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  • Writer's pictureDarryl Edwards

Vocal Strain in Young Boys


E-MAIL QUESTION I have been to a few of your workshops over the years and was wondering if you might be able to offer me some insight into the possible causes for vocal strain in young boys.

I am a music teacher at a boys independent school in Toronto, and I have noticed that some of my students (JK – Grade 4) exhibit a raspy quality of voice and have difficulty producing a clear sound in an appropriate register. They typically demonstrate strong aural skills and yet they can not repeat a pattern without exhibiting tension in their neck and/or raising their chins. I don’t think that it is normal for a young healthy boy to have a raspy or strained voice when speaking or singing but perhaps I am wrong?

Is anyone presently conducting research in this area and if so could you please recommend some articles that you think might be valuable.  Any advice or direction would be greatly appreciated!

A: Thanks for your email and for your observation, curiosity and concern! I wonder if this situation is peer or socially influenced, ethnically influenced, media induced, stress based, is arising out of current diet and nutritional factors or other contributors. It could even be perceptual or cognitive, depending on the “sing back” circumstances.

My first reaction is that boys approach activities with a lot of energy, and they are prone to display it, too. My wife Dianne, who is regularly teaching young children in her singing classes, confirms your observation. She responded by saying that “Boys are often shout and blatty. They will, however change their sound if you ask them to sing it in their “lighter voice,” their “higher voice” or “beautiful voice,” and that brings about the easier singing production.

That’s the first and simplest answer. I’ll add further as appropriate!


Email Q:  I am wondering what tactics you might use with a singer who uses their swallowing muscles with which to sing…

A:  What a fascinating topic! Sometimes it’s an easy fix; sometimes it’s not. I could write on this for hours and hours, but here’s my point-form version.

1. It’s about inappropriate substitution of the breath inhalation and follow-through, right?! What’s needed is a compassionate confrontation of the guilty muscles, and a persistent, mindful replacement of spending the breath with the proper muscle antagonisms, i.e., support. 2. WHY are the swallow muscles being used? i) Anxiety of various kinds – need to overachieve, fear of being judged or of the unknown ii) Over-breathing? iii) Under-breathing? iv) misunderstanding of what’s happening, e.g. using your vocal tract as a vibration source rather than a resonation source: v) listening to one’s own contrived and dysfunctional sound, and liking it?!

As you know, these all have their own solutions. Getting back to identifying the sources of breath, vibration, resonance and articulators is a big clarifier. It’s like calling the computer help line and the helper asks, “Is your computer plugged in” (And it isn’t.)

3. Timed Interference: In the “Imagine–>breathe(–>)sing continuum, we often impose a mental or physical resistance of various kinds because that effort gives it a greater purpose. The resistance is easier to define and fight against, and it adds a palpable struggle to our art making. What if it’s not so hard? (Well, that can’t be right… it must be hard, right?)

4. Here are a few exercises I use to solve the issue of interference. There’s nothing new here! i) Inhale through a straw and remove it and sing – the switch must be instant. It clarifies the muscle groups used in breathing and singing. ii) Inhale through the nose and sing on a voiced th or z. iii) Curl your tongue up and back, and sing on that. It released the larynx downward and deactivates the swallow muscles from supporting. Then, sing on the vowels of the text, only. iv) /g/-based tongue twisters, like “girl gargoyle, guy gargoyle,” “Giddy-up, Gideon,” “Bigidagabida Bigidagabida.” This helps the singer to distinguish between what is articulation, what is blockage or erroneous support, and what is freely flowing. v) “Use the breath you take in the sound you make.”  (This is for the breath hoarders). vi) This should be sooner on the list. Check for consonant or pitch anticipations that are stopping the air and acting as fake support. Sometimes they are happening all over the place and the singer hasn’t noticed it at all. vii) Near-silent inhalations. Clarifying that the breathing tube (trachea) is in front, and the food tube (esophagus) is behind it. viii) Giving yourself permission to raise or lower your energy level to a higher or lower number out of 10, as required. 2’s need to be at 8, 10’s need to be at 4-6.

5. The other strategies regarding “2. WHY” – in the order above – are i) enough sleep, exercise, and strategies for thought management ii) and iii) breathing appropriately for what the music and dramatic moment ask of us. Following the Goldilocks Principle: “It’s not too _____; it’s not too _________; it’s just right!” A singer shared with me that Ermanno Mauro once wisely told him in a master class: “Don’t breathe too much!” iv) body mapping the difference between what is real and what has been imagined. v) Audio/video feedback and teacher feedback.

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