific about the pitches you intend to sing and you search for them while trying to execute them.

If your "placement" (that's singing teacher language for "form") causes you to "reach up" for higher notes and "scoop down" for low notes, and you're doing this "reaching up" to shaky ground when you attempt a high note, you're likely to fail and strain your voice in the process. Check out the next section for more about what I call "search and destroy" issues.

Medical Illustrations: Scott Kessler, MD

Check out the next section.


"...the Bible for extreme vocals. Don't open your mouth 'til you've watched this DVD." Tom Beaujour, Editor, REVOLVER MAGAZINE > MORE INFO
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