For those of you not up to date on recent events in the musical world, the world-famous British singer Adele had to cancel the remainder of her tour this year due to vocal troubles. This was not the first time she has struggled with vocal issues. In 2011, Adele had to get surgery for a polyp (a word which should send shivers down the spine of any singer) on her vocal folds.
Her troubles set the vocal world abuzz with comments on her vocal technique, as well as over-singing in general. Finally, a writer posted an article about how we should “Stop Shaming Adele.” He made several interesting comments, and I agree in general with them. When someone has a vocal issue, we should not self-righteously point fingers at them and say, “See, I told you so.” My heart goes out to her, and I hope she recovers.
With that said, I do believe there are things we can learn from any singer, both positive and negative. I wanted to put on my voice-teacher hat in this post to look at a few of them. Part one will deal with the issues of vocal technique. Part 2 will deal with where I believe Adele truly shines: artistry, honesty, and communication. Again, my goal here is not to gleefully point out her vocal foibles, but to observe some things that might help others out there in the world who want to be singers.
Lesson #1: Be Careful Not to Over-Sing
Over-singing can happen to anyone in any genre or style. Classical voice students spend years trying to perfect healthy vocal technique. Many of them take lessons from teachers with doctorates in singing from prestigious universities. Yet, even they struggle with vocal issues. I have known many classical singers who have been forced to go on vocal rest.
In the pop music world, it is not uncommon for singers to tour with several concerts a week. Even if they had perfect healthy vocal technique, the voice is not a sturdy instrument. It is no wonder singers like Adele, Sam Smith, and Meghan Trainor have had issues. It is exceptionally difficult to sing with such frequency.
When someone sings too much, it can tire the voice. This is why a lot of singers talk about “saving their voice” before a performance. When they say this, they mean talking less during the day, singing more lightly and delicately when they are practicing or doing a sound-check, etc. Singing is a marathon, not a sprint. Singers need to pace themselves accordingly.
Lesson #2: Breathing Is Foundational to Healthy Singing
Some vocalists and teachers I have known believe there is only one “good way” to sing. I always try to avoid the word “good” when talking about singing. That particular word is imprecise and subjective. However, there are principles of healthy vocal technique that I believe are the same no matter the genre or style. Perhaps the most important of these is what we call “breath support.” Singers need to expel just the right amount of breath in order to sing healthily. Using too little breath can cause an airy or throaty, sound; using too much can cause a pressed sound.
When I listen to Adele, I hear both over-expelling and under-expelling of breath. This causes the tenseness and throatiness which she uses for great emotional and communicative effect. That gritty, gravelly sound evokes the pain of how one feels when going through relationship problems. However, if one sings too frequently with throaty technique, it can result in severe vocal issues. A technique like that should probably be used sparingly and with great sensitivity to how the voice feels. This leads me to my last point.
Lesson #3: Be Sensitive to Your Voice
Singers should be sensitive to how their voices feel. If the voice hurts or feels exhausted, singers should pause and reflect, because they are entering dangerous vocal territory. Typically, they are either singing in an unhealthy manner, and/or they are over-singing. If they want to keep singing, then they need to make some changes (under guidance of a well-respected voice coach/teacher). If they are not planning on singing long-term, then they can keep singing the way they always have. That is a personal choice, one each singer has to make.
(This is the first in a two-part series on Adele’s singing. You can find the second post here.)