Is my voice gone, or just severely out of practice?
April 20, 2012 5:01 PM   Subscribe

I didn't sing for eight years, and now I basically can't. Is my voice gone, or just severely out of practice? I'm 22 and female.

I used to have a good singing voice. Not voice-of-our-generation good, but you know, lead role in the 8th grade school musical good. I had only a two octave range, but a clear, consistent tone, and good pitch and control.

I stopped singing in 9th grade due to severe depression. That's really cleared up this past year (yay!), and I've started wanting to sing again. But my attempts have been pretty disappointing. My first attempt was four months ago, and I could barely sing for four seconds without stopping for breath. (I'm in decent shape, so I doubt it's general lack of aerobic fitness.) Also, my tone was incredibly weak and quivery.

I've improved a little since then—I'm stopping for breath less but still way too much. My tone is still really weak and thin overall, but once in a blue moon I'll hit a note stronger and actually like how it sounds. My control is still poor, and I'm really pitchy, but I guess at least I can hear it? My range on a good day is still two octaves, though moved down two notes (D3-D5 instead of F3-F5).

I never had any aspirations to be a professional singer, but hell if I don't miss singing along to the radio (and, OK, occasionally impressing people, but I promise I was never that obnoxious kid who sang all the time). Also, lately I've taken to writing parody songs, and I'd like to be able to sing them to people without my voice being an active distraction.

And now for the litany of questions: Are my goals realistic? Has anyone here dealt with something similar to this, and did your voice ever come back? Is the fact that I'm a bad singer now possibly due to puberty, and therefore something that would have happened even if I hadn't stopped singing for eight years? (I was a late bloomer.)

Do you have any advice, beyond obviously "practice"? I can't afford lessons now, but if I ever can in the future, do you think just taking a few would help (and is this something a teacher would resent)? Any chance a teacher would give me a straight answer on whether I'm out of practice or just a bad singer? Also, any ideas on where/how to practice without disturbing people? I try to judge when the neighbors are out of the upstairs apartment, but I'm probably not always accurate and I feel bad.

(Anon because I feel a teence narcissistic for writing an essay about my own voice. Throwaway email: pitchyanon at gmail dot com.)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Are you thinner than you were 8 years ago? The whole "fat lady sings" thing has a basis to it, you know: heavy people have to have stronger diaphragms, and that translates to more oomph in singing. Not saying you should gain weight, but you might need to consciously try to build your diaphragm muscles. Also try doing exercises that build the lung capacity, such as swimming or biking.

Are you on anti-depression meds? Maybe they have side effects that would affect your singing.
posted by parrot_person at 5:18 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your goals are totally realistic. Your voice isn't gone, but (a) you are correct that it's severely out of practice, compounded by (b) it's a different voice than the last time you tried to use it on purpose, so it's likely that vestigial reflexes are not really working for you either.

You have to let go of expectations from what you used to do and just start building it again. It may well be faster this time because you've already built up a strong voice once in your life, so your body will probably follow the process better. The out-of-breath phenomena is likely because you've lost the feel for the "sweet spot" for projection, so you're using way more air to compensate without even realizing it. If you can remember what easy projection felt like, get greedy for that feeling and start hunting.

When I have students in this position (usually less extreme, maybe a year or two away, but still similar issues) I try to get them playing/singing in situations where they can't over-analyze what's coming out (sing into a cup, sing with headphones on, distort it in some way), because otherwise the mental comparisons with what you used to be able to produce are way too demoralizing.

It'll come back. Be gentle to your voice. Keep practicing, practice in short intervals so you don't over-tax the vocal apparatus, and try to listen to your body. It'll totally come back.
posted by range at 5:23 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, your voice changes A LOT during puberty (more obviously for boys, but it happens to girls too), and will continue to change until you're like 30 whether you use it or not. If you had been singing the whole time, you would have compensated for most of those changes as they happened, but

range is full of good suggestions! Sing gently. Maybe try and make it a point to sing one song a day, in the shower or the car or wherever you feel safe. Like, one three-minute pop song or folk song. You'll be developing your singing muscles and getting a feel for what sounds and feels good. Find a song (or even a couple of phrases from a song) that feels good to sing, and think about what feels good and what you're doing when you feel good about the way you're singing.
posted by mskyle at 5:33 PM on April 20, 2012

I'm in decent shape, so I doubt it's general lack of aerobic fitness.

You could be able to run 10 miles in 10 minutes, but if you're untrained or out of practice singing, you're still going to get gaspy - it's a different skill, using (some of) the same muscles. My aerobic capacity is fairly terrible, exercise-wise, but I can hit and hold a note without much trouble, and sing a song without fucking up the phrasing beyond all recognition.

Keep practicing. Sing along to the radio or your mp3 player, and yeah, keep the singalong sessions short at first - and do some goofy warmup exercises! Remember to breathe from your diaphragm. If you feel yourself locking your jaw and tensing your neck to reach for a note, stop and breathe in - all the sound and power should be coming from deep in your belly, not above your shoulders. Drop your shoulders and make sure they're back (but not so far that you're sticking out your chest), roll your neck, stand up straight, don't lock your knees. Don't try to work on everything (control, pitch, volume) all at once. Let your body remember what it used to know how to do.

There are probably some non-harmful voice lessons available free or cheap on video. Poke around and see what there is.
posted by rtha at 5:34 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband and I took lessons with a music education (voice) major at a local college, just for fun because we like to sing like dorks in the car. It was inexpensive for us and the student was getting practice teaching and giving lessons. She had great technique tips but was willing to do whatever we felt like singing (dorky duets!) and however often and just a few if we wanted. We found her just by emailing the music ed department chair -- a lot of the students try to teach private lessons.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:15 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

there were a few years back in university where i hardly sang at all, and when i tried to sing again, it was so disappointing that i wondered if i had broken my voice. then i worked at a job where i sang for 30 minutes a day (just lullabyes and folk songs for teenagers at night) and within 6 months my voice was stronger and cleaner and on-tune-er than ever before. so - yes! you have the ear for it, you know HOW to sing, your vocal chords just need a reminder. maybe join a for-fun choir? is there sacred harp singing around you? church or community groups often sing for fun, maybe that would be okay for you?

as for your question for the eventual singing teacher - that sounds just like what singing teachers do - train people to use their voice. it's not all opera and professional stuff.

posted by andreapandrea at 6:46 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consider picking up a technique book such as Roger Love's Set Your Voice Free. It has exercises that will help a lot.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:55 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mollweide's wife here... I started studying voice 5 years ago, at the age of 40. Like you, I always sang, had a decent voice, could carry a tune. But voice lessons made a HUGE difference. I went from casual singing along to the radio, to singing with a local opera company.

From what you wrote, it sounds to me like you need to work on your breathing and also on the resonance, like, where your voice is coming out.

For breathing, fill up completely, all the way through your back. Fill up like you are an over-inflated inner-tube. Before you even start singing, just whistle out a tone from there, as long as you can. Push the air out by sucking in your abs. After you do that, next try lip trills. They're like blowing raspberries, but without the tongue. It'll feel ridiculous and you might need to stop to laugh. Next, try humming scales. Mmm Mmmm Mmmm. After that, try warmups saying 'Nyah, nyah, nyah...' because that will help you get the voice into the correct position. Basically, you want your voice to be on top of the air. Aim your voice at the bridge of your nose, so it comes up and over. Imagine imitatiing how Julia Child spoke. Only your abs should be engaged. Don't use your throat to push out air. Open wide, keep your tongue down and behind your teeth. Look at singers and see how widely they open their mouths. Sing in front of the mirror.

Next, if there's a specific song you'd like to learn, sing it only on vowels. For each phrase, fill up with air as I've described, and sing out just the vowels of the song, so they're all connected on the one long breath you let out. Only then should you stick the consonants in. For some people, consonants like R and L might cause you to close up, and your voice will fall back and come out straight instead of on top of the air, and you'll be flat.

As far as practicing goes, sing like no one is listening.

I think your goals are realistic. I also believe that a good teacher will tell you the truth, and would never be uspet that you can afford only a few lessons. Do what you need to do to follow your dreams. Good luck!
posted by mollweide at 7:46 PM on April 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Not to slam the Love book but do read the two star reviews, they seemed serious and thoughtful critiques of the exercises and physiology.

Have you looked into choirs? I bet there's a great wisdom if you can afford the time.
posted by sammyo at 7:47 PM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lessons would definitely help. But a community choir would be a great way to get back into it and improve and strengthen your voice, and it would be much less expensive than private lessons. A good director will often provide instruction to sections or to the choir as a whole in the kinds of techniques a private instructor would just in the course of rehearsal. I've learned a great deal just from my years in church and community choirs, and I know it has improved my voice considerably, as well as making me a better ensemble member.
posted by tully_monster at 8:08 PM on April 20, 2012

If I sing every day for a month or two, my voice sounds fantastic eventually. If I stop for a few months, it sounds like garbage again. It is a muscle (literally!) and you must exercise it. Sing in the shower!
posted by davejay at 9:59 PM on April 20, 2012

Most reputable voice teachers won't work with girls in their early teens because there are big changes that happen to the female voice during this time. So vast are these changes that the attitude is that whatever might be learned during that time will have to be unlearned and all new habits of good adult singing taught -- so the early-teen lessons are in fact worse than a waste of time, they actually will hinder later learning to sing.

This scary scenario I don't think applies to you because it appears you were singing fairly casually, i.e., not taking regular voice lessons. The point to be made though, is that most likely you are trying to sing now the way you sang then, the same technique I mean. That technique doesn't really apply any more. A way to think of this (though of course the example is more extreme) is to think of how differently a boy soprano and an adult baritone sing: he obviously can't place the sound in head voice as he used to. (The difference is that because the change in the male voice is so drastic and obvious, it rarely occurs to a male adult to sing like a child. But lots of young women try to sing as they did when they were girls, and it generally doesn't work.)

Ideally the way to develop the voice is to work with a competent voice teacher. An economical solution might be to check with a local or nearby college that has a voice department and see if there are students who teach. (Note that you may have to audition several different teachers to find one you can work well with.) You can also try choral singing which at least will give you some practice at staying on pitch and exercising the range.

Or, if you have access to a piano or keyboard, you can try working through the Vaccai Exercises on your own for a while.
posted by La Cieca at 10:52 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Absolutely second the recommendation to practice singing gently, and focus on fundamentals - good posture, singing from the diaphragm, arch your soft palette - because these all support your voice. Training them back into your muscle memory is more important than perfect tone right now.

Really good advice I received when getting back into singing after a long break: don't strain for notes, high or low. If a note is hard to hit, back off on effort and use your breath to get there, even if the result is quiet. That avoids straining your vocal chords and also results in a more satisfying singing experience.
posted by SakuraK at 11:33 PM on April 20, 2012

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