International vocal coach Stephen King explains how pro singers can use vocal massage to keep their voices in top shape.
Vocal massage is a series of manoeuvres to relax the para-laryngeal structures with the aim of restoring vocal function. It’s used as part of a multidisciplinary solution – along with speech therapy and vocal coaching – to help resolve issues such as Muscle Tension Dysphonia.
Most singers visit my clinic because of a diagnosis of tension, manifesting itself as a pathology. Symptoms I commonly see include: loss of range, a feeling of overwork to get clean closure in the upper register, an ache in the root of the tongue or the jaw locking while singing.
Once presented with a symptom, I tailor a treatment plan to relax and release the tense muscles and restore function. In one 30-minute session jaws can stop clicking and tongue roots can stop aching. A singer who includes vocal massage in their maintenance plan can help eliminate tension and prevent injury – all round excellent news for a professional voice user.
With my clients I find injury has occurred through three frames: overwork, lack of training and an inability to say “no”. Accidents do happen, of course, but they still tend to fall into one of the above categories. Unfortunately this is something of which I have personal experience; I injured myself while working as a performer (the circumstances around my injury were a combination of all three categories) and was forced to resign from a performance career in musical theatre. This drives my passion to help singers, whose time is not up, repair and recalibrate for a long and successful career.
An undertrained and inexperienced singer has the potential to damage themselves through vocal manoeuvres they are not safely executing. This can take form in many ways, for example when a singer shifts styles – without coaching or guidance – from performing in Les Mis eight shows a week to Bat Out Of Hell rock and scream vocals. Injury can happen from fatigue through overworking muscles, particularly the intricate muscles of the voice.
Part of my Masters level research centred around posture and how a performer’s “day job” affects their voice. If your day job requires you to teach tap dancing for example, and you are shouting to be heard above the music and tap shoes, your vocal loading is going to be high. Pair this with a rigorous show routine and tension will quickly set in.
Not being able to say “no” is something which is becoming more prevalent in the worlds of music and musical theatre. More and more graduate performers are willing to work for little money on jobs where they are not well treated. This can include singing without a mic but accompanied by a live band, performing three shows a day in blistering heat or cold in arenas, shopping centres and outdoor spaces, or failing to warm up before a show.
Human beings are tense, and we carry our tension around with us, be it physically, vocally or emotionally. With the voice being so emotionally connected to our being, any muscular tensions inhibit flow and sound quality and can lead to us pushing and gripping to get sounds that once easy to achieve. An elite athlete wouldn’t dream of going without massage as part of their multidisciplinary training, why should an elite singer?