Normal Versus Extreme

Referencing the two productions I saw last week, “Cinderella” and “Hands On A Hard Body”, both on Broadway, it is important to note how much our expectations about singing have shifted in the last 50 years. The Rodgers and Hammerstein production allowed all the singers to sing in traditional pitch ranges, in a normal (but very professional) sound, and did not ask for any sounds that could be called extreme. The show by Anastasio and Green asked for some really high, really heavy duty singing of most of the characters, some of it also very emotionally demanding and involves a lot of physical movement. This could easily fall into the category of “extreme” vocal production, especially if compared to Cinderella. It is, however, now normal (expected, typical) vocal production for many shows and many singers.

We also have now “extreme” sports. The “Half Pipe”, aerial jumpers on skis, cars racing at hundreds of miles per hour,  teams of 7 foot tall basketball players, Ironman/woman competitions…’s a very long list. The line between what is a sport and what is a life threatening activity is blurred more every day. People are pushing their bodies harder and further and longer than ever before and this is not only tolerated by our society, it is lauded. People are not warned about the hazards, they are praised for taking them.

BUT, we are beginning to take a look at the cost, finally, because we have no choice. What may have at one time been an occasional injury that could be written off as “bad luck” or a fluke is now so common that the stats are impossible to deny. Head injuries to boxers and football players, destruction of knees, muscles and sometimes spinal cords show up often enough to have set off some alarms, despite the huge amounts of money that teams pay to turn down the volume on these issues. Remember, a man was killed in the last winter Olympics.

If we know that “average” people want to do “extreme” sports (and they do), wouldn’t it be assumed that these people would also need training for those sports that is also “extreme”? Where would such training be available? How much would it cost? How long would it take for it to help people be fully prepared? If they don’t get really excellent extreme training, how will they hold up in those extreme sports when they do them? Won’t the odds be much higher that there will be injuries, even serious injuries and maybe, in some cases, deaths? Seems like a reasonable premise.

If we look at singing, and take screaming out a very high, very loud, belt song eight times a week (microphone or no), as a vocal event, is this in any way “normal” behavior for vocal folds? The answer is, of course not. Has the body evolved to be able to do this for long periods of time without cost or consequence? Probably not. Is the likelihood that there will be vocal injury greater in these circumstances higher? You better believe it. Do people do it anyway? Do they still die of lung cancer caused by smoking? Do dozens of climbers die on Mt. Everest every year? Are there twenty-fours hours in a day?

Young people can get away with all sorts of things because they are young. They take chances, they feel invincible, they figure it will be OK and they will deal with it. They don’t think of long term consequences, or even short term consequences, especially when there is a lot of money or fame being dangled in front of them in the present moment. Those of us who are older and supposedly wiser are caught between a rock and hard place as we address the issues of how much things have changed and the very very brief period of time in which those changes have taken place.

We have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to have vocal folds to protect the lungs from foreign objects and to somehow also make sounds when they close and vibrate. Singing cannot be explained from the standpoint of its having some kind of value to us for survival purposes. (Sorry, Mr. Darwin.) Nevertheless, up until only a few hundred years ago when formal music showed up, we had no need to make a sustained sound, on a specific pitch, at a particular volume on a regular basis. That we do so now in the form of music is  a kind of miracle. If we take that ability and extend it as much as possible, there are still limits to the elasticity of the vocal folds, of the recoil factors involved in breathing, in the anatomy and physiology of a human throat and neck and thoracic cavity, head, and the bones of the head and jaw, based on genetics and usage. We can never compete with an elephant, a robin, a trumpet, or a truck horn.

Any time we go far away from normal function and we stay far away for a long time, we are taking greater risks. Sometimes that’s a good thing. We all want to grow, we want a challenge, we want “to boldly go where no person has gone before” but most of us also want to come back and maybe go again. We want to keep going and coming back many times. Sometimes, however, we can go so far that coming back isn’t possible. Understanding that you might scream your vocal folds into a violent hemorrhage that may never heal properly and prevent you from using your voice normally for the rest of your life is something many young singers never contemplate. Young people may not discover that the risks they took were real, the consequences were serious, and their ability to come back to normal function might be gone forever, until it’s too late.

Just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Information may be the only protection that stands between a career and an abyss. Taking a risk is possible. Not understanding you are taking a risk is also possible. There is a huge difference.

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3 thoughts on “Normal Versus Extreme”

  1. I fully agree that music is a miracle, however, not everyone agrees that singing never served an evolutionary purpose. The scholar interviewed on this episode of Radiolab suggests that singing in groups releases low doses of oxytocin, the same hormone released in high doses during orgasm and childbirth. She theorizes that it could have helped groups bond just as high doses of oxytocin helps couples bond and helps new mothers bond with their babies.

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