Many in the vocal community are talking about Adele and the recent cancellation of the final nights of her tour.
The pressures and demands of a career can take a toll on an artist, and it’s something professional singers often find themselves worrying about.
There is also the pressure to deliver performances that move and excite audiences, sometimes at the expense of vocal health.
In this episode John discusses this tricky area and gives advice about what you ultimately need from both your artistry and your vocal technique.
Episode 31 – Artistry and Vocal Risks
Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to the Intelligent Vocalist.
For today’s episode, I’m coming to a subject that I’ve actually been stewing on for a little while. And the reason for that is, as I’m recording this, recently Adele had to cancel her last couple of shows at Wembley Stadium, and very sadly had to announce that she was not able to vocally continue the last couple dates of her tour –a tour that went on for about a year and a half. I mean, a really extensive tour, took her all over the world, and this is going to be her triumphant finish at Wembley, and the last two dates had to be cancelled. It kind of created a bit of a firestorm of people debating this whole subject, and this subject of vocal damage, vocal wear and tear. And I wanted to take this from the stand point, a little more big picture, a little more philosophical, and look at vocal damage and vocal stress versus artistry, and communication.
It’s very easy for me to just do a podcast and say, “Hey, you don’t want to get nodules or granulomas or any of these other polyps, and all of this other issue that you can have as a singer.” And I think everyone would agree. We don’t want vocal damage. We don’t want stress and strain. But then again, how do we completely avoid that as an artist, and as an artist in the modern world?
You know, a number of things have happened in recent years with the music industry. The most obvious one is how we consume music. I mean, I used to have, as a kid/teenager/young adult, I mean, I had my whole room that was dedicated to music, with the big huge speakers that you’d saved up for, and all my albums probably lining the walls, which then became the CDs probably lining our walls – we really don’t have that anymore. I don’t have a room that’s dedicated to music. So much of my music listening now is streaming on an Amazon Echo, or over my iPhone.
The consumption of music is very different, and what has happened is all of those things that used to fill our walls and our shelves have gone away. And since we’re no longer buying these things, the amount of money the artist makes from selling all these round discs of plastic have disappeared as well. So artists now had to kind of go back to where it was more of the old days a lot of the money has made on tour. Touring is where the money is, especially for the bigger artists. I don’t want to get into a debate of up and coming artists and how expensive it is to tour and the strains on that, but for an established artist, there is a whole lot of money to be made. And not only that; the tour employs a whole lot of people. So there’s this whole financial ecosystem that exists within this tour. Not just the promoters but the truck drivers, the sound people, the musicians, everything. It’s a huge enterprise.
And in Adele’s case, all of this was put on the shoulders of one woman in her mid-twenties. All of this pressure, all of these expectations, for well over a year and a half, and in the planning stages, etc. And that is a lot to put on any one person. And I think we need to keep this in mind as we talk about Adele and her singing and her vocal health.
I don’t want to make this all about Adele. But she’s kind of the subject of the moment. And this has happened to, not just her, a number of other artists who’ve had to take time off and to either have to go on vocal rest, or get surgery again. Then there’s even a debate of surgery etc. I’ll let the doctors fight that out. And here’s my disclaimer; Do not take anything that I talk about here as any type of medical advice. I am not a doctor. Now, in doing what I do, I do talk to doctors and I will confer with doctors, but you know what, I’ve spoken to some airline pilots and you certainly don’t want me flying a 747. So there, you have been warned. I also have four bulldogs, so that shows you my state of mind. I can’t make rational choices. You shouldn’t be listening to this podcast probably, but I’ll continue to prattle on.
So, we have Adele, we have this tragic – but I don’t want to overly use the word ‘tragic’ – but the end of her tour is not quite the triumph that she had hope for, and she’s obviously very very heart broken. And now, what we have is the debate raging about how she sang her vocal technique, how she took care of herself, etc. And I will say, if any of you have been following, maybe you take voice lessons, maybe your voice teacher has had an opinion on this, or you’ve seen things online from voice teachers – you need to understand that voice teachers are whole mindset. What we do everyday is we fix things. When somebody comes in, our inner dialogue is “How do I fix this? Fix this. Fix this.” So when we see an artist like Adele get into trouble, we instantly go, “How do I fix this?” And sometimes, we will begin to type and to talk. Trust me, I have typed and talked before I’ve sufficiently thought about it, or even if I should be talking. But we will begin to type and talk and put things out there without really taking the time to think if this is even something that we can comment on.
You know, we can listen to an artist’s recordings, and we can hear them sing in a certain way, and we consider ourselves “You know what, that’s not what I would have a student do. Or that’s not what my ear hears as healthy. That’s not what I’d recommend.” And there are certainly times when Adele’s singing, because she does have this bigger instrument, and her instrument sits a little lower. Her voice type is a little lower than a typical female pop singer. And when she’ll go up with a little bit of – voice teachers call it wade, a little bit of intensity, or maybe she’s in too low of a gear. And she will from time to time hit notes that voice teachers will go “Whoa, I don’t know about that. I don’t know if she should be doing that.”
I had the privilege of seeing her on this last tour when she was in Los Angeles. And I tell you, for most of the night – I know it’s loud it’s a concert, you can’t always hear things clearly – there was maybe a handful of times where, as a voice teacher, I thought “Whoa you might want to back off on that a little bit. That’s maybe costing you a little more energy than you really need at this point.”
However, I have never – and I mean I’ve seen a lot of concerts, going back to my first concert was Queen with Freddie Mercury, and I’ve seen a lot – I have never seen an audience as rabid as her audience. When that concert started, the roar that I heard from the crowd was so loud that I actually thought maybe part of the building was collapsing, like it freaked me out for a second – and how enraptured everybody was.
So we have to look at it as or let’s take the argument that she’s not singing everything correctly. She is touching people in such a deep way. Her audience is so moved by her. And the way that she sings and the way that she delivers her music in her own personal way connects so deeply that it’s remarkable. I literally haven’t seen anything like it, live – that just how crazed her fans were and the joy that they got from her singing. And she even joked about it. It’s like every song’s a ballad, every song’s about breaking up, you know. And one could sit there, not being an Adele fan, and go “This is a little monochromatic.” It mattered not a bit to these people.
So I take it back to that she is hitting some notes in such a way that, as a voice teacher, I might think “No, I don’t know if she should hit that way. I want to fix that. Can I fix that?” But you know what, her audience doesn’t want that fixed because when she’s hitting some of these notes in that way, it is creating a sense of emotional urgency and intensity that connects to them. And I say this to my students, I’ve probably said this on this podcast, when I’m working with somebody, working technique, I will tell them “this is not the highest level of singing.” The highest level of singing is communication. All we’re working on are the tools. We’re just hopefully making it easier for you, maybe giving you a broader palette from which to paint from, extending range, a little more strength, all of these things that we do within vocal lessons.
But you know what, at the end of the day, nobody cares. No one cares what voice teachers think. I mean, it’s like when you go see a movie that’s about an attorney and it’s a wonderful movie, and an attorney says “that’s not how things really work.” You don’t care. You just want to be transformed. When voice teachers start picking something apart, you don’t care. If something touches you and moves you, that is everything.
And so, as an artist, Adele is absolutely firing on all cylinders to be able to do that. Now, that raises the argument. She wasn’t able to do that the last two dates of her tour. So therefore, however she was communicating, there was a cost to that. And these people got cheated because they did not get to see her at the tail end of this tour, and there’s a validity there. But we can’t know how she got this vocal damage.
I will tell you; Your cords, they’re resilient. They can put up quite a bit. You don’t have to sing like a perfect angel all the time. However, they’re not invincible, you know. It’s human tissue. You can create damage. And some of this damage is builds a little more slowly. You may start to feel that you’re losing a bit of range, or some notes aren’t as consistent. Other damage is immediate. We’ve all done that, where we’ve yelled or screamed or done something, and we’ve gone hoarse with the swelling. And now we can’t, not just sing, but even talk very well.
So there are those factors. But then, also, we’re all different. There’s a genetic component to being able to withstand vocal abuse basically. What happens is, your cords are opening and closing hundreds and even thousands of times a second, depending on the note that you are singing. It’s quite remarkable. And as this opening and closing, if you imagine just clapping your hands or really slapping your hands together, when you’re really slapping your hands together, your hands are going to start to hurt and going to start to swell. The same thing with the vocal folds. As they begin to banging together too intensely, the cells within the vocal folds will emit this protein, if you will. It’s like a buffer, they don’t want to be irritated. And what that does is, that swells the cords. And when you have thicker vocal folds, that’s like having a thicker string on an instrument. Now we have to use more tension to get it up to pitch.
so now, the singer has to fight and pull a little more to get that pitch. And as they begin to fight and pull, and maybe squeeze the cords together a little harder, that slapping together is becoming more intensified. And after a little while, the cords will get tired of that and they will begin to create this callous-like material such as nodules. You can also get these fluid filled blisters, these polyps, you can get these little ulcers on the back of the folds. You can get all of these things. Friction plus time will create these. So, if you kind of just yell a note here or there, as long as you don’t have these crazy ultra-sensitive cords that begin to swell immediately, you’re going to be okay. But if it’s on a consistent basis, then that’s going to become an issue.
I take it back to artists now having to tour more and more and more. When artists are selling a lot of albums, they didn’t need to tour as much. Some did, but some didn’t. The Beatles stop touring halfway through their career. But when you have these intense tour schedules and you’re constantly on the road, and all the stresses of that, and now you have maybe every other song there’s a note or two where you kind of hit the cords a little harder than you should on one night, that’s not going to make a difference. But the cumulates of effect can begin to have a problem. And that is where you want to stop and just consider how it is that you’re singing, and how we can possibly do that better.
So, there is some magic intersection. I like to think, as a voice teacher, I like to believe this is so. But there is an intersection between being able to fully communicate as an artist, and also doing it safely, or as safe as possible. And that’s the magic spot we want to find.
Now, this vocal damage could also happen instantly. I don’t want to scare you with this. But you know, you could have a violent cough or a sneeze, or a virus, and you go out and you’re sick, and you just push a little hard. Things can happen very very quickly. You can get hemorrhage on the fold, something like that. Almost like a bleeding underneath the surface, depending on what’s going on. And people will acquaint this to being an athlete. I think, rightly made the point, that people attacking Adele and begging on Adele is much like attacking a major league pitcher for throwing a pitch that throws out their elbow and gives them an injury. Or a basketball player going out for ball, and comes down and injures their ankle. I mean, we expect athletes to get injured. We don’t expect singers to get injured. We always put performers in this like magic box, like they don’t drink water, they just come out and they transport us to this beautiful place of entertainment, and they’re almost not truly human beings. Singers will get injured.
I can’t tell somebody, as a voice teacher, that if you study with me and if you do these exercises, you will never experience vocal trouble. That’s just not true.I would tell you that the chances are greatly reduced. I will do everything I can to help you get the sound that you need in the safest way possible, so that you can continue to do it on consistent basis. But you know what, we’re dealing with Genetics, Biology, human beings, stress, illness, schedules, diet, lack of sleep – there are so many things that also come into this soup of trying to stay healthy. Trying to stay healthy at an elite level is really really tricky.
It’s really remarkable when a sports team can win a championship and then do it again the next year, and then do it again the next year, what they start calling a three-peat – a repeat then a three-peat. It started out, I think, the LA Lakers claimed that term. And what’s the biggest reason that is so hard to do? – keeping everyone healthy. And people who want to criticize Adele, very very few of us – I don’t know a voice teacher who has sung at Adele’s levels. A matter of fact, none of us have even come close to experiencing what it is that Adele goes through. We can work with people on Adele’s level. We can work with people who tour and sing like Adele. We can get close, but we are not really in the arena. I have to remind myself that all the time. And when I heard that Adele had to cancel this, my first thought was like “oh, what is it she could have fixed? What is it I could have done?” And then I have to stop and go “You know what, I don’t know if that would have stop her cancelling these two shows.” When I saw her, she sang really really well. And then she had to cancel the next date, I believe it was in Phoenix, because she was sick. And she was in the verge of getting sick when I saw her, and she did fantastic. I didn’t hear her singing in some way that I thought “oh she’s not going to be able to complete her tour.” And again, singing that way on a recording is different because you only have to get it once. And there’s the communication, the connection of that.
I’m rambling a little bit because this is still like a bit of a soup in my mind. So, to have point, because you’re taking the time to listen to me, I think you, as an artist, need to figure out what it is that you want to communicate, what it is that you want to express. That is paramount. Then you have to look and say, “okay, do I have the tools to express that?” If you don’t, then that’s something you need to go out and get.
I’m currently listening to a band, really enjoying, called North Atlantic Oscillations – a band out of Scotland. Not very big. They do this kind of dreamscape type of music. The singer mostly sings in falsettos. The male singer, he multi-tracks himself a lot. There’s nothing there where you go like “wow, this is amazing, steve perry –like vocals.” But you know what, it’s so cool with the music. I don’t care. This guy has all the tools that he needs to deliver the music that he is doing. If you have those tools, here’s your checklist; Do I have the tools to do the music that I want to do? If that is yes, your next question is, great, am I able to do this consistently? So that if he’s singing his music and he’s got the tools to sound the way he wants to sound, but he’s blowing himself out after every show, then he’s missing number two. Those are the two things that you really need to get as a singer.
And so, if you’re Lana Del Rey, does Lana Del Ray need to be belting high notes the way Ariana Grande does? No. Is that what her audience wants on her? No. So she doesn’t need that. She has the tools to make her sound. Now, does she have the tools to make the sound consistently?
Communication –what do you want to communicate, and then get the tools to communicate it and do it on a consistent long term basis. That’s what I want for you. I don’t want to scare you with vocal issues. I’ve covered vocal health in the past. If I was a good podcaster I’d have the podcast number, and I don’t, so you can go back and look at that. But, that’s what I want. I want communication, and then the tools to communicate for the long term.
As for Adele, I absolutely wish her the best. I know this happened to her before. As far as I know, she was taking good care of herself. But you know what, I’m not her voice teacher. I’m not her doctor. I don’t know. I can’t comment on that. I just know that she’s certainly knows what she wants to communicate. She’s certainly has the tools for communication. And I would like to think that she has, or will continue to get the tools so she can do it on a consistent basis.
Hey, if you have any questions about vocal technique, you can always go to my website johnhenny.com. I’ve got a blog there with some different topics. I also have some products. The one I am most proud of is my New Science of Singing. That one basically can take you to all these vocal science stuff so that you can understand it and then apply it. You know, vocal science, I find, is a bit of a heady topic. It can be very confusing. And so, what I’ve done is taken what I found to be very useful in the concepts that you can apply. And with the understanding, you can become a better singer.
I like to think that knowledge is power. Well, actually, knowledge applied is power. So it’s knowledge what I think is essential. And then you can get this knowledge and you can apply it. There are exercises there so you can feel the concepts working in your voice. And I also have a certification test. So, if you go through all the material and you’d like to certify that you’ve gone through and pass this course, it will print up a really nifty certificate that you can hang on your wall. I know a number of voice teachers that actually done the course. It has helped their teaching, they’ve it put up on the wall and the students think it’s cool. Yes, I’m not a university. This isn’t a Trump University thing. It’s a cool certificate that just shows people that you’re working, you’re studying, and you’re just getting better. And if you’re a singer, if you want to put it up on your wall, cool. And if not, it just gives you new options and new knowledge with your voice. You can check it all out at johnhenny.com. Just click the PRODUCTS tab.
Until next time. To better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.