Styles of singing are constantly emerging and changing in the world of popular music. Listening to singers on the radio today is quite different than it was 20 years ago, 40 years ago, or 60 years ago. Today’s singers are looking to set themselves apart through unique styling, interpretation, and presentation. In today’s world, would-be artists can achieve almost instant fame due to the phenomenon of social media. As a result, we have artist after artist looking for easy ways to create a style that will cause their voice to stand out amongst others. Each generation has seemed to mark itself with a particular style (or two!) of singing that seems to grab the attention of their intended audience. It is pretty easy to identify and date styles of music or singing within just a few seconds of listening. One particular style of singing that is prominent today is a breathy, at times sultry, or raw singing tone. Of additional note, this generation has seen a record amount of vocal damage.
Despite the mounting evidence of how this style of singing wreaks havoc on one’s unsuspecting vocal folds, masses of singers are continuing to employ this dangerous technique. Every time I turn on my Christian radio stations, I am shocked at how much of this I hear, even from prominent singers who surely have access to good, solid vocal training. I have been sounding the alarm for the last 20 years, and will continue to do so until I see the trend turning or meet my Savior face to face—whichever is first.
I believe that one of the reasons this technique is so prominent is that it takes no training. Therefore, almost anyone can accomplish it. Sadly, many singers, especially younger singers, are likely to try their hand at singing without any professional training. Imitating styles they are hearing on the radio becomes their only mode of training. The feedback they get comes from friends and other untrained singers. As they are striving to create a personal style, since they’ve not developed muscle strength or proper vocal technique, they reach for the easiest techniques to master. Singing with a breathy tone is very easy, in fact many singers have breath in their tone simply because they’ve not yet learned how to rid themselves of it! Rather than look to eliminate this hazardous practice, they capitalize on it – much to their unknowing detriment.
How Does It Hurt?
Any ENT (Doctor of Otorhinolaryngology) will tell you that whispering is hard on the vocal cords. Whispering actually causes more trauma to the larynx than normal speech. In a whisper, the vocal cords do not vibrate. The airflow is increased and turbulence is created while the vocal folds are in an unprotected, non-adducted (open, not closed), position. Singing with a breathy tone is like “whispering on steroids”. Dr. Barbara Mathis is renowned for her research using a fiber optic camera.
“During her vocal research, which she performed at the laryngology office of Dr. Van Lawrence (laryngologist for the Houston Grand Opera) she decided to have a ‘vocal abuse’ session using the fiber optic camera. This was an attempt to define what truly irritates the vocal folds. Amazingly, Dr. Mathis learned how to sing with the camera down her throat. The discovery was nothing less than amazing. She first tried belting, pushing big unprotected sound, yelling, etc, making every sound that is perceived as a type of vocal abuse. But the vocal folds just looked back at her relatively unscathed. Then toward the end of the session, she told me that she sang with a breathy unfocused tone, after which the vocal cords turned more and more red and the vocal lips swelled almost twice their normal thickness….”
This was, of course, just the beginning of her research that went on for over five years and was later presented at New York Chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.
Moreover, in my experience, the continued use of this type of singing causes a type of muscle memory such that the singers are no longer able to achieve cord closure without relearning through cord closure exercises Sadly, singers are so used to the airy tone that they no longer even recognize it in themselves, so they continue singing and speaking in this manner, prolonging and worsening the problem.
The Bottom Line
I would encourage you to become more aware of this damaging technique in yourself and others you sing with: then STOP doing it. As I jokingly like to say, “Friends don’t let friends sing with air in their tone!” Help me put an end to this grievous technique that is hurting our singers and robbing us of years of fruitful and healthy singing.
God bless you with healthy and happy singing!