Tips from a singing voice specialist on dealing with vocal injury

Peggy Baroody works with singers with vocal injury

Margaret (Peggy) Baroody is renowned for her work helping to rehabilitate singers with vocal injury. She’s also a teacher and singer herself. She spoke to LINE HILTON.

For almost 30 years singing voice specialist (SVS) Peggy Baroody has worked alongside top ENT Dr Robert Sataloff at his voice practice in Philadelphia. (It’s a world-beating clinic, read more about it HERE).

She’s widely recognised for her work with injured voices and is the author of more than 25 published articles on voice.

A former professional mezzo soprano, Baroody also teaches at John Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory.

How did you come to work with injured voices?

For many years I was a singer and a teacher, although singing always came first. When I realised in my mid-30s that I wasn’t going to have the kind of career that I wanted to as a singer, I decided to switch my priorities.

Dr Sataloff was my principal voice doc at the time so when I became interested in working with the injured voice, I spoke to him.

He recommended I go to a Voice Foundation meeting (an annual symposium in New York) to learn more. I went and it was wonderful – but I didn’t understand half of what they were saying because it was very much scientific jargon and medical terms. I then spent time observing the work of the speech therapists and the singing voice specialist in Dr Sataloff’s office. It was fantastic training and I got to ask lots of questions. I started taking private referrals and when an opening came up at Dr Sataloff’s office I joined. We’ve been together 29 years and it’s been great.

What’s different in the way that you approach the voice, when you’re working with someone with a vocal injury?

The biggest consideration with an injured voice is the nature of the injury. That determines what you do, and what you expect to hear when the singer is using appropriate technique.

With a healthy voice, if the technique is right and there is enough freedom in the sound and enough relaxation, you expect to hear a stronger, clearer, better voice. With an injured voice, oftentimes the better the technique the worse they sound.

Is there a common mistake that singing teachers make?

Trying to get breathiness out of a voice by attempting to get better adduction of the vocal folds. That’s fine if the problem is just a little weakness in one vocal fold. But if the vocal folds aren’t coming together because there’s a bump there, and you’re trying to give them exercises that increase adductory force, you’re only making that bump worse.

If someone comes in with a mass, what I’m going to try and do is decrease the amount they use their voice and decrease their volume. I give them very gentle exercises, encouraging them to use better technique but without forceful contact.

How do you know if a singer is doing the right thing technically?

It comes down to the expertise of the teacher. The ears of the teacher are critical.

I feel as an experienced teacher I can usually hear or sense if there is unnecessary muscle engagement that creates inefficiency. But I’ve been teaching since I was 22 and I’m now 67.

Dr Sataloff will tell you that even with all the sophisticated equipment we have for analysing voice, there is no better instrument in the world for detecting changes in the human voice than the well-trained ear of a teacher.

But you also need to understand that it’s not for diagnostics. I may hear breathiness, but I don’t necessarily know what’s causing it.

What are the most common tools that you use in your work?

With almost every patient I like to start a session by stretching the vocal folds. I’ll always do a lip trill or a tongue trill, whatever they do more easily, because we believe there is less vocal fold contact when you do those manoeuvres. You still get the stretch when you go up and down the scale, without a lot of contact.

Then it comes down to breathing, posture, release of the tongue and jaw, sense of space, and understanding of sensations of resonance.

Do you have a different approach for a singer who comes from a contemporary world?

No. The initial exercises are basically the same. As they begin to improve, I begin to try and apply what we’re doing to their style of singing.

In terms of breath support, if I get a high-level professional singer in the office, I ask them to show me what they do for support. If it’s moderately reasonable I don’t touch it.

What would you like singers to understand about the voice?
  1. Every voice is finite and has a limit beyond which it cannot go without beginning to break down. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care how perfect your technique is, or how perfect your vocal folds are, there are limits. Most singers who make it – regardless of their style of singing – have come to understand that already.
  2. Understand that even if your technique is perfect and you’re in great health and doing everything right, you can get hurt. And it’s not your fault. You’re like a high-level athlete. You’re pushing the envelope with your voice and there is a risk of injury.
  3. If you do get injured, there is help out there. You need to find an appropriate doctor and get a good diagnosis and get good clinical voice support for yourself.
  4. I want singers to know that when they get injured, they’re not alone. It can be one of the most isolating, stressful times but it happens to lots of people. Full recovery is a strong possibility if you get the right kind of help and you get it early enough. As soon as you recognise you have a problem that is going on longer than it should, consult a voice doctor.

Follow Peggy Baroody on LinkedIn.

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