Voice management for Carnatic vocalists

 Prakash. B

How can a Carnatic music singer improve the quality of the voice?
Just one of the many questions that cropped up in the mind of Prakash. B, who is a lecturer in speech and hearing at Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Research Institute, Chennai.


Prakash went on to research on the subject and his presentation has recently won him the prestigious Fulbright scholarship for further studies in the USA.

On the eve of his departure to the USA, Prakash spoke to Revathi R of Kutcheribuzz to share details of his work in this less-known area.

Are you a singer by any chance? What led you to study on voices and musicians?
I am not a singer! I am a post graduate in speech pathology and work as a speech pathologist and audiologist in this hospital and I treat the common disorders in speech. Of late, I find that the number of singers calling up for medical help and advice regarding voice management are on the increase. But a very few speech pathologists treat the professional voice in India. So I started studying the human voice in Carnatic music. I developed an interest in understanding the vocal dynamics involved in the singing-voice especially those of Carnatic singers. I have started learning music now to understand the techniques of singing.

Is voice management a new subject to India?
In the west, every music school has professionals like the laryngologist - a medical specialist who will analyse the structure of the voice box and a voice specialist who will analyze the use and the scope of the voice box and recommend a suitable pitch for the student. Apart from these specialists, a psychologist and a musician evaluate the aptitude of the student for learning music. The students are admitted to music classes only after undergoing these initial steps and at every stage, the team monitors the use of the voice by the student. In India, all this is still a rarity.

What are the common complaints from singers?
Mainly singers have difficulty in maintaining the voice at a very low or very high pitch. They have difficulty in singing or executing long phrases through the range. The voice breaks while transiting registers / scales (for example - from Mandara sthayi to Madhya sthayi and Tara sthayi). Also they have problems in maintaining appropriate volume and dependence on microphone amplification causes deterioration in the quality of the output. Many a time, singers do not recognize the false vocal chords vibrating in tension, which leads to less clarity in the voice.

 Prakash. B

So how do you treat them?
We take a careful history of the use and the nature of the voice. We identify if there are any abusive behaviour of the voice and suggest modification. We evaluate the pitch, resonance (nasality), loudness and the use of the breath (breath support) using computerised gadgets and also provide bio-feedback through them.

Prior to these, a visual examination of vocal chords, with the help of a laryngologist makes treatment easier. After completing the evaluation, we prescribe advice on appropriate use of breath, the right postures, breathing exercises and the right vocal hygiene and vocal diet.

Tell us more about vocal hygiene and vocal diet
The right technique and musicianship alone may not be sufficient for singing. We need to maintain the voice box to have a healthier voice. In order to maintain the voice box, there are certain practices called vocal hygiene. Use of appropriate and natural voice, avoiding throat clearing, smoking and liquor are a few suggestions. Screaming, singing in inappropriate registers / scales and overuse of voice may lead to problems.

Vocal diet is part of vocal hygiene. Intake of sufficient water with frequent sips of water, natural dotes of vitamins through vegetables and fruits are good vocal diets. But one must avoid those vegetables and fruits you are allergic to. Supplements of protein to manage wear and tear is suggested. So you must take milk and pulses. Avoid recreational and 'across-the-counter' drugs.

What would be the right age to start learning music from the view of a speech pathologist like you?
Normally, till the age of seven or eight, fixation of right scale (shruti) is difficult. So the possibility of singing at a wrong scale is high, which may adversely reflect on the artiste's career later. In western countries, they follow the system of admitting children to music school only at the age of 8 or later. The children can be introduced to listening to music and they can be trained to develop aptitude for learning music right from an early age, say around three. Again, the scale changes for boys at the pubertal age and the choice of scale at that age is to be done carefully.

What is your suggestion for boys of that age who are taking to music?
The opinion differs in this case. Professional music teachers, especially the traditional teachers feel that they should continue practising music so that the voice gets used to the change of scale. But I would personally suggest that they should be careful in using the voice and have enough rest at that time, so that they do not end up choosing the wrong scale and have abusive voice pattern. They should make sure that there is less of abuse or overuse of voice at that age.

Apart from treating common complaints, how else do you help singers?
Voice management is an art. It is a combination of physiological and psychological procedure. Singers should understand the nature of their own voice and assess the range within which they can comfortably sing. The ear is to be trained to identify their own voice and avoid singing in false voice. One should not try to mimic another singer, as it would give rise to stress on his or her voice. A healthy mind, positive thinking, right diet and proper exercise will help a singer maintain the voice better. Periodical consultation with a team of voice specialists will help in identifying vocal problems early and treatment can be initiated at the appropriate time.

What are the treatments available for voice problems?
Normally, we treat the voices with conservative exercises. Very rarely, a phono surgery is conducted (if there are untreatable nodules or mass lesions identified by the laryngologists). We conduct psycho-acoustic tests and make the singers work on vowels and nasal consonants. This is similar to the 'akaara sadhakam' suggested by professional music teachers. In fact, voice is the indicator of many physiological problems. Immediate attention to voice-related problems will avoid major health problems too.

Apart from medical treatment, we help the singer in voice projection, which means producing maximum effect with minimum effort. Generally, the singers of the opera use the singer's formant to project their voice through the modulation and resonance to establish the identity and achieve the quality of voice. This may be tried by a Carnatic musician also to produce better voice quality.

During a busy concert tour or for the 'December music season', a singer is compelled to take up many concerts, resulting in voice stress. How can they cope up with this situation?
It is true that a singer has to give frequent concerts during such situations. But, the traditional teaching of Carnatic music, emphasizes on the trained use of the voice, so that the singers face the situation with less difficulty. However, good sleep, balanced food and the right use of techniques (music, breathing and amplification) will minimize the stress and help them perform comfortably. But if the voice is strained and infected, complete rest and proper medication is advised. By proper medication, I mean, intake of medicines prescribed by a doctor or a speech pathologist. I am not against 'paatti vaidyam' or domestic medication. But it should be done very carefully. Some tips - do not drink very hot or very cold water. Do not gargle with salt water when not required as salt will irritate the throat.

What is your advice to young musicians?
Practise singing in the right sitting posture. One should not hunch and the shoulders should not be kept high or let loose. The body frame should look like a bird's wings. Learn to produce the umbilical voice - remember the lines of Saint Thyagarja - 'naabhi hrid kanta rasana'. This gives immense strength to the voice. The alignment to the exterior and the pleasantness, with which one sings, makes a huge difference in concert presentation. Finally, have a good liaison with the sound engineer on the stage, so that the stress on the voice is minimal. Consult voice specialists in case of any difficulty in producing the desired voice quality and do not try half-baked methods by yourself.

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