Dreaded Reflux!

Several years ago, if you’d mentioned the word “reflux” to me, I’d have conjured up images in my head of a flask containing a solvent, a heating source underneath, and a water-cooled condenser in the top. OK, so not everyone has spent the time in chemistry laboratories that I have. Nevertheless, reflux is increasingly being used to describe what several years ago might have been called indigestion or heartburn. Of course, heartburn is a symptom, whereas the description of “reflux” is trying to get closer to what is actually happening. In the case of stomach acid, reflux – or Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux – describes stomach acid moving upwards out of the stomach into the oesophagus. For most people, this happens if they (over) indulge in many of the things they enjoy; rich food, spicy food, alcohol. For singers, however, it is something to be obsessed about to the degree that living anything approaching a normal life seems entirely out of the question. Of course singers are the one group of people who will find something, anything, to obsess about. We know it, non-singers know it, and it’s quite easy to parody! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR8Pfqe2Js4

The problem, insofar as it is perceived, is that the stomach acid can travel all the way up the oesophagus, and then start to work its way towards the larynx, causing irritation, swelling and other damage. Singers will often worry terribly about GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disorder – the “E” comes about due to our trans-atlantic cousins’ somewhat eccentric approach to etymology 😉 ). The major worry is that this will lead to reflux laryngitis. Almost any vocal problem is assumed to be due to reflux. Hoarse voice? Reflux! Bit of catarrh on a morning? Reflux! Can’t remember the words to the final scene in Act 3? Reflux! OK, so I made the last one up, but you get the idea.

So, what if you actually have none of the other associated symptoms of reflux? It’s still reflux, but it’s “silent reflux”. What about if you have an already diagnosed medical condition that fits all of the symptoms better? Nope, it’s bound to be reflux! I only mention this last one as I had direct experience of it. In the early days of the internet, I was told by a singer who I’d never met and who had never heard me sing that my catarrh and slight chesty cough that I sometimes get on a morning were caused by reflux, and not by the asthma that I was diagnosed with at the age of 3, and have regularly re-checked and monitored.

So, what’s the downside of thinking you have reflux? Well, it’s mainly the huge list of food and drink that you must “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!” The list mainly consists of tomatoes, garlic, onions, red wine, cheese, wheat and chilli. Recently I’ve been told that I should also avoid coffee – especially strong black coffee. Let’s face it, what we’re being told is to entirely avoid an Italian diet. I guess that’s ok, because after all, what have the Italians ever contributed to the world and culture of singing?

More seriously, whilst I have an increasing worry of the willingness of young singers to jump on whatever fad diet is currently in vogue, it often appears to be a search for blame rather than ever to admit there may be something lacking, or more accurately something still to be learned, in the area of vocal technique. Many excellent singers will tell you that they can eat a wider range of things when they know how to sing properly. I suppose it’s similar to the sportsman who gets a few lucky breaks in a match, but observes that the more they practice the luckier they seem to get.

If we are to sing excellently, then we must constantly observe ourselves, practice, get a second opinion from a good teacher, practice some more, read about how various singers describe their own singing, practice, read works by great teachers, practice again, and then if we think there is also an underlying medical condition, get it diagnosed and treated correctly. Adhering to an incredibly strict diet may not be fun, and may take a lot of time and effort – time and effort that could go into the more constructive things I’ve previously listed. In some cases it may end up causing more damage than good, although I’m not going to speculate because I am not a medical professional. However, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of someone who is a medical professional. Dr James Thomas is a physician who works in the area of voice disorders. His thoughts on the damage to the voice if you actually have reflux may surprise many people, and will certainly challenge some of the commonly held beliefs.

Enunciation in choral singing

“Over-pronunciate your continents!”

I’m sure that’s a phrase that many a church or cathedral chorister has heard from many a well-meaning choirmaster. The reasoning seems to be that absolute clarity of the text is paramount. That may or may not be a good thing, but my main issue with this approach, and also the problems that I have encountered teaching students who have had this background, is that it doesn’t generally lead to improved articulation. The reasons for this are twofold. Words are made up of consonants and vowels. Vowels are generally what we think of as the singing sound – it is what we extend to hold a pitch, or to hold over a melisma. Consonant, as a word, means “with sound”. This suggests that the consonant is linked to the vowel – many singers and vocal coaches say that the consonants “launch” the vowels. When the consonants are artificially and over pronounced, they tend to separate from the vowels. Many is the time you hear a choir singing Lotti’s Crucifux with a heavily asipirated “Kkhuh-rucifixus”, and the effect is that you lose the first “u” vowel. Similarly with the heavily accent “K” when singing any one of the many Kyrie Eleisons from the mass. On a subjective note, I prefer a more legato line in this style of music – the Lotti is a beautifully melismatic piece, and in breaking up the words much of this beauty is lost for me. I realise that this is subjective, and that many may prefer the more accented consonants. Of more concern to me as a teacher is that it leads to tension. Invariably, due to the excessive aspiration, the vowel is “grabbed” – often with the jaw – and you get a wide range of “singing faces”, many of which look more than a little unnatural. The reason for this tension brings me to the second point. Over-pronouncing consonants in this way is not what we do in spontaneous communication – ie speech. In everyday communication we vary our speech – rising and falling in intonation, varying the rhythm, and most importantly in this aspect, stressing certain syllables and words. We tend to stress the strong syllables of nouns, or important verbs – especially when they are commands , eg “Will you reMember to put the bin out!” When we stress these syllables, we don’t over pronounce or aspirate consonants. Moreoever, we eMphasise them, or stRess them, or Lean on them. Each of these examples is a consonant that can be extended and drawn out, but the principle is the same if you were to say “Don’t forGet to put the bin out!” When we do this, we tend to feel that we are talking from our core, possibly from our “hearts” or from the “gut”. When our speech is spontaneous in this aspect, there is a connection between our breath and the consonant – not a stretched over working of the mouth and the articulators. If we are to sing with clear words and a sense of conveying the emotion of song, rather than just the clear information, then this same approach must be there. Consonants must be part of the voice-body connection, on the breath and not separate from the vowel that follows. If we intend to sing as if we mean what we’re singing about, then we may find that the approach of over-pronouncing is leading us to over-pronounce the wrong syllable. Lets go back to my example of the Lotti “Crucifixus”. I’m sure even the non-Latin speakers among us realise that this word means “crucified”. If one were to suggest that I may be crucified for writing this article – and I may be – then I’m sure you’ll say “cRRucified” and not “Kkrucified”. The over aspirated K is not what you would do when spontaneously and genuinely stressing this word, but it is very common in singing of this particular piece. If singing is to be meaningful, then the words shouldn’t just be clear, but should be genuinely meaningful too.

“Classical music for kids? Waste of time and money!!”

I was taken recently by this comment article in The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/09/arts-audiences-white-metropolitan-middle-class-harriet-harman


In this article, Stephen Moss argues that it is a waste of time to take young people to see classical music concerts, because a performance of Orfeo would be wasted on a bunch of 14 year olds. Perhaps more telling, is that his own “Damascene moment” wasn’t until he heard an Italian friend playing a recording of Brahms’ Third Symphony when he was in his early twenties – that’s Stephen Moss, not his Italian friend (although it would be reasonable to assume the friend was in their early twenties too.) Pointless diversions apart, this idea that classical music is too mature for young people is simply ignorant. Basing the entire argument on the anecdote of the author is crass at the very least – and can best be illustrated by crassly basing an alternative viewpoint on the anecdotal tales of this author.


I remember the 70s. I remember them because I was born then – and a huge number of formative experiences happened in the years from 1971 to 1979. One of them was my father moving to work abroad (Saudi Arabia as it happens) and bringing us back radio/tape players as Christmas presents. This was a massive boost in the technology (and electricity consumption) in our little semi-detached in Leeds. Most of my family hail from the North East, and many of the aforementioned formative experiences involved riding in the back of a car up the A1 and A19 to Teesside or County Durham. One of my earliest musical memories was listening to a tape (when tapes were “cool”) of The Shadows playing a track called Mozart Fort. Something in the minor key melody had an immediate attraction. On one of our many “road trips” – they were little more than an hour at most, but seemed like a lifetime to a seven year old – I chanced upon Radio 3 when twiddling the dials, and heard the most beautiful sound of strings playing this very same tune. A certain amount of waiting for the presenter later confirmed this to be Mozart’s 40th Symphony – a work whose attraction has never diminished for me.


Now, had I never had that exposure, I may have followed my other musical leanings (ska in the early 80s, followed by rock and then jazz) and ignored classical music entirely. That early exposure kept it open as an option – as something to not be dismissed – in my growing aural world. I was lucky to have a musical family – my mother played piano, I inherited my Granfather’s violins. On the other hand, that musical opportunity may have been wasted on me had I not had my initial Mozart exposure at such a young age. It is all very well to claim that exposure may be a waste – but it is only exposure, not compulsion. A 14 year old is already part of a complex social structure. Peer pressure appears to rear its ugly head earlier and earlier. A 14 year attending a performance of Orfeo may love it – and yet be unwilling to express that appreciation for fear of kickback from their peer group. A seven year old would almost certainly have less trepidation. How many more “what’s the point?” arguments should be used in neglecting the artistic education of our young? “What’s the point in reading Shakespeare? I’m sure it’s too difficult, and what with Twitter we hardly have need for more than 140 characters.” “What’s the point in learning other languages? They’re really difficult, and kids will learn how to use Google Translate.” Now, I don’t want to go down the Reductio ad Absurdum route, but I think we can see where this could lead. Giving opportunities for everyone to at least hear, with un-prejudiced ears, great classical music cannot be a waste of time or money. It can merely lead to a more positive outcome for some than others. If we’ve already decided that 14 years old is too early to appreciate any classical music, then we’ve already written off the potential of one or maybe two whole generations. That, Stephen Moss, would truly be the waste.

The One True Way!

“Breakthrough method of singing”, “Certified Instructor”, “Master instructor in hypno-asian school of singing”, “My Bel Canto is Bel-er than your Bel Canto”.

We have all seen these claims, either in Google pop-up ads, or in the ever increasing business of self help books. More people want to sing, and everyone is after the book or method that will guarantee success. This seems inevitably to lead to “methods”, and to increasing claims that the advertised method is the only one that will work, and how it is unique and different from all other methods. We have vocal methods with trademarks, with certification procedures to ensure that all instructors will teach exactly the “one true method”, and not deviate from the script in any way. I sometimes wonder whether we are learning to sing, starting a political party or joining a religion.

Now, the first thing I have to say about the content of many of these methods is, it’s not all bad. In fact, many of the methods are based on fairly sound ideas of relaxation, vocalising without strain, and producing a free sound. I have no problem with any of this. It works, and we know it works, because it has been working for centuries. What I have a problem with are the claims from authors and teachers that they have made these discoveries and invented the exercises. I recently watched several “sampler” videos for voice lessons on YouTube. One involved a lady teacher demonstrating a breathing exercise where you inhale on a count of 8, hold for a count of 8 and exhale for a count of 8. This particular exercise is not harmful, although I seriously doubt it will really have much benefit on your singing (that discussion is perhaps for a different article). I was astonished though when this lady claimed that she invented this exercise herself. It is possibly one of the most widely used warm-ups in choirs across the Western World, and no-one could possibly believe that this lady was the sole inventor of it. I wonder what would have been the downside for this teacher to say “This is a very widely used exercise that has proven itself over decades of teaching. I’m going to show you how to do it properly.” It would have demonstrated research and knowledge on the part of the teacher, and a respect for the craft. And this is an important aspect. No matter how “contemporary” everyone wants their singing to be, it is necessary to realise that humans have sung for a very, very long time. It is an art that has developed over time, it has not suddenly been invented. Changes have occurred in musical styles, in the prominence of the voice and in instruments and technology to accompany and even amplify the voice. Nevertheless, the majority of the body and vocal function in singing is more or less the same as it ever was – only the detail, the periphery, has changed. It is difficult to argue with the fact that much vocal teaching originated in Italy, in the tradition of Bel Canto. I have seen around the internet discussions of the voice that Bel Canto is good for classical singing, but most singers now would run a mile rather than sing classically. It is strange, therefore, that the very teachers that say this are often using the same very principals of Bel Canto – often given English names. Others claim to properly teach Bel Canto, having learnt it from the last living survivor who taught true Bel Canto at the turn of the century (conveniently forgetting that composers such as Rossini were claiming Bel Canto was dead around 1830). Google “Bel Canto Technique” if you think I’m exaggerating this last point!

So, where does this leave the idea of methods and schools of singing? When I was studying for my PhD in Chemistry, I heard a quote from a colleague: “There is nothing worse for a scientist than a theory that he wants to be right.” It is very similar to the quote from Emile Chartier “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.” If we claim that the way we have learned to sing – or discovered how to teach – is the only true way, then we have a duty to point out how everyone else does it wrongly. However, we hear examples of good singing all the time – and there have been examples of good singing for centuries. A moments thought should tell us that there are different ways of achieving our goal of good singing. The end result is what is important, not the purity of our learning. My learning came principally from the late Howard Milner. My teaching therefore draws on many of his ideas, but I do not teach exactly the same. We are different people, with different personalities and educations, and therefore cannot reproduce exactly the same lessons. We borrow and acquire our tools and ideas from many different sources. In fact I did learn an important lesson from Howard regarding methods and schools. “There is only one true method; The Magpie Method. If something works, steal it!”

Bold Claims

I came upon an interesting piece of advertising today. As you might imagine, I quite regularly use Google to see what other voice instruction is being offered in my geographical area. I came across a website for a young teacher, “licensed” via one of the available methods of teaching singing (I may write more on my thoughts of these methods at another time). Most of the descriptions on the site, and incidentally of the linked site of the particular method, were in my opinion quite sound. There was little that I would disagree with, and in fact a description of how to choose a singing teacher that I believe would reflect very favourably on how I teach. However, one particular part of the teacher’s website caused me to react. The teacher expects that early lessons with a new student would involve an understanding of what is happening functionally with the voice, and also exercises to improve the voice. Well, nothing to argue with there. The next phrase is a bit much though “with no other teacher in the Nottingham area will you find a more thorough breakdown of what is functionally happening in your voice.” Initially I felt a little insulted by this – hopefully I am viewed as a teacher with a thorough understanding of the functionalilty of voice production (it is certainly an area of study that takes up a lot of my time). After a little reflection, I decided it was just symptomatic of many of the more exaggerated claims that one is likely to find on websites. Of course, this particular teacher has no way of validating his claim, as they have no idea what the others of us in the area may be doing in lessons. A quick search of the area will find at least two very well regarded teachers working within specialist voice units of the NHS. I suspect that their knowledge of the functionality of the voice is as good as anyone would come to expect. Furthermore, a quick search revealed that the teacher of the bold claims has been teaching for a year, and singing for around 3 years. Even my own relatively recent start in the world of teaching is now approaching 5 years, with 15 years of singing study preceding this move. Now, this might all mean nothing. Regardless of experience, this teacher cannot know what I and others teach in the way of voice physiology and function because they have never observed us working. In the same way, I cannot say if their expertise belies their inexperience. For that fact, I can only claim what I offer – not in any way compare it to what others can offer, because I simply cannot validate such claims. I will not offer to be better, different, superior, to other teachers. All I can do is give an indication of what I do, what my expertise is, and how I hope to help your long term singing and vocal health. I may miss the advertising opportunities of wild claims, but I remain with a fairly clear conscience that I am doing this for the right reasons.

Let it Happen – Part 3

Let It Happen – Part 3: There’s a tongue in my cheek!

In the previous two articles, I have addressed the idea that we can start a flow of energy which corresponds with breathing, and then we can let it happen. There are, in my opinion, various imagery ideas that can be used to keep our minds in the “allowing” mode rather than the “controlling” mode. Since it is inevitable that we will think about our throats and mouths at some time during singing, then what can we do here? Again, I think that the language and imagery we use is extremely important. I was reminded of this whilst attending a recent event organised by the British Voice Association. Several mentions were made of sub-glottic pressure, and the need for increased sub-glottic pressure when raising pitch. To my mind, the word pressure immediately causes more pressure and tension than is necessary. If I were to say to a student that they need to increase sub-glottic pressure, then I can be fairly sure that they would quickly increase tension in the upper chest, across the collar and in the neck. So, why the need for sub-glottic pressure?

Fluids (gases and liquids) flow from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. When we see weather forecasts on TV and we have an area of low pressure over us, we know that air will rush in from an area of higher pressure, causing wind. If that area of higher pressure is somewhere cold, then it will bring cold winds – and associated weather! When we sing, we need air from our lungs to pass through the larynx. Therefore we need sub-glottic pressure (pressure in the area below the larynx) to be higher than supra-glottic pressure (pressure in the area above the larynx). More often than not, supra-glottic pressure is ignored, because whether consciously or sub-consciously, people assume this to just be atmospheric pressure, and therefore something that we cannot affect. This isn’t entirely accurate. After passing through the larynx, the air must negotiate other parts of the vocal tract and then the mouth before it emerges into the atmosphere. The first part of this is the pharynx.

In this diagram, the label of the pharynx is pointing at an area called the oropharynx. For simplicity, we can assume this to be a tube (cylinder) shape. The diameter of this tube can clearly be affected by pulling the tongue back and making the space smaller. Any fluid flowing through a tube will create resistance to its own flow. According to Poiseuille’s Law, this resistance can be expressed as follows.

R=\frac{8\eta L}{\pi r^4}

where η is the viscosity of air (constant in this case), L is the length (again we will assume it is constant) and r is the radius (cross section of the tube). If we were to half the width of the pharynx (radius) by pulling back on the tongue, the resistance to the air flowing through would increase 16 times. In other words, in order to get the same flow of air through the larynx we would need to push air sixteen times harder, or increase sub-glottic pressure sixteenfold. Conversely, if we allow the tongue to relax forwards in the mouth, we take away resistance. We retain the pressure differential that is required for airflow not by increasing sub-glottic pressure, but by taking away things that are in the way. Suddenly we find that things can flow, that unrestricted movement can occur, and that we can go with the flow. Undoubtedly there is a release of both tension and conscious control when this happens. Sometimes a feeling of resistance makes us feel secure, and makes us feel that we can “go at it” a little more confidently – just ask any golfer whether they prefer putting uphill or downhill! However, in accepting and going with the flow we can find an easier relationship with our own voice and our own expression.

So, my tongue isn’t really in my cheek. Hopefully it is remaining in my mouth rather than in my throat. Gormless expressions really can be of benefit in singing. Slack jaw, lolling tongue, open throat and flowing sound. After all, why would we want to make singing more effort?

Let it Happen – Part 2

In the previous article, I remarked on some of the background to the idea of “letting go”, and thinking of allowing movement of breath to come from the root, the Tan Tien point of Tai Chi. This flow, this movement, this source of energy is what drives our singing. Nothing else can work without it, because this is the very energy that we transform into sound. The first part of the process must be to ensure that the engine is running. Relaxation of the abdomen is important to allow muscular processes that are beyond our conscious control to occur. To our conscious brain it often appears that abdominal movement follows breath, rather than generates it. This is quite normal, and learning how to follow movement rather than instigate or control it is an important step in singing. Moshe Feldenkrais, in his book “Awareness Through Movement” writes that movement is the basis of awareness, and that breathing is movement. Becoming aware of the movement of breathing, and letting it guide us, rather than vice-versa, gives us mental focus without imposing conscious, and clumsy, control. What, then, of these commonly used terms in teaching singing; “support”, “breath control”, “use your diaphragm”?

Firstly, let’s address the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle that runs roughly around the lower part of the rib-cage. It divides your trunk in two, separating the abdomen from the thorax. Its principal function as a muscle is to inhale. By contracting, the dome flattens downwards, pushing down on the contents of the abdomen and increasing the volume (and consequently decreasing the pressure) in the thorax. Air is pushed into the lungs to equalise the pressure, and the result is that we have breathed in. Now for by far the most of our waking lives, and pretty much the entirety of our sleeping lives, we are unaware of this process. The diaphragm is generally referred to as a non-volitional muscle. Normal breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system and outside of conscious control – this is a good thing, especially when we are asleep. Since this is the case, we do not have sensory nerves attached to our conscious peripheral nervous system in the diaphragm – put more simply, we don’t feel it working. We can be aware of the diaphragm in action through its effects on the other parts of our body, but the diaphragm itself is not sensed, nor is it controlled consciously. Immediately we can see that conscious commands such as “support from your diaphragm” are not really helpful – or indeed possible! So what does the diaphragm do in singing, and what can we do to make this as correct as possible. Mainly, during singing, the diaphragm can control the rate of airflow. By maintaining activity, effectively “breathing in”, the diaphragm regulates the energy flow that comes up from the lower abdomen. We feel this activity, this regulation of the energy, in natural activities such as laughter. When laughing we breathe out first, and the diaphragm holds back and then lets go of this breath in a series of pulses that gives rise to recognisable laughing sounds. When laughter becomes uncontrollable, we feel quite extreme activity around the lower ribcage and call it side-splitting laughter.

So much for emotional responses in laughter. How can we access this regulating activity during singing? Well, firstly we can decide not to interfere. Clearly the diaphragm does its work without drawing too much attention to itself, so deciding that we can consciously do something to improve it is not going to work. Acceptance, and a sense of “going with the flow” is more useful. Imagery can play a great part in this process. Our imaginations can be used to reach beyond volitional barriers and access our subconscious, and our nervous systems. Many of us will have heard (and probably used) the advice that if we are about to perform and are nervous and have dry mouths, we imagine biting a lemon and this helps to produce saliva. A simple image is used to effect a change that we cannot do consciously. Similarly, meditation can be used, with practice, to regulate heart beats and breathing patterns. Imagery needs to be relevant to the particular student, there are very few universal images that work. This is where the skill and experience of the individual teacher is necessary in finding useful and workable models for each student. There are plenty of starting points – in her book “Freeing the Natural Voice”, Kristin Linklater uses many such images and these are all worth trying. Similarly, reading around subjects such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) can give a sense of how to start building mental image models.

From experience, I can say that exercises that develop staccato singing are very good for becoming aware of the activity of the diaphragm. Many of these take the form of laughter – after all a good amount of laughter in singing lessons can be a fantastic way of learning. Very importantly, these exercises and images can yet again help to take thoughts away from the throat, and those difficult strap muscles referred to in the previous article.

Letting go, and allowing the movement of energy in the form of breath can be the most important aspects of learning to sing. Last thoughts on this matter go to Cornelius Reid and Cicely Berry.

By restoring circulation of energy to the entire body through release of the breathing mechanism, one is made to feel alive. This feeling immediately reflects itself in the response of the vocal organs in singing. The throat loses its feeling of tightness” (Reid)

If we let go, we release our own sound. Otherwise, we create the acceptable” (Berry)