Why every singer should get a voice exam

I recently made my very first appointment with an otolaryngologist (also known as an ear-nose-throat doctor, or ENT), and it’s something I think every singer should do.

Even if you aren’t sick or aren’t experiencing vocal problems, having your vocal cords examined is still a good idea. Here’s why:

1) It gives you a baseline from which to measure any future vocal health problems. Identifying the source of vocal problems can be a long and circuitous process. It can only help to know what your vocal cords look like and how they function when your voice sounds healthy.

2) It could identify issues you aren’t aware of. Just because you’re not aware of having vocal problems doesn’t mean you don’t have them. Acid reflux can burn the vocal cords, even without noticeable symptoms.

3) It could identify causes for problems you thought had a different source. So many things affect the voice: lifestyle, weather, allergies, medications, hormonal fluctuations, food, exercise (or lack of it), almost any illness, and – of course – a person’s vocal technique. For years, I – and the voice teachers I worked with – thought I simply had poor technique. But my current teacher, who is a specialist in vocal rehabilitation, suspects that the problems were caused paresis (partial paralysis) of the vocal cords due to a virus. If something seems off, consult a specialist right away.

Not sure where to find a voice doctor? Look for my next post, or visit www.VocalProblem.org.


www.VocalProblem.org - You can’t trust everything you read on the web, but this site is a trustworthy resource by top vocal physicians. The guide to finding a vocal physician is especially helpful. (The site is run on a volunteer basis and is sometimes unavailable. If you experience problems, check back later. It’s worth the wait.)

www.ENT.org - This is an excellent resource for anyone looking for more information on what to expect when visiting an ENT. The site includes detailed fact sheets about a variety of vocal disorders.

British Voice Association - Singers in the UK will find information on finding a UK voice clinic. Singers everywhere can read the BVA’s voice care tips and browse the article archive.

National Center for Voice and Speech - NCVS’s website is a wonderful place to begin exploring the science behind vocal technique. Check out the list of 200 commonly prescribed medications and how they affect the voice.


In honor of World Voice Day, the Voice and Swallowing Institute of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary is offering free voice screenings for professional singers. A full voice work-up can run over $1,000, so this is an incredible offer. Call 212-245-7840 or inquire by email.

Poet e.e. cummings on risk and the human spirit

We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.

—e.e. cummings (1894-1962); poet, essayist, painter, playwright




Yoga for your face

So I’ve taken my love for yoga (which I’ve blogged about before) to a new level. My inspiration is a book I got for Chrstimas: The Yoga Face: Eliminate Wrinkles with the Ultimate Natural Facelift by Annelise Hagen. Of course, I didn’t get it to zap wrinkles, but to warm up my face for singing.

The author is a yoga instructor and teaches a class called Yoga Face at the New York Health and Raquet Club. See her class in action on this video clip from NBC Today. Her book is full of specific exercises for toning and relaxing the facial muscles. Many of them teach you how to isolate tiny muscles that we don’t usually activate alone, a skill singers can use for refining vocal technique and for building a wider range of facial expressions.

One of the things that sets this book apart is that it’s not entirely focused on the face. Unlike a lot of similar works, Yoga Face also includes basic exercises that are generally relaxing, including a lot of inverted poses and poses that free up the breath. This is ideal for singers, who can turn to it to warm up body, mind, and breath. Plus, the emphasis on basic postures makes the book accessible to beginners and advanced yogis alike.

If you’re interested in facial exercises, here’s a list of additional resources, including books, website, and YouTube clips.

"This is not a linear journey"

Shane Gould (above) training in Munich, West Germany, before the start of the swimming competition at the 1972 Summer Olympics. 

I thought a quote from a three-time gold medal winner would be appropriate during the summer Olympics season.
l have periods of incredible frustration, ... and periods of great satisfaction. This is not a linear journey where l've arrived.
—Shane Gould
Australian swimmer Shane Gould has won five Olympic medals and set world records in all five freestyle distances (100, 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 metres).

Photo: © AFP/Getty Images

A guide to "Creating a Successful Career in Music"

In music and in the movies, we’re often more aware of the glamorous lives of the biggest stars than of the hard work it took them to get there. And we may know next to nothing about the career of the musician who plays in a small town symphony or the actor who performs at a local dinner theater.

For anyone who wants to know more about the many variations of musical careers, I highly recommend Angela Myles Beeching’s book Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music.

I have never encountered a more thorough or realistic book on creating a musical career.  Ms. Beeching covers everything, from how to get an agent to how to create your own performing opportunities to what to wear for an audition.  Her advice includes tips on marketing, finances, fundraising, and time management.

My favorite aspect of the book, however, is its emphasis on a varied, even shifting, idea of success.  Many of us establish career dreams early on, like playing in a major orchestra, singing at the Met, or making a professional recording; but everyone encounters rejection at some point. 

Ms. Beeching cautions wisely that each musician must define - and constantly refine - his or her own vision of success.

"The Song of the Lark," a classic novel about artistic growth

Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark is a book I return to every few years.  The somewhat autobiographical story follows the life of a fictional opera singer, Thea Kronborg, as she develops her musical and interpretive gifts.  

Thea is not an entirely lovable character, but I deeply identify with her passion, ambition, and – most of all – her fierce struggle to protect and nurture her talent.

Throughout the work, Cather brings up questions about what it means to be an artist and how the process of becoming one affects the artist herself and those around her. And singers will appreciate her accurate descriptions of the intense work it takes to train the voice.

I also enjoyed the depiction of musical training in 19th-century America. No symphony orchestras on the prairie? Only one decent voice teacher in the Midwest? How far we’ve come since then!

If you aren’t familiar with Cather’s work, I highly recommend them. She is best known for My Antonia, O Pioneers, and her volumes of short stories.

The themes of friendship, perseverance, and the joys of music run throughout Cather’s works. She expresses a love for all things cultural and artistic - in a world where such things were hard to find. (The book’s title is taken from the name of an 1884 painting by Jules Bréton, pictured above.) And her language is beautifully descriptive, especially when she writes about the land - the vast, untamed American Midwest - often both a metaphor and a character in its own right.

"A wounded bird cannot sing:" Remembering Jerry Hadley


Tenor Jerry Hadley died a year ago today.  He was a gifted singer, but towards the end of his life he struggled with a number of vocal and personal problems. 

In re-reading an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, I was inspired by several quotes of Jerry from previous interviews.

On the beginning of his career:

I had to let go of a tremendous amount of fear. I had to let go of a tremendous amount of physical tension that was brought on by wanting to do it [sing] so much. I had to let go of the feeling that I had to prove myself all the time.
(Florida’s Orlando Sentinel, 1999)


On taking a break from singing several years ago to recover from the breakup of his marriage:

A wounded bird cannot sing. It was tough. It was emotionally distressing, and it goes straight to the throat. So I took some time off and sat in the quiet for a while.

I never really understood how inseparable was the journey of the spirit and the journey of singing and making music. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t see a way forward. But I came out on the other side of it with a deeper appreciation of what a great gift and great opportunities God has given me.
(Australia’s Courier-Mail, 2007)

What strikes me most is Jerry’s understanding that singing is as much about soul as it is sound, and musical growth requites as much self-awareness as it does talent and technique.