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Adele's voice problems

I saw in the news that Pop superstar Adele has cancelled all of her performances for the remainder of 2011 and is having throat surgery.  I'd like to use this as a teachable moment for my middle school and high school choirs.  My students love Adele!  Any suggestions for turning Adele's vocal problems into a lesson on good technique and habits?  Thanks!
Replies (28): Threaded | Chronological
on October 29, 2011 2:28pm
Jennifer:  "Throat surgery" for a singer USUALLY (but not always) implies vocal nodes.  And vocal nodes imply poor vocal technique that is damaging the vocal folds.  And nodes are a SYMPTOM of poor vocal technique, and will come back if the vocal technique is not changed. 
Whether or not that's the case with Adele (whom I'm happy to say I've never heard of!), it is definitely a teachable moment!  Especially if you have any cheerleaders, or if your singers are in the habit of yelling themselves hoarse at games.  (Something that administrators seem to think is wonderful, positive behavior!!!)
It IS possible to cheer in a healthy way, but only IF a student learns how to use the vocal mechanism properly.  I had a beautiful lyric soprano at one time who had done exactly that, and her voice teacher taught her how to cheer without damaging her voice!
On the other hand, while I was at Indiana the Speech and Hearing folks did tests on the many cheerleaders who attended the summer camps there, and the resulte were scary.  They found permanent vocal damage in something like 25% or 30%, and temporary damage in 100%!!!!  The vocal mechanism is basically a very delicate instrument, and once you trash your instrument you can't go out and buy a new one!!
All the best,
on October 29, 2011 6:40pm
I wasn't surprised when she canceled her shows. I could hear it in her voice. Why don't you play examples of her singing verses a pop star with a healthier technique? Or use youtube
There is a ton of stuff out there.
on October 30, 2011 7:11am
I don't disagree that nodes come from poor vocal technique, but surgery is not always the right answer. Often speech theory can eliminate that problem, but that means total cooperation with the therapist and doing the exercises daily without fail. Speech therapists also have tips about diet and lifestyle that really can work. Singers should be cautioned about rushing into surgery for every problem. Many doctors are wisely reluctant to rush into surgery anyway because of the Julie Andrews famous story about failed surgery and lawsuits. The "teaching moment" about voice problems should include the reminder that rushing into surgery might not solve the problem. Rather, using the voice correctly will help prevent future problems. That said, however, young people often feel that they will be OK no matter what they do.
Speech therapists will also caution against reliance on menthal cough drops. As my speech therapist said, "Hydrate the vocal cords, and often." Sipping water does more good than any cough drop.
As you can tell, I speak from experience, and I still do the vocal exercises daily that were prescribed by my speech therapist.
Susan Raccoli
on October 30, 2011 8:22am
If you are implying that Adele's vocal problems are due to her style of singing the diagnosis from afar may be inaccurate. I reference Rod Stewart who continues to perform and Sherrill Milnes who does not. There are countless examples of singers with excellent training who develop vocal nodules and singers with no training who do not. The swelling that can evolve into nodules can be caused by excessive workload, but can be exacerbated by disease. The situation may also begin with illness and be exacerbated by overuse or misuse. These are pretty complex issues for young students but might make interesting discussions at the high school level.
on October 30, 2011 11:10am
Jennifer, I had one middle school student ask me about Adele's voice problems, and before I could reply, another student informed us that Adele is a smoker.  A brief Google search seemed to confirm this, and like Gayle, I could definitely hear something wrong with her vocal production.  So perhaps what you want to talk about with your students is the adverse affects that smoking can have on your voice!
on October 30, 2011 11:28am
I would caution jumping to conclusions about nodes and appropriate vocal technique. While that is often the case, sometimes it is occupational, something that the individual learned unnecessarily even before they began to sing. I've had this happen to one young singer who appeared to have flawless technique. As it turned out it was how her folds were closing when she spoke and sang, and never caused pain or discomfort. She had voice loss in part of her range when she used it for an extended period, which, according to her therapist, may have occurred if she spoke for an equal amount if time.

I thing we would be remiss if we made the assumption that Adele was doing something "wrong." Certainly it is a teachable moment about voice care and the irreplaceable nature of our voice, but we don't need to throw Adele under the bus to raise awareness.

on October 30, 2011 11:31am
The vocal problem that Adele has is a hemorrhage of the vocal folds, causing bleeding. And yes, you can clearly hear the problems on her recordings.
As someone who works in private studio with singers of all types and ages, I always find it worrisome when a teacher says they "don't know who" a pop singer is. The truth is that there is great singing in every genre. Adele has tremendous style, but she has clearly not had good vocal training, and she is only 21, so this is a disaster for her. There was a study recently (can't recall, probably saw it in the NATS Journal) which showed that gospel music is the hardest on singers, and I believe that OPERA was the second hardest on the voice! As teachers, I hope we can continue/start to look at ALL styles of music and singers as legitimate. Young people now do not categorize like we do. We do a disservice to our students  and come across as elitist when we judge their style of music. Adele's problem was not style, it was technique. I have great singers in my studio who do ALL kinds of music (because in reality, that's how most singers survive), and adjusting resoance and delaying vibrato (or not) allows singers to approximate almost any style.
It's a great teachable moment to play for your students singers from all genres singing well and not.
And remember that you also cannot rule out genetics and basic muscular strength. Why can Bruce Springsteen still sing like he's hoarse all the time, using shallow breathing, but doing 4 hour concerts at the age of 60, and a 21-year-old doing the same thing has vocal hemorrhaging?
on October 30, 2011 4:36pm
Hi, Dr. Vicki, and just in case you were referring to me, please allow me to explain.  I have indeed never heard of Adele.  I have never heard of a huge majority of the current generation of pop singers, including country, and practically none of the rock singers or rappers.  I'm not currently working in those genres.
I have also never heard of most of the current generation of opera singers, who of course tend to be older, better trained in most cases, and earning a lot less money.  But during the years when I worked in pop music as a vocalist in a quartet, I knew ALL the current quartets, knew many of their members and certainly knew their voices, and knew most of their arrangements well enough to duplicate them.
But I'm also a fervent cheerleader for the concept that there are great artists, great composers, and great music in any and EVERY genre of music.  (Yes, including traditional bluegrass, and we could talk about THAT vocal production at some length!)  And of course for the fact--which should be plain but obviously is not--that you cannot judge any particular genre by the criteria that are appropriate to some other genre.  I've worked in (and enjoyed) so many different genres that the idea is simply ludicrous.  And yes, a really good singerl--or a really good instrumentalist, for that matter--should be comfortable in any reasonable style that actually fits the voice, and that IS how most earn a decent living.
And while good training can make a voice better--to its natural limits of course--and can gird a singer to avoid vocal problems caused by plain bad vocal habits or innate weakness (as you correctly point out), there are some voices that simply WORK even with the lousiest technique, the worst breath support, and the kind of sound that SHOULD indicate a short life and an ugly one, but for those singers somehow does not.  Every voice is different, and every singer is unique.  Sprinsteen is only one out of many.  The kids who have survived singing "Annie" in chest voice and pushing up to the high F#s are the ones who CAN survive it.  But how many have ruined their voices trying?!!
So I really think we're in complete agreement, and at the point in my life when I was producing a show ensemble and needed to keep up with the latest pop artists, I did.  At this point I don't need to, so I don't.  I have different musical interests and other things to spend my time on.  That doesn't change how I think about the voice, or about singers in general or in particular.
All the best,
on October 30, 2011 2:19pm
There was a great series on TV called the Incredible Human Machine where one episode followed the work done by a team of laryngoloists working with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith after issues that sound similar to those faced by Adele now.  Not sure if it would be appropriate to show all of it in a high school setting, but watching it may give you some good ideas on discussion topics.
candidate Masters of Music
     in Voice Performance & Pedagogy
        Pedagogy emphasis
Westminster Choir College
on October 31, 2011 4:52am
I think another thing to remember is that vocal problems can also be caused from issues with the speaking voice, not just the singing voice.  Excessive speaking that is unsupported, tense, loud, excessive, etc. - essentially speaking without good technique - can be equally bad if not worse an issue.  It's often the speaking voice that is the problem, not the singing voice.  
The Steven Tyler videos are interesting, but when you watch them, if you have seen healthy vocal production on video, you can, I think, quite easily see the tension in the vocal mechanism. It does not appear to be healthy technique, in my view.
Another pop star who actually does know what she's doing is Lady Gaga.  She spent years training with the best and knows how to handle her voice.  Look up her bio on her website.  It's quite an interesting story. Regardless of what you think of her theatrics, she is really quite a fine musician and vocalist!
on October 31, 2011 5:45am
Here is Adele's own words:
on October 31, 2011 1:13pm
This blog is the teachable moment. 
Sad reading really - she has succumbed to the pressure to perform and has probably ruined her career in the process.  
on October 31, 2011 8:11am
There are lots of "teachable moments" to be found among popular vocalists. In addition to Adele, John Mayer is currently on vocal rest for a granuloma, which, like Adele's problems, may or may not have resulted from improper technique. Jennifer Hudson was not too long into her tour supporting her debut album when she was diagnosed with vocal fatigue and had to cancel some concerts.
It's instructive to listen to older and newer recordings of young singers such as Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, and especially, to listen to interviews of them to hear their speaking voices; you can easily hear what a toll their singing has taken.
(Even with the great Aretha Franklin, one of my idols, and who has enjoyed a long career, it's apparent that the "sandpaper" roughness to her sound is a result of wear and tear.)
The thing that upsets me the most, especially with young pop stars, is that the people who should be looking out for their well-being haven't done so. Cheers to you for caring about your choristers.
on October 31, 2011 12:20pm
We are in total agreement, Mr. Howell. :-)
Speaking can cause enormous problems, no doubt about it.
Side note, Steven Tyler grew up here in Denver, and he has had his vocal folds worked on multiple times - cortizone shots, etc. And I agree that Lady Gaga is a terrific vocalist, well-trained. I would say that Aretha has done incredibly well all these years, she is over 70 now, isn't she? Amazing!
Good discussion! Great work, Choral Net - really valuable, this site...
on November 1, 2011 7:24am
on November 3, 2011 3:52am
Here's an article about Adele that I think sums up what we've all been trying to say, and actually quotes vocal professionals (!) who apparently have been seeing vocal fold hemmorages on the rise in young singers.  I'll let you read the article, but I was particularly struck by one quote that I think I'll be talking to my middle schoolers about: "As for the physical causes of vocal injuries, Klimek said she reminds singing patients constantly that “the throat of a singer is a strain waiting to happen,’’ and encourages patients to compare themselves to athletes, who after surgery go through many levels of therapy with specialists, “to make sure they are not only healed but that they know how to use their instrument - their bodies - properly.’"
Rebecca Maurer
on November 5, 2011 12:49pm
I'm going to make a simple comment here. Yes this is a teachable moment, but not for the reasons many have out lined. Several years ago I went
through a period where I had what was best determined to be persistant larangytis. After much debate I finally went to see an excellent ENT specialist,
afraid that there was something wrong with my vocal chords. Luckily there turned out to be nothing wrong with my chords, it was related to asthma
Curious I questioned the Doc about nodes and other vocal chord issues, what could affect them etc... What I was surprised to learn was that  there are may
things that may affect your throat, and can lead to the developement of nodes. Nodes can also develop from stress, acid reflux as well as poor singing technique
or other factors. Adele and her Doctors have indicated that they beleive the root cause of her vocal cord hemorrhage was reaccuring coughing which exposed a weakness/or irregularities in her vocal folds, which she didn't know was as serious as it turned out to be. Yes use it to teach your students but use it as a point to take care of the instrument We were provided, like a violinist, or horn player would.                                                                                   
on November 6, 2011 6:08am
...and acid reflux is very often (most of the time?) due to stress issues.  Dr. John Sarno's book "The Mindbody Prescription" discusses this and many other aches/pains/diseases that are actually *created* by the brain.  The great thing though is that these issues can all be "corrected" without any drugs or any of the multitude of "therapies" available.  I read his book and most of my back pain went away overnight.  It's a fascinating read...
on November 6, 2011 5:01pm
Never read the book Michael. I just grew up in a medical household. Acid reflux is often a stress induced reaction, but there was also they beleive an underlying weaknesses as well with Adele's throat. I spoke with another ENT Specialist this morning between services, who stressed that the root cause for Adele's throat hemorrhaging was an inherent weakness in her vocal folds, which were partially exaccerbated by her vocal technique. His opinion, without ever having done a physical exam of Adele's throat, is that the surgery she faces may be neccessary to correct the issue.
This correction cannot be done through drugs or therapy. He thinks once she recovers and undergoes some rehab she should be back on track. As I originally stated, this is a teachable moment, not to point at Adele and say, she's a bad singer, this is what happens to bad singers. But rather to say, that Adele IS her Instrument, and she needed to be far more diligent and aware of what that instrument was saying to her, and responding accordingly.
I had the great pleasure of seeing Adele in concert at a small venue about three years ago. She was incredible. It is my hope that I will be seeing her perform again soon, healthy and whole again. 
on November 6, 2011 3:50pm
If you didn't liste to Weekend Edition this morning, you missed another story on this.  All you singers and voice teachers will get a chuckle from Denyce Graves' quote from her college voice teacher!
on November 6, 2011 7:27pm
Jennifer and All,
I never heard or heard of Adele. I just went to YouTube and heard her speaking and singing. I hear a lot of cockney accent in her speech. I think she carries a lot of that into her singing.
What she is cursed with is the coup de glotte. She sustains a partial cou de glotte - you can hear a friction there.Singers of that persuasion use it to express an earthiness and, I suspect, to avoid a leagitimate sound lest they sound classical. They think it has sexual appeal and well it might to her fans. In the instance of a very breathy technique, a good teacher may resort, with great caution, to the coup de glotte to develop good phonation.
Does one not also hear some epiglottal dragging? That is the mechanism with which we unwisely clear the throat. I call it the grunt mechanism, much to be avoided.
There is no substitute for clear, calm, efficient and beautiful phonation. And, Yeah, its a good teaching moment. Sing beautiful songs, not current pop waste!
Let you kids hear and see Cecilia Bartoli!
Thanks, Jennifer   Oh, in case you cannot find a good definition of coup de glotte - it is a stopping of the flow of air by closing the vocal folds, and then sort of exploding a vowel as we
   Ed Palmer                       may do when saying, Uh Oh or  Ouch.
on November 20, 2011 4:07pm
on November 21, 2011 7:09am
Wayne, thanks for posting this. It supports what Marilyn Parry said above on November 5. My own earlier post, unfortunately, belonged to the category of making ill-founded assumptions and speaking without any actual knowledge of the facts. I will take to heart the message of "take care of your voice, whoever you are," and endeavor to avoid making assumptions about attributing vocal problems to bad technique.
Thanks again to all.
on November 21, 2011 8:56am
Frequently remind your singers of what John H. wisely said in his first response, that the vocal instrument is a delicate thing and easily can be abused.
I would remind that the voice will suffer no harm if used in a medium volume and very, very seldom allow loud harsh sounds. Take care in extreme ranges.
Good to you.
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