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Smoking

I have a lady in my choir that sings tenor, I can tell that at times she does struggle with it.  Recently, she shared with me that she use to sing saprano, and would like to do so again.  I happen to know that she smokes (cigarettes) very heavily.  Can smoking negatively affect your ability to sing (range, breathing, tone, maintaning pitch etc.)?  If so, can someone shed light on how that works, thanks for your help!
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on August 8, 2014 3:16am
Smoking can certainly affect breathing, for sure! And if it affects pitch-maintenance, I think it will largely be through breath-management issues, as it is more a function of musicianship which is affected by vocal production than a purely vocal issue.
 
Anecdotally, smokers' voices are often described as deep or 'throaty', so I would imagine that range and tone are also affected, though as I know fewer and fewer singers who smoke these days (!) it is getting hard to generalise from experience. (Come to think of it, I have known sopranos who smoked, although we were young then and the range issues may take longer to emerge than I'd have had chance to see by then.)
 
You don't say  how old this lady is, or how old she was when she sang soprano. The change in range may also be age-related; people's voices can change over time.
 
Still, most people could have a significantly wider range than they use on a day-to-day basis, and it does tend work on a use-it-or-lose it basis. So if she'd like to sing soprano again, it may take a while to reactivate that part of her range, but it could well be possible.  
 
Whichever part she sings, smoking less is going to help her in the long run. In the short run, it is likely to be hard - not just because quitting smoking is hard, but because it changes the singer's relationship with her voice. She may need some help from a sympathetic singing teacher to help the transition. 
 
liz
 
 
 
on August 13, 2014 6:28pm
Longitudinal case study using Youtube:
 
 
on August 8, 2014 4:58am
I think I can claim some happenstance experience in this. In my teens and twenties I could get up to an identifiable sound on F in alt; like most of my generation I subsequently took up smoking and in about ten years lost the top octave but was still, in amateur choirs, solo material. After some years (as soloist in, for example, Singapore Cathedral) I took, out of curiosity, the Mensa IQ test, and discovered that I could get into Mensa with a percentage to spare. So (and this is the important part) I said to myself, "If you are so smart, why are you still doing stupid things like smoking?" and then, having set the problem, I fifured out the solution. I went through hell for most of the next year but I have stayed quit in the 40+ years sibce. The result? at age 82 I am still singing 2nd soprano in an auditioned choir (Tokyo Embassy Choir) plus church choir which includes descants (but I have to fake anything from top A), besides a couple of folksongs two or three times a month in Celtic pub  nights. 
 
So the simple reply  is, if you are satisfied with singing tenor, keep on smoking.  If you want to get back to soprano, you absolutely have to quite smoking, and it isn't easy. You will still be feeling the craving within the next year. But if it feels good to you to be still singing good stuff (this year my choir did the Stravinsky Mass among other things) in ten or twenty years' time, then it's worth the effort -- but you have to choose. The decision is yours, and it sure ain't easy.
 
Doreen Simmons in Tokyo, been there, done that
Applauded by an audience of 4
on August 8, 2014 9:53am
Heavy smoking can cause a condition called Reinke's Edema. This is a buildup of gelatinous material in the vocal folds, in the space just under the epithelium. The vocal folds thus get thicker and so the fundamental frequency of the voice drops. I do not think it is reversible, although there could be some new medical developments of which I'm unaware. Of course, not all smokers get this, but it is one common cause of the typical "smoker's voice." A visit to a good ENT specializing in voice could get this lady a diagnosis and could help get her on the right track.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 8, 2014 2:04pm
As you likely know, Antonio, nearly all of the public information about the ill effects of tobacco and marijuana smoking has focused on the lungs. Fact of the matter is that smoking anything has ill effects on the mucosal tissues of the entire internal airway, including the oral cavity (mouth), nasal cavity (if smoke is exhaled through it), pharyngeal cavity (throat), trachea (windpipe), and lungs.  [Marijuana burns hotter than tobacco, so its ill effects are more severe than the effects of tobacco, especially in the upper airway.]
 
At the beginning of regular smoking, the hot chemicals in the smoke produce inflammation in the airway mucosa, including on the vocal folds. [Mucosa includes the epidermis (skin) and the superficial area of the non-muscle vocal fold cover tissues.] These are the primary tissues in which complex vocal fold ripple-waves take place (vibrations) that produce the vocal pitches we hear, and make critical contributions to producing vocal volume and voice quality. One symptom of inflammation is swelling of tissues. When the vocal folds are swollen (enlarged) for any reason, vocal pitch range lowers. The mucosa cannot be stretched to a thinness that enables highest frequencies of vibration to happen.
 
Regular heavy smoking over a span of years gradually produces what is called polypoid degeneration of the vocal fold mucosa (sometimes referred to as Reinke's edema). Those changes enlarge the vocal fold mucosa and pitch range lowers. After enough years of regular smoking, a smoker's lowered pitch range and often husky voice quality will take on what some refer to as "smoker's voice." If the degeneration is extensive, some of the tissue can be reduced surgically so that a clearer voice becomes possible, but there is no surgical procedure that can restore totally normal voice.
 
The really serious news about regular, heavy smoking, Antonio, is that THE MUCOSAL TISSUE CHANGES ARE PERMANENT.
 
Several years ago, the theater teacher at a Minneapolis public school told me that after the currendt musical she was directing was over, she wanted to get her voice back in shape and start auditioning for local amateur "semi-pro" and professional theater companies and re-ignite her acting career. She called me, we met, and she clearly had a lowered pitch range and a husky voice quality when she spoke. I recommended that she see a voice-informed ear-nose-throat [ENT] physician, and he referred her to my then speech pathologist colleague for laryngeal videostroboscope photography of her functioning vocal fold anatomy. Diagnosis: polypoid degeneration of her vocal folds. She broke down and wept because she knew that musical theater singing was no longer possible for her.
 
Unfortunately, then, the lady in your choir will not be able to sing soprano, but with help from an informed and caring singing teacher she may be able to strengthen her voice to the point that she could sing alto in the choir--no promises; depends on the extent of the tissue degeneration.
 
I wish the news could be more pleasant for her and you, Antonio. Both of you be well, and you keep up the good work that you do.
 
Leon
Applauded by an audience of 2
on August 10, 2014 11:10pm
"Smoking is bad for a singer, but singing is good for a smoker", vocally speaking.  Deitrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of the most famous operatic bass-baritones ever to live) smoked heavily for 35 years through the larger part of his career.  He maintained flawless technique and range throughout because he kept his instrument up so well.  I am not encouraging smoking, but I have known several exceptional singers in their middle to older age who have smoked most of their lives, who still sing great and have maintained most of their range.  This woman whom you speak of.. her problem is very likely that she doesn't vocalize often enough, in the right ways.  Smoking does have a greater impact on a woman's range compared to a man's, but women can work that range back some through daily vocalizing.  I would say she can definitely find her alto range again, and quite possibly soprano.  Almost no woman, smoker or not, on the face of the planet, loses their head voice completely, although if they're really rusty and don't access/exercise it regularly, it can appear that way.  I'd get her set up with a voice teacher and see where it goes.  You can feel optimistic with her about it.  Encourage her to quit smoking, but not in order to get the range or control back - quitting won't promise much in that regard - to keep her alive and healthy for the longer haul!  :) 
 
The main effect smoking does have on the voice, is slowly decreasing high frequency overtones because the resononant spaces gradually get dryer and less juicy for sound to ring in.  But again, vocalizing regularly and properly can reverse/prevent this for smokers. 
 
Best wishes to you both!
 
Andy
on August 14, 2014 7:32am
As a professional singer, voice teacher, and choral director i have occasionally worked with singers who smoke.
All the points here are valid.
I think a voice teacher and an ENT who works with singers would both have good input.  More than one opinion is important here.   I studied with a renowned tenor who, because he continued rehearsing with a cold, was diagnosed with nodes.  It was only the 3rd-opinion doctor who said," The center of your node is still soft enough that 6 weeks of vocal rest will do it."  Otherwise, he would probably have opted for surgery that could have curtailed, or ended, his career.
Leon's post shares some asute awareness of biology, which we all can appreciate.  However, I feel that the tone comes off, toward the end, as a bit "hopeless".
If your choiir member truly wishes  to sing in a higher range, I believe she can eventually do it.  She will need to consider the investment -  give up smoking, give up any forceful yelling or forceful throat-singing,(light-but-focused singing is best - too much airiness can dry the cords/folds)  practice time, and money - for voice/speech lessons, medical appointments, etc.
It sounds like a lot, at first, but she will be generally healthier, and, quite likely, happier.  It should be worth it.
i affirm Andrew's sharings, especially the aspect of encouraging quitting for general health.
Frances Fowler Slade, former Conductor of the Princeton Pro Musica, may wish to share her awareness. Her late husband, Dr. John Slade, spent most of his life in research as to the health/ill health of smoking.
Best wishes to all involved, and Godspeed her general health .... Which will support her vocal health. :)
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