Friday, October 31, 2008

Spontaneous Formant Tracking: A point of logic Part 2

The C4 to C5 region is of particular interest to baritones, tenors and women. Before we continue with formant tracking with respect to these voice types, it is worthwhile to outline once again certain basics:

1. Definition: Formants are acoustic frequencies bands covering 30-50 Hz of acoustic space, which, depending on their range, define what we hear as vowels.

2. The vocal tract works better when its reactance is inertial. Simply put, this inertial state of the vocal tract helps maintain efficiency at the glottis even when the folds barely touch. This inertial state depends in large part upon formant tracking. The vocal tract reactance is inertial when the formant is above the corresponding harmonic of the standing wave (fundamental pitch and all its harmonics is referred to as the standing wave). We have our good friend, Martin Berggren to thank for this important detail.

3. Four Rules for Modifying Vowels

A. All formant frequencies decrease uniformly as the length of the vocal tract increases

The vocal tract length increases when the larynx lowers.

B. All formant frequencies decrease uniformly with lip rounding and increase with lip spreading.

Lip rounding and lip trumpeting have the same effect (see details on the NCVS page)

C. A mouth constriction lowers the first formant and raises the second formant.

This includes the raising of the tongue principally as in going from the [a] to the [i] vowel whereby the space below the tongue increases (lowering the pitch. Larger spaces have lower pitch) and the space above decreases (raising the pitch. Smaller spaces have higher pitch).

D. A pharyngeal constriction raises the first formant and lowers the second formant.

The reverse of letter C.

In order to follow these rules, we must establish what the default position of the vocal tract should be. I proceed from the following:

The larynx cannot fall to its naturally low position without the jaw being released. The laryngeal position that produces accurately resonance notes in the speaking range (male between 110 and 150 Hz and women between 220 and 260 Hz) should be the default. Therefore:

1. The larynx should maintain that basic low position.
2. The jaw should always return to the [a] position and the tongue and lips should articulate for all changes (consonants and vowels).

If the jaw had to close for vowels and the larynx had to rise, the variables would be too many and since both would narrow and shorten the larynx, the voice would have a thinner quality.

The key to good resonance is establishing healthy phonation and a "natural" resonance space. By natural I mean that the most comfortable laryngeal level must be accomplished. It is just as unproductive to sing with a depressed larynx (forced too low by tongue depression) as it is to sing with a raised larynx (usually from pressed voice, i.e. excessive medial pressure resulting from inadequate sub-glottal pressure).

Assuming that phonation is normal, the resonance strategy should happen as follows:

Modify the vowel as close as possible to the given vowel while tracking the appropriate formant that would render the vocal tract inertial.

1. It is important to figure out which formant (first or second) is the easiest to tract (i.e.
without raising the larynx and requiring the least migration from the given vowel. There
are two reasons for maintaining a naturally low larynx: A) a long vocal tract tends to be more
inertial. B) A longer vocal tract reinforces lower partials, necessary for balance of chiaroscuro
by not losing the natural darker colors of the voice (particularly important for voice types
requiring more dramatic colors).

2. The frequency range of the formant must be above the respective harmonic in order
for the vocal tract to be inertial.

Following these basic principles, the rest becomes a matter of logic. It is also important to understand that the other three upper vowel formants can also have a profound influence. By concentrating on the first two formants (because we have definite information on what influences them) we can accomplish the inertial state that we refer to as "resonant." Once the singer becomes familiar with the feeling, it becomes easy to track it. Habits begin to form and the process of vowel modification (resonance tracking or formant tracking) becomes practically an instinctive one. This is the goal! The science only gives us a path to experiencing what true resonance is. The refined product is a personal experience and should seem quite natural in the end.

Looking at the /a/ formant chart for C4-B4, we can make some clear decisions relative to the lower passaggio and middle range of women and the middle to high range of men. What is difficult to understand sometimes is that the acoustic choices can be the same for baritone and tenor or soprano and mezzo in the Eb4 to G4 range. A tenor is perfectly capable of tracking F2 on Eb4 for the /a/ vowel. However, the modification would sound extreme because the voice does not sound very stressed on Eb4. The operatic ear accepts vowel modification where the longitudinal tension (tension along their length) on the folds is high. It is perceived that a modification is made to relieve excessive tension (good formant tracking does). A speech-like (F1) non-resonant Eb4 in the tenor voice may sound more "natural" to the average listener than a covered (F2) resonant version because the F2 version requires too much vowel modification for a note that is easy for that voice type. The same note sung covered by an baritone or bass sounds acceptable to the traditional operatic ear. The same may be unacceptable to a musical theater audience who expects speech-like vowels throughout the range. The most important fact we should know relative to resonance strategy is the following:

Although formant frequencies in the F1 region coincide with the lower modal voice (vocalis-dominant) of the male singer and F2 frequencies with the upper modal voice (CT-dominant) in traditional classical singing, formant choices are not absolute. They depend greatly upon genre and style. It is crucial that we do not make the error of making resonance tracking the magic pill for vocal imbalance. Vocal imbalances have a muscular component that is quite independent of acoustic strategy. When the muscular aspect is correct, good acoustic strategy can have a substantial refining effect. The same can be said relative to the female acoustic passaggi.

In the modal range (vocalis and CT both active; what we call the real voice) we deal with a two register muscular modal distinguished by vocalis-dominance on the lower end and CT-dominance in the other. Both male and female voices behave this way, with approximately a one-octave differential between bass and contralto, baritone and mezzo, and tenor and soprano respectively. The modal range covers a little more than two octaves for each voice type. F1 dominates approximately in the lower three-fourths of the male range in the operatic context and F2 takes over in the upper one fourth. For tenors the ratio might be two thirds to one third. In the female voice the ratio is more complex. Because vowel formants are pitch-dependent, there are two formant changes in the female modal range. Roughly one fourth F1-dominance in the chest range, two fourths in the middle range and one fourth in the head range. In short, the male and female voice behave the same muscularly but radically different acoustically because of the octave differential.

This installment Spontaneous Formant Tracking has been long coming, and so I will publish it. The third installment will follow and will address specific strategies for each voice type. I would like YOUR help in the third installment. Please send me requests relative to specific arias or songs that give you trouble, or that you feel could be better addressed. I will analyze the situation and find solutions based on the premises we discuss here. In fact, I would be interested in clips of you singing the phrase in question. I will analyze it acoustically and consider muscular balance as well. I will send you recommendations and see what happens afterwards. I think this would help us all understand the issues we are dealing with.

Happy singing and Happy Holloween!

© 10/31/2008

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thanks for your patience! My first tenor role

Dear Friends,

I forgot to alert all of you that I am performing my first tenor role, Canio with a small company in Mendocino, California (Opera Fresca). Internet access is minimal here, so I have not been able to complete the second part of Spontaneous Formant Tracking.

These analytical posts require time and internet tools and links. I will be done here on Monday and will get back to work on that subject. It keeps nagging at my conscience! Anyway, some of you might be interested to know how Canio is going!

There are goods and bads in every new experience.

1. First the good! The role is not that difficult for me. I expected stamina problems because although this is a short role it is intense all the time. I don't experience any stamina problems. All the notes are there and I am free enough to be able to act the part. Not bad for a first tenor experience.

2. The bad! This is a question of quality. How easy and beautiful does it sound? Thank God I know myself enough not to panic! This is not Metropolitan Opera level yet and some notes don't sound great. All of that is due to illness. My folds are considerable relieved from reflux, but there is a very important byproduct from chronic reflux: Asthma symptoms! (More on this later!) This means that the lung tissue and folds remain thick even when there is no substantial reflux issue. The drug Ipratropium Bromide (the modern version is called Spiriva) gives me enough relief to feel confident about the opening tonight. I will update next week.

The prognosis for the future is looking good. One of the excellent singers I have had the pleasure of teaching occasionally, when his busy schedule allows, has won his bout with reflux and recommended a non-surgical procedure that I am looking into in addition to my dietary improvements (more on this later as well).

Beyond the joy of discussing important singing issues via this blog, I have found great hope through the friendships I've made here. One friend who took a couple of lessons from me before his adventures in Germany got a fest contract after his first audition and wants to continue our work together. Another student just won first place in the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires young artists competition. Another baritone switching to tenor will be singing "De miei bollenti spiriti" tonight, and most touching to my heart, my "self-described avocational singer" student just sent me some practice clips that knocked my socks off. What unites all of these people are two factors: difficulties and the determination to overcome them. They inspire me in their search for balance in singing.

I could probably talk in the same way about all the students I work with currently. Each one face difficulties (technical, illness, age, etc) has made remarkable progress in a short time and each is ridiculously dedicated.

So I dedicate my first tenor experience to my students and fellow journeyers who are not only people that I have come to love and respect, but who show great care for me in my own trials by offering their advice and prayers. Congratulations to all of you for your progress!

Particular congratulations to Ray, Claudia, Leo, Adam and especially Frances!

© 10/24/2008

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Science-based Teacher's Manifesto: I learn complexity so that you learn simplicity!

I was talking with a new student the other day, after we had a satisfying lesson and she said something along these lines: "I asked some friends about you before I came, and they said, 'well, he writes about formants and such. Sounds complicated. He'll probably speak over your head'."

I had to laugh! Now the title of the post, although in the first person, is not meant to represent me alone. I hope I don't appear that conceited. This is however the hope of many excellent science-based teachers I've had the pleasure of knowing. It seems to me that a great many singers behave like some American voters in the current election, who claim to want a president they can have a beer with rather than one who is capable of understanding the complexity of the job and do it well. While I have had an occasional beer with some of my students, when we are in the studio, my aim is to provide them with a solid product worthy of the money these poor people shell out (especially in New York). In a fleeting hour or hour and a half, I have little desire to cram formant theory in my students' heads, and I am certain none of them would have the patience for it either, when they are trying to learn how to deal with their passaggio or nailing that pesky top note. How deeply the student wishes to understand the principles that guide my approach (his/her ultimate technique) depends on the student. Theory is for afterwards, when the lesson is over. The lesson is about decisions that will lead to vocal balance and ability.

However, my own head is certainly accessing every bit of information I've ever learned to find a solution to whatever the problem is. In essence, the successful science-based voice teacher learns as much complex material as possible in order to give a concise, simple but complete approach that the singer's consciousness can handle. That approach is essentially an awareness of what we can effect and what we cannot; what is helpful and what is interfering with the natural process.

What the successful science-based teacher learns after many years of learning the facts and after many hours each month keeping up with new information is the following: the human voice is an automatic instrument that if its health and its delicate balance have not been compromised will function with astounding flexibility and power even if the singer who possesses that voice does not know the first thing about how it functions. That is why natural singers manifest.

The science-based teacher is little different from his/her traditional counterpart. The only difference is that the science-based teacher seeks answers, not based on equivocal mysteries but rather on facts and plausible theories. Such a teacher does not teach the "open throat" simply because that is what Caruso said, or that is what his/her teacher learned from the teacher before but rather asks himself/herself: what is "open throat" really? How does it differ from a depressed larynx? How does s/he know how deep is too deep or how shallow is too shallow? What is a natural laryngeal position and how does s/he go about achieving this? And furthermore, how does s/he communicate such a result to the student? Most importantly, what information is there to back up his/her conclusions? In short, why was Manuel Garcia a great voice teacher? How do we deal with the paradox that he was correct in principle but quite wrong about the details? Such is progress. Our job is not to follow Garcia, but rather to reproduce his results with a better understanding of what he thought he knew.

The science-based teacher respects the great singers of the past and studies them. However, as a teacher s/he cannot worship them. S/he must study them objectively in order to understand why they succeeded, what were their skills and attributes and what were their flaws? And furthermore why did they succeed despite those flaws? And how does s/he steer his/her students away from those flaws and pitfalls?

The science-based teacher is keenly aware that there are unknowns about the voice. However, since the voice is an automatic instrument, we only need to know how to effect change in order to get it back to its balanced state. Once in that state of health and balanced strength, the instrument basically works itself. The more s/he knows, the more s/he is humbled by the discovery of what s/he does not know. In short, a teacher who claims to know it all is not a science-based teacher for real knowledge is accompanied by the inescapable truth that we cannot know everything.

Finally, the science-based teacher's results are based on and depend on a keen musical sensitivity, for a technique, or better said the end-product is achieved with the goal of serving the music that it will create or recreate. A vocal product is not developed in the abstract but rather with musical expression as its raison-d'être.

© 10/14/2008

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The simplicity of vocal technique and why it is so hard to learn

The basics of vocal technique, like that of any instrument depends on the mastery of three elements: actuator (our breathing mechanism) vibrator (our vocal folds) and resonator (our vocal tract). In the best case scenario, the voice in question is perfectly healthy and no extraneous muscular habit has been learned.

Those who possess such voices are very lucky and with a good teacher tend to develop very quickly. Whether or not these natural singers become our great stars depend greatly on their aptitudes in the many other facets of our art form (e.g. musicianship, language skills, acting ability, poetic sensitivity, etc).

But how does one get such naturally healthy unmarred voices? Is it a gift from God? It might as well be, because the many things that distinguish the natural singer from the rest of us humans do not seem to follow any kind of logic. Yet much of it can be explained. Most of us begin with healthy instruments as babies and in fact instinctively knew how to produce the most perfect vocal sounds, whether through crying or laughter or baby cooing, etc. As soon as we begin to make conscious sounds, which we learn from our immediate environment (parents, siblings, housekeeper, etc) we begin the process of undoing the natural process of vocal production. The lucky baby who will become a natural singer may have had parents or siblings who spoke very healthily, and who may have voices similar to his (hers). In such a case, the baby will have had excellent vocal models. If the baby is lucky, people in the house sing. It could be professional singers, or people who simply sing along to a radio station that broadcasts good vocal music.

The issue however is for the rest of us who seek to re-acquire our natural vocal coordination. What happens to a young coloratura whose mother speaks like a contralto and she emulates this production? Such a singer might be miscategorized early as a lower voice and spend many years struggling with this "unnatural" voice with frustrating results. When such a singer discovers the true coloratura voice, the change does not happen automatically because years of a false muscular imbalance must be undone, and the new muscular balance takes time to strengthen. The frustration that comes with the transition time is often discouraging, and an otherwise extremely talented singing actress may never achieve her goals, unless of course she has the dedication and patience of Job.

The issues however are rarely so extreme, although I have taught several coloraturas who believed that they were mezzos. What is most common are coloraturas who are taught as lyrics because they have over-developed the middle voice to the detriment of their top, and lyric tenors who begin as baritones
because they lowered their speaking voices to sound more "manly". In the case of dramatic voices, very often dramatic sopranos begin as mezzos and dramatic tenors as baritones because they can sound impressive even when singing a lower tessitura than that which is more appropriate to them.

I have discussed here how health is the first component to a healthy technique. Problems like allergies, acid reflux and post nasal drip can lower the quality of the voice to such an extent that could be career threatening. I suggest that every voice performance program should send every student to a laryngologist who specializes in the singer's voice, at the beginning of each year. Even if the student sounds impressive, there can be problems that are undetectable by the naked ear (e.g. mild peresis). Such programs should also include a nutritionist who could run the necessary examination to see if the digestive tract of the singer is functioning properly, including taking bacterial cultures. Problems like acid reflux and allergies have a strong influence from dietary practices and the basic ability to digest the food that the singer intakes. When these hindrances are removed, the process of vocal pedagogy is profoundly simplified.

© 10/07/2008

CT-Vocalis Balance: the first step to efficiency

Those we call natural singers have over time developed a muscular balance in speech that promotes the most essential component to great vocal coordination. It is true that all the laryngeal muscles that participate in phonation work in concert, but in my teaching and especially in my own change to tenor (which is becoming really exciting) I have found that dealing with the basic two-part tug-o-war of vocalis vs. crico-thyroid influences the way the other muscles respond.

The principles I have learned are the following:

1. The voice is an automatic instrument whereby the brain sends signals throughout the body to produce the "desired" sound.

2.The desire to produce sounds in speech develops in an unconscious manner (i.e. through years of unconsciously copying the voice or voices of those around us).

3. Long term vocal habits promote a specific balance between vocalis and CT that determines the weight of the voice (i.e. the relative mass, length and tension of the vocal folds on a given fundamental frequency as well as the breath pressure strategy that comes with it).

4. Most importantly, strategies can be developed through changes in breath pressure/volume that would help to effect changes in the basic muscular balance.

Understanding that falsetto requires vocalis passivity (i.e. no activity in the vocalis muscle) and that pulse range (vocal fry) requires a minimal of CT activity, the extremes give us a manner of determining what the baseline strength is for these muscles. In other words, how high can the singer sing in a light falsetto (i.e. how far can the CT muscle stretch the vocal folds when not opposed by vocalis)? And conversely, how low can the singer sing in pulse range (i.e. how far can the vocalis shorten the folds when unopposed by CT)?

It is further understood that the vocalis is dominant in the range below and including part of the male passaggio, and in the range below and including part of the female second passaggio. Singing in the range where the vocalis is more active (i.e. the lower and middle range) will have an effect of strengthening that muscle group. Likewise, singing the high range above the passaggio where the CT is dominant will have a strengthening effect on the CT muscle group. Even falsetto singing can have a strengthening effect on CT just as pulse range singing can have a strengthening effect on vocalis. The development of lower notes signals vocalis strengthening as the development of upper range signals CT strengthening.

The goal however is a specific interaction between the two muscle groups that promotes a gradual change in muscular balance as the singer goes from low to high range, across the passaggio where there is a delicate balance between the two muscle groups. First it is important to determine when the voice is out of balance. Some signs thereof include:

1. Difficulties in the passaggio is the first sign.
2. The inability to have dynamic control in the passaggio and upper voice
3. The inability to sing high notes comfortably
4. The inability to sing low notes
5. The inability to sing loudly in the extremes of the expected range

To correct the imbalance poses some problems in approach. I have found that many teachers are not interested in the in-between stages of correcting muscular imbalances. The majority of voice lessons that I have observed have revealed the teacher's desire to get a final product in the moment.

However, when there is a muscular imbalance, an immediate solution is not possible unless extraneous muscles participate, which in turn promote the participation of other extraneous muscles to achieve a balance froth with tension.

Assuming that no extraneous muscular tension is involved in the phonation process, there is still the possibility of variation in the phonation mode. Any given note can be sung with a certain amount of variance in the mass of the vibrating edge. Accomplishing the ideal weight (i.e. vibrating fold mass) for a given note has a direct influence on the length of the folds as well as the tautness. In the modal range (where both vocalis and CT are active), the mass, length and tautness of the vibrating edge has a strong effect on the manner that the folds come together.

On the one hand, a "thicker" phonation tends to be also a little more lax and may require additional activity from the inter-arytenoid muscles (IA) to bring them together for full-closure. The benefit is a richer sound. The drawback is that the thicker phonation requires increased vocalis activity, which then causes difficulty in releasing weight across the passaggio where the muscular balance switches from vocalis dominant to CT dominant. Additionally, the increased IA activity can cause pressed voice and raise the subglottic pressure to unsustainable levels that in turn would cause the larynx to climb higher than ideal and with long-term stress even cause a wobble.

While we in the vocal community make much ado of the antagonism between vocalis and CT, it is important to know that the CT is primarily responsible for the length of the vocal folds througout the modal range. The vocalis fine-tunes by determining the thickness of the vibrating edge. When we add sub-glottal pressure (breath pressure from below the larynx), the combined effect of pressure and vocalis activity can overwhelm the CT and shorten the vocal folds bringing the pitch down. (This is a simple model. As previously said, tension along the fold edge has an influence on pitch as well).

The key point to our strategies in pedagogy is the following: How much pressure can the CT handle without buckling (compromising the length of the folds and thereby pitch)? This is why the messa di voce is a crucial exercise, maybe the most important determinant of vocal balance and health. Let us consider the mechanism of the messa di voce!

In messa di voce, the singer begins softly (assume adduction is complete for every vibration cycle--Note that at low volume, a well-phonated tone can feel like falsetto) and then gradually gets louder. As the singer gets louder, vocalis activity increases and cause an increase in the vibrating mass. There is, as previously said, a given amount of possible variance in mass, length and tension for any given pitch. The key is that as we approach the thicker end of the spectrum for any given note that the CT is strong enough to maintain the necessary length and tension of the folds. If the CT buckles, length and tension is lost and the only way to achieve the desired pitch is increased sub-glottal pressure (also called vertical pressure). The pressure from below actually bends the folds upward to achieve increase tension in order to achieve the desired pitch.
When this occurs, it is dysfunctional, because when the folds are at a shorter length than ideal because of hyper-function in the vocalis, the CT will not be able to contract further for higher notes. If this state of vocalis hyper-function becomes chronic, CT hypo-function also becomes chronic thereby limiting access to the upper range as well as soft singing.

From the previous paragraph it follows therefore that the ability to sing softly and to sing high notes easily are linked to the ability to sing a messa di voce. This brings us to the difference between true dramatic voices and lighter voices singing dramatic operatic repertoire. More dramatic reperoire (e.g. Verdi, Wagner Strauss and Puccini), because of an increased orchestra size requires greater volume than more lyrical parts. The question is the following: How much subglottal pressure/supraglottal flow can the vocal folds handle without the CT buckling?

If we consider Pavarotti, we have an example of someone who began his career singing the high bel-canto repertoire and gradually assumed the heavier repertoire. This has been the Italian model for a long time. This is based on the observation that well-produced voices gain the ability to sing louder over time. This makes sense. A balanced note sung by an expert singer five years ago will be sung more loudly now because that specific coordination through exercise (i.e. daily singing) gains in muscular conditioning and will be able to sustain greater breath pressure without loss in basic coordination. Following this theory, Pavarotti maintained the ability to sing a high C throughout his life, even performing a gorgeous Bb at the Turin Olympics while sick with Cancer. The basic quality of Pavarotti's voice was lyrical. His ability to produce great volume without stress showed that he had great strength and in balance.

The exact opposite can be said of Pavarotti's idol, Giuseppe di Stefano who not only took on more dramatic roles earlier in his career but also sang beyond the volume limits of his basically lyrical instrument.

Those who have naturally bigger voices (i.e. greater vocal mass and commensurate muscular strength) would benefit from from working on lyricism as well. Franco Corelli never lost his top and sang many lyrical roles despite his ability to produce great volume. Assuming more dramatic roles was in keeping with his instrument, therefore there was no danger. With time, some faulty resonance issues made his ability to sing softly less reliable, but even through his late days, he was known to demonstrate quite beautifully for his students.

It is one thing if a lyric voice that has great strength undertakes a dramatic part. It is a different issue when a lyric voice that does not have the ability to produce great volume assumes a role that dramatically demands such volume. I such cases the CT will buckle and the singer's naturally balance will be altered.

A very detailed list of intrinsic laryngeal musculature is included here and can be daunting. This is the list of muscular action I had hoped to include on the very first post of this blog which remains incomplete. I welcome questions about the musculature and relevant actions and how they interact with the basic vocalis-CT antagonism.

© 10/07/2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Guest post: Acid Reflux, by Burleytone

Dear Friends,

As I am working diligently on the next two posts, I hate to leave you without material. I am very pleased to post the following story on acid reflux written by Burleytone, a colleague from NFCS.

As you know, I continue to deal with reflux, and I find this story very inspiring. I hope you do too. After I am done with the other posts, I will share some additional information on this subject. Thank you, Burleytone!

So, I read on Toreadorssongs’ blogspot about some of his struggle with acid reflux. I was interested to see that I have experienced some of what he writes about. I have struggled with its effects for over ten years. This has prompted me to write my story in the event that it could help another reflux sufferer out there. Fortunately, it has a happy ending!!!

I first started having consistent vocal troubles my senior year in college. My singing teacher believed my problems were technical, not physical, because of my ability to accomplish various vocal feats in one instance but not another. After a couple of months of frustrating practice sessions and lessons, we agreed that I should go see a medical professional. The ENT saw redness and swelling at the back of my vocal folds. He indicated that this could be caused by allergies or acid reflux. We treated the two possibilities separately with Allegra and Claritin, and then with Prilosec. There was a possibility that I was getting mild relief from these drugs but not enough for me to be absolutely certain about one or the other.

I moved on to graduate school. Some days were vocally better than others, but I was consistently unhappy because of my lost singing abilities. I gradually seemed to be losing touch with what it felt like to sing well. My new teacher was less knowledgeable as a technician than my previous one, so that seemed to contribute to my vocal decline as well. I went to see a very well-known ENT who prescribed Prevacid. In my follow-up visit, this doctor declared that the texture of my cords was improving. At a later visit, despite my vocal discomfort, the office declared that all was in order with my health. They were no longer capable or willing to do anything for me. They referred me to a gastro-intestinal doctor and a voice therapist. The G.I. couldn’t find anything really wrong and was hesitant to tinker. The therapist believed I was singing just fine but counseled me to back off a bit on my vocal energy—take it easy. This was not what I wanted to hear and I believed there was more to it than that. I could feel something was amiss with my voice and desperately needed someone to accurately pinpoint the problem. I felt that the only choice I had was to continue to take the medication and to be as technically discriminating as possible in my singing.

Upon graduation I managed to get into a year long apprenticeship program. As usual I continued to show good days and bad days of singing. Two years passed since beginning to take antacids, raising my bed, etc. so I decided to pursue the possibility of allergies more aggressively. I’d recently seen Ashley Simpson complain of vocal discomfort on MTV after yelling into a microphone with her band. The ENT told her she had acid reflux (GERD). This, combined with poor response to antacids, brought me to decide that GERD was just an ENT catch-all. Needless to say, I stopped the medication. I began with allergy shots. They seemed to give me mild to significant relief. I had also noticed better health while traveling in different regions—like back home, so I concluded that finding an allergen free region to base myself would be the biggest answer to my problems.

Dealing with the psychological ramifications was probably the greatest difficulty in all of this. I mean, so many times I found a little vocal trick that momentarily fixed my woes and led me to believe that I probably didn’t have a problem after all. Eventually, after many horrible auditions and negative performance experiences, I couldn’t help but believe I was somehow sub-par as a singer. Ironically, I was often among the cynical crowd that was dismissive about other singers’ claims of physical problems hampering their singing. “It’s really their technique,” we coyly respond. I was sure others were thinking the same about me and I was desperate to show they were wrong. This was absurd, of course, but emotions often are.

By now, I found myself in a free-lance lifestyle and miraculously had secured several regional contracts for the year. Mysteriously my voice would come into order just in the nick of time for starting the contract. This only perpetuated the fallacious idea in my mind that my problems stemmed from less efficient vocal behavior. However, there was some hope in this. I had a wonderful year of new roles on which to practice my newly found technique and would thus be ready to advance into the “bigger time” the following year. Unfortunately this pattern would repeat itself down the line as I would find new tricks or rediscover the same trick that had previously stopped working for a time.

I began traveling for auditions and noticed that it would take me one to two days after airplane travel to feel vocally normal. This was an expensive problem. After returning from one grueling concert experience, I had finally had ENOUGH! Something beyond my technique was definitely wrong—no doubts this time. I hadn’t seen an ENT in years so I decided it was time. I found recommendations from singers in the area and quickly got myself an appointment. Of course, you’d never believe what they told me: I had GERD. I relayed my suspicions to them and asked them if the cause could be anything else—like pressed phonation. They were convinced about reflux as the problem. They explained that the swelling at the back of my cords was preventing them from getting full closure front-to-back. A small gap would remain at the front of the cords. This would make high notes particularly difficult, they explained. To boot, they found two beautiful ulcers in the fleshy area just behind my cords. These didn’t seem to pose any immediate and direct threat to my singing, however were further evidence of GERD. “Okay!” I was convinced along with them and had no choice but to follow suit with their protocol. The ENT commented that Prilosec was merely “placebo, plus one” and said that Nexium was the latest drug of choice. I was to take it twice a day.

Wow! Within a week of taking Nexium I was feeling so much better. I started to remember what my voice used to feel like! I started a summer contract and despite some occasional inconsistency, was very pleased to have my voice back after years of its absence. I didn’t think much of the problems that did periodically upset my voice because, on the whole, I was feeling so much better.

Lo, and behold, after less than a year, this vocal high came to a grinding halt. I had a week where I could not get my voice going to save my life. It felt constantly dried out and foggy—in retrospect, I had lots of dryness, fogginess, and frequent headaches, but since my voice seemed so much better, I ignored this. At that point I had to be honest with myself and admit that the occasional vocal discomfort that I had been experiencing throughout my summer contract and since was a problem. I couldn’t just assign it to the “ups and downs” of every day voice use. “Stop kidding yourself man!” I decided to accept a personal maxim, “You truly do have the technical knowledge to be a successful singer. If your singing is not right on the money, effortless (a loaded term, I know), and able to do what you know it is capable of, there is an outside problem that must be addressed. Do not settle for less than the best in your singing!”

Some of my family members happened to have some neighbors that were alternative doctors (naturopathic and nutrition). Despite my family’s lack of credence in such methods they couldn’t help but be impressed with the results this family was getting with their own children (allergies and such). Being a typical westerner, I had reservations about the alternative crowd as well. However, I was backed up against a brick wall and felt desperate enough to give it a try. Of course insurance wouldn’t cover such treatment but fortunately the initial consultation was to be gratis. Upon learning this, I jumped at the gamble and made a visit.

Sure enough these doctors’ method of testing was as whacky as I had suspected.
However, their discussion and explanation seemed logical. I tried my best to keep an open mind. I knew that the proof would be in the pudding anyhow, so I would let the results of the treatment speak for themselves. After testing me, they told me that my problems probably stemmed from the following: a Candida yeast overgrowth, and sensitivities to wheat (gluten) and dairy. They prescribed that I get off sugar (which feeds the yeast), most grains (including corn, excluding rice), and all milk products. They then sent me home with several supplements to fight the yeast and aid my digestion: probiotics and amino acids. They explained that the Candida yeast overgrowth was only exacerbated by the antacids I had been taking. You need the right acidity level for digestion and I was suppressing it by taking Nexium. Constipation and this yeast overgrowth were named as symptoms for my acid imbalance.

The prospect of my life to include this new diet was, to say the least, overwhelming. The nutritionist assured me that things would be better after I had some time to allow my digestive tract to heal. In all likelihood, I would be able to reintroduce certain foods into my diet.

I did learn that there are things to eat that don’t include gluten, dairy, and refined sugar. My diet consisted of mostly fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts, rice, and soymilk (almond and rice as well). I have found gluten free pastas and crackers. I learned to carefully inspect labels of products such as sauces and candy (when I would occasionally break my diet for a sugar fix). I discovered Rice Chex with soymilk and 100% juices for breakfast. The trick to sticking to this diet was getting rid of all the temptation (in the form of food) out of the house.

Well, how did I fare? I was instructed to gradually go off Nexium so I knew the results of my singing would have to potentially wait a couple of weeks. However, the immediate effects on my body were eye-opening. Within just a couple of days I recognized that I had indeed been constipated the bulk of my life. I also came to understand that I was bloated after meals due to wheat and/or dairy. I hadn’t known what it was like NOT to feel bloated after a meal so was thus unaware. I had more energy all around, especially after meals. I didn’t feel so tired and beat down in the late afternoon and at the end of the day. I didn’t require as much sleep as I thought I did. Whether or not this would in the end affect my singing, it was clear that this was a good change in my life.

I had heard that getting off antacids could have a temporary back-lash so I kept waiting for that to happen as I monitored my voice each day. Strangely enough, that backlash never happened. My voice began to feel healthy. In fact, it continued to feel healthy day after day but in an indescribable way and marked difference than when on Nexium. Was this a placebo effect? Time would only tell.

My six month follow-up appointment with my ENT happened three months after I made this diet change and followed the supplemental protocol. By then I had lost at least fifteen pounds by virtue of my diet. I was happy as a clam with my singing and was curious to see the improvement on my vocal folds from the laryngoscope.
The last six month follow-up showed a significant reduction in redness and swelling as well as retreat of the ulcers. This time, shockingly, the scope showed that those symptoms had returned. What?!!! I explained that I felt exceptional and told the ENT and Voice Specialist about my treatment and lifestyle changes. They were as perplexed as I was but were nervous about the ulcers hardening over time. They said that hardening could affect my adduction/abduction abilities. They begged me to take at least one “purple pill” a day. I tried to dialogue with the ENT about what the alternative crowd was telling me but he simply admitted that he had no knowledge of such information. He knew how to “recognize a symptom and then treat it.”

Naturally, I feared for my long-term health and decided to go ahead and take Nexium again. I immediately relapsed into the way I felt months ago with the dryness and fogginess. It was not enjoyable to sing. I felt that I needed to address this with the naturopath so made an appointment.

My naturopathic doctor explained that some persons suffer from acid reflux not because they have too much acid but because they have too LITTLE. He further explained that the esophageal sphincter’s cue to close off related to having enough acidity. He suggested I try a formula (Glutamic Acid HCI, Betaine HCI, Pepsin, Gentian Root) that would stimulate the hydrochloric acid of my stomach. He also had me add Slippery Elm bark powder (of necessity the powder, not the syrup) to the mix. VOILA!!! My voice was back, up and running, within a couple of days. Now the true test would be through the laryngoscope in a few months. That appointment happened just last month.

During an opera contract last month, the board president’s husband happened to be an ENT, so I opted to have him examine me. He could find no evidence of acid reflux or ulcers.

Now, rest assured that I will get scoped again in another few months. But you can also be certain that I have put my bulk bottle of Nexium away for good.

Further testing at the lab has allowed me to reduce my supplement intake as well as eliminate one of them all together. The nutritionist tells me that I have in all likelihood reached a maintenance level so not to anticipate reducing their quantity (at least for a while). I take: Gastro (Transformation brand), Multi-Probiotic (Original Medicine brand), Slippery Elm bark powder, and GastrAcid (Xymogen brand; the acid stimulator discussed above) with each meal.

I decided that the Candida yeast is at bay so I have been eating sugar off and on for quite some time. This has opened up the possibility for home baked goods. I just use rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch and flour, sorghum flour, and xanthan gum for wheat flour substitutes. With a little research you will find plenty of recipes. Life is a little more expensive this way, but it’s definitely worth being able to sing again (and I haven’t gained the weight back).

Now, I don’t think that I am now a perfect singer. I am still subject to my own vocal foibles and have to constantly work to stay on track. The difference now is that I am in control, not my stomach acid. Fortunate for me, I now feel like I am dealing with the same voice each day--as opposed to several different behavior tendencies because of over compensation due to reflux.

Post Script:

I have listed two source links (pro and con) that discuss the concept of too little stomach acid as the cause for GERD.

© 10/04/2008