Vocal Health and Technique with Sarah K. Brown, SLP

vocal technique Mar 08, 2024

Written By: Chelsea and Cynthia

Featuring: Sarah K. Brown

Vocal health is one of the most important topics for singers to learn about, which is why we've brought our friend and vocal health expert Sarah K. Brown to the blog this week!

Sarah is a New York-based speech pathologist and voice teacher, owner of SKB Voice Studio, and former clinical practitioner at the Grabscheid Voice and Swallowing Center of Mount Sinai.

In her private practice, Sarah works with Broadway stars, international opera singers, and TV/film actors, while also sharing her vocal wisdom to over 100K followers across TikTok and Instagram! She's a leader in making vocal health knowledge accessible to singers and voice users of all kinds, and we're so excited to share with you our conversation about her best advice for healthy singing.

Q: What are the top recurring issues you see in the singers you work with?

  1. Over Breathing: Working with singers at the professional level means they've had 10 to 15 years of training. Much of that early training is so focused on breathwork that sometimes when someone comes out of college, they're just trying to breathe so much right before the high note, and it’s not helpful. High notes typically need less air, not more!
  2. Preparation: This means making sure that those 22- to 25-year-olds who are just out of school are prepared for the industry and being trained across styles. For a lot of my students, they're called in for legit soprano one day and pop-rock belt the next day. So I want to make sure that they're cross-trained and equipped for all styles of musical theater.
  3. Tongue and Soft Palate Discoordination: Oftentimes, there’s confusion about how to make a bright sound versus a nasal sound. Most singers have been trained to sing bright, which can be a really helpful thing for efficiency, but it tends to accidentally be over-nasalized. So we spend a lot of time learning what their tongue and their palate feel like and being able to control those on command, so they have a better understanding of a nasally bright sound versus a bright sound not filtered through the nose.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about the voice and vocal health?

A: As speech pathologists, there's a lot of nuance in how we train the speaking voice to be healthy or efficient, and I think that there are a lot of misconceptions over what that means. Most people think it has to be bright and that they need to speak a little higher, but it can take a lot of effort to do that and can lead to some really weird strain patterns. If you have speaking voice needs, I would recommend working with a speech pathologist who specializes in voice. Not all speech pathologists specialize in voice, but working with one who does helps to figure out what you need, and not just some of those general techniques like speaking from the mask or from the diaphragm.

The other misconception is the belief that there are magic cures for a sick or swollen voice. Unfortunately, to my knowledge and training, there aren't proven magic cures and quick fixes other than steroids. If you're sick, the best thing for your voice is the simple things. Increase your sleep, rest your voice, stay extremely hydrated, and don’t push yourself. You could be steaming, nebulizing, and doing gentle vocal exercises, as long as it feels helpful for your voice and isn’t making it worse. If it's making it worse, stop and let your voice rest.

Q: What should singers know about steroid use?

A: The gold standard situation would be to be prescribed steroids by your laryngologist (rather than an urgent care doctor), in conjunction with them scoping you and physically seeing what's going on inside.

Where it gets tricky is when they're used long-term, and it ends up being more of a band-aid solution for something that's a chronic inefficiency. If it's more of a short-term solution for a specific performance or a short period at the guidance of their laryngologist, that's fine. But I think when people are on steroids for an extended time, it's just covering up voice technique that's not as efficient, and that's when you’ll experience chronic swelling. There are risks to using steroids, too, with how they can affect the body, so it's something that needs to be done under the advisement of a doctor as a short-term solution.

Q: When is it time to go see an SLP or a laryngologist?

A: I would recommend already having your voice care team established and knowing your baseline when you’re healthy. For example, my cords are a little asymmetric, and it's really helpful to know that, because if I ever have a voice issue pop up, they're not going to see the asymmetry and say I have a paresis or something. Or others may already be a bit swollen in the mid folds, and that may be their healthy baseline. So getting scoped while healthy and having that comparison is super important.

In terms of when to go if you're experiencing a problem, it depends on how severe it is. For example, if you completely lose your falsetto or head voice, and it happened very suddenly and isn't associated with a cold, that's one of the classic symptoms of a vocal fold hemorrhage. That would be a great time to be seen, because the nice thing about vocal fold hemorrhage is that as long as you catch it, you can recover from it pretty well.

The other general rule of thumb for a more mild problem would be about two weeks after it begins. Give your body time to fix itself, and if it's still persistent, go ahead and get checked out, just to make sure you're not doing further damage by continuing to sing while recovering.

Q: How common are vocal injuries? Is it normal for a singer to never get injured over the course of a long career?

A: I deeply wish for our industry that there was less of a stigma and shame around vocal injury, because it's way more common than anybody thinks. It is very rare that I see a professional singer in my office for a scope with textbook cords. Professional level performers are doing extremely athletic things with their body and voice every single week, so they're naturally at risk for injury even if their technique is perfect. It would be unrealistic for a performer to expect that they would never have some kind of voice problem over a several decade career, and the more we talk about and normalize vocal injuries, the more comfortable singers will feel seeking help and solving a problem before it gets worse.

Q: Belting can get a bad rap in our industry—what are your thoughts on that?

A: The first thing a voice teacher ever said to me about belting was that you either can or you can't—which is just not true! Belting can be done by anyone efficiently, healthfully, and sustainably. 

I think what makes it so confusing and controversial is that nobody really agrees on what belting is. But as singers, we can use that to our advantage, because belting does not have to be one thing. The three main style points to hit are being loud relative to your own voice, having a spoken quality, and having a high emotionality to how you're singing. As long as you hit those three variables, there are a lot of different techniques you can use to approximate those qualities to make it sound belty.

As long as the audience is perceiving it as the belt style, it doesn't really matter how you got there. You should choose the acoustic strategies that serve your voice the best, because that's what's going to be healthiest and most efficient in the long run.

Q: If you could tell singers one thing that would make a difference in their singing, what would it be?

A: I think that if singers knew how much their tongue impacts their vocal production, we would all be saved a lot of headaches in our singing training and how we develop our voices. Anatomically, the tongue exists in your vocal tract and attaches to the top of your larynx. So, it influences how your larynx functions and affects things like resonance, pressure, vocal production, and the sensation of effort.

I think where it gets tricky is that a lot of teachers can identify that their students have tongue tension, but they don't have advice on how to solve it. But there's a lot of really simple things you can do, whether that's stretching the back of your tongue, doing a tongue out trill, or even just singing through something with your tongue sticking out. If any of those things make your voice feel better or a little freer, you would probably benefit from tongue work.

If you're interested in diving deeper into vocal technique or exploring other interesting musical theatre topics, check out the Broadway Vocal Coach Podcast. You can also find us on Instagram and get involved in the conversation—we’d love to know what you think. 

And if you’re a musical theatre performer, but you’re not sure what your next step should be, you’ve come to the right place. Take our Quiz—we can’t wait to hear your story and help you take the next step in your career!

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