Flummoxed

How does one approach working with a skilled singer with years of professional experience who cannot sing on pitch? Is it just that the person has somehow forgotten how to breath correctly, or has lost their resonances or ideas about correct resonance? Is it because the person has somehow forgotten how to hear the notes? What could cause someone who has normal vocal folds and normal hearing and normal speech to be unable to sing well? How in the world could this be?

Truth is, we don’t know. We do know, however, that the problem is not caused by breathing, resonance or pitch issues. Yet each of the people who has come to me for assistance has been told by other well-meaning teachers that the problems were just those. How does that make any sense? I am flummoxed!

Further, I have many young singers working with me who have come because their voices are a mess, technically speaking. Yes, the vocal folds are normal and yes, they can speak, but the singing is all over the place. Wild, erratic vibratos, overdone breathing, poor posture, tension in the neck and/or shoulders, uncontrolled tone that is often unpleasant and sometimes also pitch problems, legato problems, and stamina problems. How is it that the teachers they are working with do not see and hear that things are askew? I’m not talking about beginning teachers, with little experience. I’m talking about people who have been teaching for years. I am, unfortunately, talking about people teaching in university programs in lots of places.

In working with voices that don’t do what they should, one must assume that there is always a reason why this is so. If the person is sincerely doing their best to sing (and they are or they wouldn’t be studying anywhere), why are their best efforts so unsuccessful? When one is supposed to be listening and watching for function, not noticing basic things like the ones described above, seems amazing to me. Every tiny little thing matters in a flawed voice when it belongs to a skilled singer, especially one with a good voice who could sing at one time — with the students, well enough to get into a school and with the adults, well enough to work professionally. The teacher cannot afford to miss one small glitsch in the sung sound or in the way the person attempts to produce it.

Sometimes fixing such problems takes a long time. The muscles responsible for the issues mentioned here are always the internal muscles, which in turn cause problems in the neck, shoulders, jaw, tongue and face. They are not easily accessible and do not respond quickly to stimulus. Care must be taken to work in various ways, slowly, repetitively, and with patience. A great deal of moral and emotional support must come along with this work, as it is arduous for the singers involved and fraught with upset, fear or anxiety, distress, worry and vulnerability.

I am exasperated that vocal function issues are yet so unknown to most people who work with the voice, regardless of what style of singing they teach. This is changing, now more rapidly than ever, but for those who are caught in the sticky mess of vocal distress, right now, the lack of available experts to turn to for assistance can only be one more frustration added to the burdens they already bear. If you know someone who has “lost their voice” but can still talk normally, or someone who has “given up singing” because of severe vocal issues like these, please tell them that help exists. They just need to find someone who knows what’s wrong and how to appropriately address the problems (read that as NOT with exercises for breathing, resonance or pitch matching).

Perhaps someday some of the folks who have worked with me will write their own stories so that others can benefit from their personal experiences. The path of recovering one’s voice is personal, but anyone who has ever had to unlearn something and try again to find a better way would relate to the journey. If you know that I am talking to you and also understand what I have written, I urge you to put pen to paper and express what you have been through. Don’t let the writing intimidate you. We all need to know about what you have experienced, plus and minus. It is very important that the fog be lifted.

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