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Voice problems

Hi Friends,
I am a middle school choral director and also an active singer. I began having vocal problems after returning to teaching from 8+ years of being a stay-at-home mom. Specifically, I am experiencing my voice cracking or "cutting out" on me at random times when I am singing. I am 37 and female-lyric soprano. I have never had this or anything like this happen with my voice before and I am a very experienced performer. I have seen an ENT voice specialist and he looked at my voice and said that he only saw some vocal chord redness and swelling. I saw a speech/voice therapist and that helped a little, only to help me remember to breathe and use correct posture. The issue is that nothing seems to be helping and I am still having these problems. I tried reflux medicine. No improvement. I am wondering if it could be allergies. Vocal exercises don't seem to be helping either. I can sometimes get through a whole song without it happening, but then it will happen on the next song. My voice has always been reliable if I used correct technique and now I just can't count on it and my confidence has taken a hit. Does anyone have any idea what could be going on? Heavy voice use (like teaching) makes it worse, but it is summer and I am still experiencing these problems.
Thanks for your help!
Replies (18): Threaded | Chronological
on June 24, 2013 9:29pm
Hi Lindsay,
Two things come to my mind right off the bat---first, you mention reflux meds but you don't mention being on a anti-reflux diet.  Diet really helps some people because even if you take the meds, you are adding fuel to the fire (so to speak) by eating foods that can cause acid or eating too close to bedtime.  Without diet, you are undoing what the meds are trying to do (which is to stop the acid from bathing your vocal chords--that's where the red comes from).  You can get OTC acid meds or get the perscription kind.  If you got a perscription, did you get a diet? If you didn't, ask for one or just go online and look up "Jamie Kaufmann"--she has a diet my Hubby-the-ENT-Doc recommends.....and my husband really IS an ENT physician and I've heard it all. 
The second thing--where do you place your SPEAKING voice?  The voice therapist was remiss if they didn't mention the placement of speaking--especially with the heavy voice use of teaching at the Jr. High level.  And vocal strain is a real problem with sopranos talking a lot in a lower speaking  placement.You may sound like Minnie Mouse, but try to speak in an almost head voice.  That has helped me, personally, a lot!  I actually wear a Minnie Mouse watch to help remind me to speak in a higherer range than I naturally want to. It's tough as a soprano---folks sometimes think you are not so smart---when you place your speaking voice higher, but your voice will thank you!
I have allergies too that drip down my throat at certain times of the year and causes my voice to be unreliable--and I'm a soubrette soprano with a reliable high B flat, normally--it ain't fun when it's dripping, that's for sure!  You can see if you notice a pattern and maybe an allergy med, year round, would help you---did you notice when in the school year you started having problems?  The meds help me generally but there is a period in mid May to the end of June when I try not to be engaged to sing anything higher than a G or sucks, but I don't want to chance it.
Applauded by an audience of 5
on June 25, 2013 3:34am
Hi Lindsay,
Apologies for butting in, but your question is a clone of so many others I have heard.
It sounds like a simple issue to me. I wrote a blog about it in relation to myself here - I am not an expert in medical conditions of the throat and larynx, but the advice I would give if you have tried all medical avenues, is to consider this.
Many of us started off singing incorrectly. We forgot what every child of five knows - how to breathe properly. Our ribs were always buoyant, with our abdominals moving naturally.
Life, work, shouting in classes - all these conspired together. Indeed, many of us survive for decades being able to sing over all these stresses. Then one day it catches up on us. I had my day abusing my voice, but now I have to work incredibly hard to remember something by daughter, who is just seven, is still does without thought. I can't help beyond warn you against obsessing on it being physical if you are being told it is not. I've had all those things you mention done, and they didn't reveal anything. They just cause more stress. Your problem, if there is no underlying medical issue, may not be your body but your mind.
You need a teacher who understands this, and you need to learn how to breathe again. Its actually an incredibly emotional and growing experience for a singer to go back to the beginning, so best of luck Lindsay. Let us know how you get on.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on June 25, 2013 4:55am
Lindsay, I agree with Marie.  I would add that the opinion of one ENT voice specialist is not perfection.  I would seek the input of two or three ENT voice specialists.  If you live in a metropolitan area, inquire who the opera company singers employ.  You may have to travel a distance, but it is your voice for life.  I taught 42 years; 35 of them at the middle school level.  I experienced the same symptoms.  I am NO doctor, but I suspect it is a combination of allergies which, especially during the night, are irritating your throat, then you enter school and immediately talk and talk strongly just because it is a school.  Here come the children and more loud talking on an already strained voice.  Then you sing.  Then students begin their misbehaving.  Analyze your day.  You are overworked and underpaid, especially hourly, putting your body through more stress.  It is a wonder that your voice works at all.  I have not heard the voice of a middle school teacher that did not show signs of strain from heavy usage.  Allergies will exasperate that condition tremendously.  As years go by, the strain takes its toll.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on June 25, 2013 6:17am
I was reading this reply and thinking of everything I learned in a workshop last week - especially about the voice and children, and the use of the Alexander Technique as a performer... and was planning to say similar things, when I saw who wrote this - Michael McGlynn.

The workshop was with Michael, and his wonderful group, Anuna, and some of his teachers - including his great voice teacher, and an extraordinary Alexander technique teacher - both of whom helped me significantly.
Need I add, that the workshop (on choral and ensemble singing) was superb?
Thanks, Lindsay, for this thread, and thanks, Michael, for your reply and the wonderful week.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on June 25, 2013 7:44am
Just a couple of questions because they are not mentioned in our note:  Is this happening in a specific part of your range?  or does it happen when you are singing on a particular vowel?  My advice would be to find a voice teacher YOU TRUST and see what that individual thinks.  Singing is an art of minute adjustments and because a speech/voice therapist deals primarily with speaking range issues, and unless they have worked extensively with singers they may not be as experienced working with the singer's range.
How you vocalize makes a difference too!  Are you vocalizing bottom up or top down?  Does the cracking occur from both directions?  On all vowels?  Often times problems can occur when pitches are approached in a certain way.  That is why I'd suggest getting in contact with a well-respected instructor of voice.
Since you are an experienced singer you may have covered all this ground...and as your comment suggests there are seldom easy and quick fixes.  Good luck!
on June 25, 2013 8:07am
Wow, Michael, it is an honor to have you respond to my thread. I just read the blog post you referenced. I love your work although I am new to it. It is incredibly spiritual and moving. I find myself wanting more everytime I listen to it.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no quick fix for the problems I am experiencing and I do believe I have gotten into some back habits technically. I am trying to get back to the basics and will begin getting feedback from a good teacher to hopefully fix these issues. I do believe breathing is foundational to singing but it's one thing to say that and quite another to breathe correctly. 
on June 25, 2013 8:34am
I totally agree with Marie on the speaking pitch.  I am also a lyric soprano with a masters degree in vocal performance currently teaching elementary music.  I had a vocal node surgically removed years ago with great success (acquired from teaching) and spent time with a speech therapist who worked on speaking pitch with me.  She got the correct pitch placement by having me answer with my natural 'yes'--mm-hmm--and keeping the speaking pitch at the mm-hmm level.  For example, mm-hmm and then count to 10 at the same pitch level.  You have to use correct breathing to do that.
But now at 67 and still teaching full-time, I find it extremely difficult to keep my speaking voice up there and use proper breathing with speech, especially since I usually work in the school auditorium.  It is one of my summer projects to work on.  I have saved my voice (speaking and singing) over the past 10 years of teaching by using a personal microphone.  If you want to consider that, I recommend the Chattervox at about $200.  It uses rechargeable batteries and the amp straps around your waist.  You can google it.
Best wishes!
Eloise Porter
Applauded by an audience of 2
on June 25, 2013 11:47am
Dear Lindsay:
        I think we all feel your pain, to one point or another... All of the advice so far has been very good, top flight. Be sure to get as many professional opinions as you can and let us what you do. Let me add a couple of casual observations:
(1) I remember reading an interview years ago with the baseball player, Reggie Jackson. He had been starting to notice that, while in his earlier days he was able to easily book it around to second base on one of his basic base hits, as he got to 40+, he found it hard enough to huff and puff his way to first. The upshot of the article was that this was when he realized that he had to play the game differently -- he was no longer 20+ and had to stop playing that way. If he wanted his body to last, he had to be careful. Thought I, being an aging musician is a lot like being an aging athlete.
(2) Now that I am somewhere north of 50 (OK, 51), I too am finding that I have to warm-up twice as long and be twice as careful of myself, and especially my voice, when I am performing and teaching -- whether I am singing or playing Trombone. If my voice gets tired, it is telling me to stop... and I had better listen. On Trb., I can no longer sit in some invertabrate position with half a tank of air and expect to pop out double-high C's and D's. When singing, those piece-of-cake 2nd Tenor parts (for me, a Baritone...) are now off-limits...
        Take care of yourself, and keep us posted...
Ron Isaacson
Germantown, MD
on June 25, 2013 1:09pm
In 2009, I was having surprizing vocal difficulties to the point that I wanted a "real" voice doc in NYC, Philadelphia which had acknowleged clinics. I mentioned this to my doctor that me previous attempt at local ENTs had not been very good so when I said, "Real ENT" he was rather put out and sent me to a fairly new practice accross the street. I made an appointment and saw a doctor who, upon hearing that I was a singer, stopped and said I needed to see his colleague because he did not feel competent to treat a singer. He said something like, if a noticed a nodule on a regular patient, I'd simply strip (yikes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) the vocal chord and be done with it (yikes, again). I did see the proper doctor in the practice and was very pleased. It seems I had thrush on my vocal chords and some evidence of irritation perhaps from acid reflux. this doctor also had a practice in Ithaca working with singers. Meds and knowlege helped me greatly. I'm so glad the other doctor in the practice realized that he did not have the depth of knowlege and referred me. So, I did find a Real doctor in Central New York.  Good Luck and I wish you peace.
on June 26, 2013 5:02am
Dear Lindsay,
So sorry to hear you are having this trouble!  Many people report voice problems when they begin heavy voice use after a long break.  
I agree with others that you need to see an ENT who specializes in the voice.  One of these folks will do a long videostroboscopy that will include not just looking at the cords, but looking at your TECHNIQUE from the inside.  During a full exam--when you sing and speak--technique problems like tongue tension, pharyngeal squeezing, and uncontrolled tugging on the laryngeal elevators become very clear.
I also agree that speaking with good vocal technique is vital in the classroom!  And it is all too often ignored, even by people with lovely singing voices.  You need to find a teacher who is comfortable coaching not only your singing but your speaking.  My own opinion is that good breath flow comes first, after which it becomes possible to release unnecessary tensions in the throat; then your voice will find its own most comfortable and efficient pitch range--and yes, for most women, it goes up when this happens.
My own organization teaches many people with similar problems--if you are "shopping around," give us a look:  (Maybe you will even decide to come to our class in Massachusetts next month!)
Good luck!
Jay Lane 
on June 27, 2013 3:21pm
The same thing happened to me when I turned 45. I was a lyric too but now sing mezzo because of this "change". Between allergies, weight loss/gain and menopause - it has not been easy. I am now 50 and for me, I just make sure that my diet is consistent as well as keeping hydrated. Some days are more challenging than others due to weather and environmental changes. I also teach voice and there are just some days I can't even make a sound without feeling that I sound like Froggy from the Lil' Rascals! That is when I really hydrate and try to concentate on my breathing more. 
When you find out what works for you, please be sure to share it. I would be curious about your regimen.
Layne Thompson-Payne
Music School of Delaware
Milford, Delaware
on June 28, 2013 7:02am
Hi Thea,
Strangely enough, my voice is cracking or cutting out most often on middle C and the notes around it, usually decending from a higher note. All of these comments have been helpful. I am going to continue to try a number of approaches and begin studing with a voice teacher on a regular basis.
on June 28, 2013 7:13am
I'm 70 & was ready to 'pack it in' until I met Debra Lynn & & went to her for vocal lessons (on skype) & discovered bel canto.  I now sing better than I ever did!  You might have a look:  Best of luck, Evelyn
on June 28, 2013 9:37am
Everybody here has given good advice... it sounds like when I had acid reflux several years ago. My ENT at the time advised me to use liquid antacid (such as Maalox) rather than tablet, so it would coat the cords more. Around the same time, when having imaging done for a different issue, I was diagnosed with a hiatal hernia -- so ditto on those who advised cutting back food amounts, as well asl aggravating foods. Good luck.
on June 29, 2013 9:13am
The comments and suggestions in all of these responses are "right on!"  When I was supervising Music Ed majors as they did their intern teaching, two things I encouraged them to be aware of: 1)  DO NOT try to speak over the usual classroom noise.  Simply wait, with arms folded and the "I expect you to listen to what I have to say" look on your face before you attempt to speak.  Trying to speak over that much noise will compromise your vocal cords very quickly.  It may take an extra few seconds, but soon the students do learn what you expect and will begin to act accordingly.  2) Train yourself to speak "on air," the way you use your voice for singing, as you hopefully learned in your vocal studies.  That suggests that the speaking voice must be supported from lower body energy, and that the spoken pitch, which will be a little higher than your normal conversational voice, uses the "head voice" feeling.  P.S.  It has more head resonance that way!!!!
on June 29, 2013 9:51am
I have trouble if I drink awesomely strong full bodied French press coffee or eat dark chocolate and then go teach...ugg...can you tell I like them both?  Coffee is a diuretic and no amount of drinking more water makes up for it for least not fast enough.
on June 29, 2013 12:02pm
Do your best to carve out 10 minutes from your parenting, to actually stretch and find the elongated alignment, and then get a low breath, execute a yawn-sigh or two, and then some 2 octave lip trills or ng hums. (scales or argeggios)   If your chilcren are too young to find this solo time,  then just warm-up the voice with an artificially high voice 'Hello' or Good Moooooorning, but something to remind the muscles of what they need to do to coordinate and move graciously in and out of high voice.    Sing children's songs with your children, in a simple and pure voice -- true to your own voice, but using the central core of your tone, mindful that we move the voice on air.    Also back off just one degree on volume and diction, until you can get the voice moving freely --- it's all remembering the coordination and how to maneuver in and out.  Singing without words first is also very helpful!  Enjoy!
on July 1, 2013 1:58pm
I love coffee too. :/ I hope that is not the problem, but I may switch to decaf, since the caffeine is the diuretic. Thanks for the insight.
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