Vocal Suicide?

Nothing draws more faulty vocal advice than the scream. More than pulling up chest register and beyond belting; let’s explore the truth about the singer’s equivalent of smoking the tires down a stretch of pavement. The lineage from current flame throwers like Chester from Linkin Park and low-ball growlers like Sully from Godsmack runs back through signature screechers like Chris Cornell, Curt Cobain, Dio, Steven Tyler, Bon Scott, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Robert Plant, Roger Daltry, Janis Joplin, Wilson Picket, Little Richard, Ray Charles and hundreds more. The rockers were inspired by the blues and soul singers who were inspired by gospel, jazz and the traditional songs of the Deep South.

Call and response hymns sung by slaves in cotton fields and marathon Sunday services challenged voices to the limit. The raspy sound that occurred as a result of vocal fatigue was considered a small price to pay for getting the message out. What began as an unintentional byproduct grew into a target sound. Lots of present day music fans and vocalists think of screams as a passionate, heartfelt way to express emotion. Others simply call it vocal suicide. Unfortunately, those people on the disapproving side of the fence are often the doctors and instructors that screamers need most to save them from themselves. Hopefully, that will change as more mentors see an aggressive vocal style as an artistic choice rather than an irresponsible singer.

The environment was even less tolerant when I was a young singer trying to emulate my raspy heroes. I was routinely scolded about the dangers of pushing the voice and told horror stories of promising talents left voiceless due to their reckless ways. My college professors, who didn’t even acknowledge rock music as an art form, said without hesitation that screaming caused permanent damage, period. No further discussion. Yet the rock and gospel singers I found so inspiring seemed to be impervious to the rigors of their music. I wanted that same vocal immunity! I found the unbiased answers I was looking for in sports medicine

It’s hard to fathom, being a musician, the physical toll professional athletes’ pay to play. The difference is that athletes fully acknowledge the risks and prepare for them whereas singers are usually in denial. An athlete would never begin a game without warming up. Singers often walk on stage cold. Athletes workout to improve strength and conditioning and then run drills to learn the skills required for their sport. Game time is not for developing talent. Singers often use gigs as an opportunity to improve skills. Walking on stage to shout out a bunch of songs with no physical preparation is the same as walking onto a football field with no pads . . . and receiving the ball.

There’s a huge difference between permanent damage and temporary discomfort. To prepare yourself for the demands of aggressive singing, you’ve got to vocalize separately from practicing songs. Learning to release the neck and face will reduce the amount of energy it takes to create an aggressive vocal sound. Less force means less friction which means less wear and tear. While there’s no way to get a distorted sound without overloading the vocal folds, the amount of tension and force used is directly proportionate to the amount of irritation left in its wake. The truth is; screams are adjustable. You don’t have to kill yourself to sound dangerous.

When added up, strength, conditioning, practice and preparedness equal survival. On top of that, you’ve got to have the right personality to scream. Another unspoken truth is that a reluctant approach to a potentially hazardous activity creates a greater risk for injury. Don’t confuse this with the ignorance of a dare-devil. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t have the personality of a screamer than don’t scream! Don’t rely on the adrenaline of a show for courage. Instead, take passes at a particular phrase at half steam during your warm up to test the waters. Practice difficult lines without any facial tensions before letting your emotions pour in. By the time you’re on stage and approaching a scream your mind should be free of doubt and your body free of tension.

The aftermath of an aggressive set also needs to be acknowledged. Athletes hit the whirlpool and ice down after a rough game in order to reduce the stiffness they know is coming. Singers usually wait until the next day to address their condition. Often, it’s too late. Once the folds become enlarged, every action of the larynx, even swallowing, becomes irritating. If you don’t have two weeks to rest, a warm down focusing on soft flexibility exercises will minimize soreness and provide a head start to the next day’s warm up routine. Don’t ignore the symptoms of fatigue. Warm down until your speech returns to normal. It’s ironic, but the more you respect your anatomy offstage, the less you’ll pay when you disrespect it onstage. Taking these pro-active steps will make all the difference between an aggressive art-form and vocal suicide.