Excess Saliva While Singing, Part I, Vocal Masterclass #10

This two-part series is one of the most popular on my blog. The issue of excess salvia while singing is one I’ve never experienced,  but evidently it is pretty common!

Cate Frazier-Neely

Recently I worked with three singers who experience excessive saliva while they sing. They need to constantly stop to swallow and regroup before resuming phonation. Getting to the bottom of the issue was different for each one! What a puzzle.

In this first of a 2-part “Saliva Series,” I’ll describe one possible reason and my solutions/recommendations solutions for one singer. The next post will be on another reason and possible solution.

“Steven” is a bass with a church job who also sings with an established men’s a cappella ensemble with the name “The Suspicious Cheese Lords.” This organization is paying for each singer to have a private lesson with either Elizabeth Daniels or myself, as we have been their ensemble’s vocal clinicians for the past 7 years. When Steven came in, I asked him to tell me what he wanted to work on and he mentioned the saliva issue, among…

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What Lives in Your Breathing?

This may be THE most important thing a singer and a voice teacher needs to understand!

And if you haven’t subscribed to Justin Peterson’s History Vocal Pedagogy blog, do it! It is for singers and teachers of Popular and Americana Music as well as Classical Music. Justin invited me to be a guest contributor to his blog and this is a repost. I’ve taken a look at a passage from the writings of Cornelius Reid, who has deeply influenced many functional voice trainers of all kinds of musical genres.

“The willingness with which a singer responds to the energy charge when the throat opens will determine his ultimate potential for mastering a vocal technique that is functionally free.

This means facing up to the fear and anxiety that are ever present throughout the formative stages of training. No other phase of the learning process is quite as important as this. How the singer meets this challenge will determine whether or not his artistic ambitions will be realized…Since anxiety is so intimately bound up with physical contraction and fear of movement, one of the major problems during training is to break down the student’s innate dread of inner expression…”

Cornelius Reid (1911-2008)

I first discovered Cornelius Reid’s trilogy (The Free Voice, Bel Canto in Principle and Practice and Voice: Psyche and Soma) in graduate school. I resonated deeply with each of these books.  Reid’s work, and the work of those who’ve developed his concepts in registration and the role of the psyche in singing since then have formed a basis for the unusual variety and depth of my life’s work.

All teachers of singing need to viscerally understand that histories of vocal pedagogy and of oral musical traditions don’t just change with time. They both have an eternal quality of circling back to embrace roots and then burst forward again in new growth. One feeds the other and around they go, like a wagon wheel moving along the singing trail. They weed out, add to and hold fast – not so much by specific exercises – but by underlying principles, overarching concepts and use of language.  

Recently, the above Reid paragraph struck me in a new way.  He wrote: “The willingness with which the singer responds to the energy charge when the throat opens….”

What?? What does Reid mean by “willingness to respond to the energy charge when the throat opens?” First of all, he refers to the throat opening as a response to the energy charge. The energy charge comes first! Singing doesn’t even start with the breath or “inhalation.” The throat doesn’t initially open by “creating space,” “placement” or even by getting into character or poetic understanding.  It isn’t shaped by “lifting the soft palate,” or “lowering,” “raising,” “tilting” (or whatever-ing) the larynx, or by supporting with the intercostals or transverse abdominals or skilled use of the articulators. 

Reid suggests that the initiation of  things ‘happening’ is dependent upon how much a person is willing to respond  to “The Charge.”

One of my primary voice teachers, Elizabeth Daniels, spoke about “the thing” that happens before you even breathe to sing, and how, if anyone identifies “the thing” they’ll win a Nobel Prize. Daniels’ teacher was Todd Duncan, George Gershwin’s hand-picked Porgy for the premier of Porgy and Bess. Duncan evidently used to say that the way the throat is responding before the breath is taken will determine the freedom of the singing afterwards. And my father, a brilliant and loving full-time church musician, used to say “Cultivate a belly of fire, an open heart and a mind of ice.”  And maybe one of the most unique things a teacher can do in our current day and age is help clear a singer’s charge and free it from static so that functional training can take root.

The “energy charge,” to which Reid refers has not been measured by science, but is the result of the urge to sound, or express, as part of our natural makeup up as bioelectric beings. There are many kinds of energy, or electrical phenomena produced within living organisms and within the earth itself.  

The late Dr. Meribeth Dayme wrote in the third edition of her book Dynamics of the Singing Voice:

J. Diamond (1983) has defined “life energy” as being a vital force that is physical, mental and spiritual in nature: the physical being reflected in the muscular activity and the functioning of the skeletal system: the mental including thoughts and the ability to be centered; and the spiritual that begins as spirit which is signified by the love and humanity within each person. He has also noted that everything in the environment, both physical and psychic–thoughts, feelings, desires affects life energy. 

(Diamond’s trilogy examines this life energy in The Life Energy in Music, vol. I, II, and III. New York: Archaeus Press)

I believe that this is all part of the unencumbered charge to which Reid refers. Or to put it another way, what is The Charge free of? Reid gives us an answer: it is free of anxiety. 

Voice and acting teachers, actors, dancers, singers, and healers have been weaving together somatic re-education, movement, mindfulness, nutrition and wellness, bodywork, rehabilitative tools, and intention for over forty-five years now. These ways of uniting the mind-body split in our culture help to heal and repair our willingness and ability to respond to The Charge. It’s that initial thing that has to be allowed before we release and engage our body’s pressure systems to breathe. Yes, the “charge” is our response to life, music, our mission, our joy, our motivation. But it also must be free enough to allow all the ‘things’ that we observe in voice science (including whatever  latest research has been reported!) and continually define and redefine in vocal pedagogy to work.

The emotions we feel aren’t the same thing as the energy charge that Reid mentions. It seems to me that many singers are vocally reflecting the angst of the times, rather than establishing how to deliver expression of angst without having the throat shaped by anxiety. Teachers, mentors, coaches, producers, conductors and directors should help to create an environment that supports The Charge. But since that is not always the case, part of a singer’s training must develop a willingness to respond with their own charge, within themselves. Each singer, as they mature throughout their lives, carries the responsibility of protecting their own Charge so that functional training can take root over time and release a naturally musical and expressive soul.

Reid’s next sentence is,

This means facing up to the fear and anxiety that are ever present throughout the formative stages of training. No other phase of the learning process is quite as important as this. How the singer meets this challenge will determine whether or not his artistic ambitions will be realized.

This is where we do get a bit of historical pedagogy root rot, because it’s not only in the formative stages of training that this may occur, but can occur at regular intervals throughout our artistic adult lives as we grow, change and navigate life. We can become disconnected from our spirits and learning to listen to our bodies as the Ultimate Wisdom. Sometimes what our bodies are telling us is in direct conflict with what we’ve built in our careers and private lives, and in direct conflict with our motivations. This conflict, by itself, will warp “the charge.” 

His final words of the paragraph are:

“Since anxiety is so intimately bound up with physical contraction and fear of movement, one of the major problems during training is to break down the student’s innate dread of inner expression…”

We’re brought back to the rise of somatic tools, dance, all kinds of advances in healing, to aid release of physical contraction and fear of movement. We cannot solve the student’s anxiety—that is their journey. 

We can only journey through our own limitations, freeing ourselves in huge and tiny ways as we go. And that is how we free the charge in the students and groups with which we work.

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul….

-Walt Whitman, American poet

So, what does this all mean for you?

A Singer Diagnosed With “Vocal Cord Dysfunction”

Recently a singing student of a colleague received a diagnosis of “Vocal Cord Dysfunction” from an ENT. The voice teacher asked on a forum what that meant. Those of us who work with injured singing voices responded that Vocal Cord Dysfunction wasn’t a diagnosis.

Any vocal fold injury or pathology creates “vocal cord dysfunction.” Right?? That is perfectly logical.

Evidently, in the medical community “Vocal Fold Dysfunction” is another name for “PDFM”–Paradoxical Vocal Fold Movement.

And, evidently, ‘Vocal Cord Dysfunction’ is not categorized the same as ‘Vocal Fold Injury.’ However, both affect movements of the vocal folds and the larynx.

PVFM doesn’t refer to one specific vocal fold injury diagnosis. It’s anything that causes “an episodic unintentional adduction of the vocal folds on inspiration.”  Which means the vocal folds are working backwards—they close when the patient tries to inhale. Normally the vocal folds open upon inhalation.

Can you imagine how awful that would feel? However, Kerrie Obert, a Clinical Voice Specialist at The Ohio State University and Dept. of Otolayrngology and co-author of The Owner’s Manual to the Voice: A Guide for Singer’s and Other Professional Voice Users, says

While scary, one of the things to know is that oxygen levels remain normal during an attack. People with this disorder feel they are not getting enough air but they actually are. It is one of the things that distinguishes it from asthma or other respiratory disease. It is basically a behavioral problem and generally remedied with just a few sessions with an SLP.

This voice disorder ALSO has other alias’, such as laryngeal dyskinesia, inspiratory adduction, periodic occurrence of laryngeal obstruction, Munchausen’s stridor, hysterical croup and irritable larynx syndrome….just to name a few!

Kristine Pietch, SLP at Johns’ Hopkins’ Dept. of Neck and Head in Baltimore and Bethesda, Maryland and a fine singer, noted that

We don’t like the term ‘vocal cord dysfunction’ in our clinic for the reasons you describe (very non specific!) but it is the one that most pulmonologists use and that our patients hear first! I see a number of these patients every week and on my handout have to write “vocal cord dysfunction AKA paradoxical vocal fold motion” and NOW I’m probably going to have to add yet another…ILO aka inducible laryngeal obstruction which has been taking off (especially outside of the US). Too many terms…..very very confusing….

Paradoxical Vocal Fold Movement is misdiagnosed frequently as asthma because the symptoms are:

  • Noisy or wheezy inhale
  • A feeling of not inhaling enough air when playing sports or singing but recovers quickly, within 5 minutes.
  • Asthma or allergy medications don’t help with breathing problems
  • Has a history or symptoms of acid reflux
  • Patient points to the throat more than the chest to indicate the area of tension

This condition seems to be most common in young females 11-13 who are competitive athletes and quite driven academically. It occurs more in females than in males. It’s really imperative that the student get a correct diagnosis (asthma or PVFM) and specialized therapy from a voice care clinic and an experienced Speech-Language-Pathologist.

Sometimes asthma and PVFM occur at the same time too.

The speaking and breathing need to be addressed before the singing voice.


Please view my services as an Independent Singing Voice Rehabilitation Specialist and my qualifications:

I. Individual Singing Voice Rehabilitation

For individual singers after diagnosis from your doctor.

II. Cate’s Collegial Consults

For experienced voice teachers and their student together, for those who live in areas without access to the resources they need.

A Singer Diagnosed with Bi-Lateral Vocal Fold Paresis

It’s time to SHATTER the imbedded pedagogical view that “singing with the wrong vocal technique” causes vocal fold injury. That is true in many cases, but in equally as many cases it is not.

Please listen to my interview on the VocalFri podcast. We get into cool stuff every singer and voice teacher needs to hear.

Thanks for your precious attention and time!

Robert Mueller’s Voice and a Perceived “Doddering” in His Testimony

A colleague was recently consulted for Mel Beta, an online commentary and pop culture source, on Robert Mueller’s voice during the recent hearings here in the US.

The article combines a sincere inquiry about the quality of Mueller’s voice and hesitations in his performance, with evidence that often any message not delivered quickly, loudly and confidently is not to be tolerated as “informed.” Hesitation is seen as weak and an opportunity to move in for a kill. The media has gleefully spread this around as “news.”

And it shows that our voices factor hugely in how our verbal messages are heard and understood.

Liz Jackson Hearns‘ work as a voice teacher whose speciality is transgender voices, makes her a natural to speak on “Why a nervous voice happens.” She also said that people who aren’t used to being on camera may not have the delivery skills for that medium. It has nothing to do with their manner of working, intelligence or skill. Thank goodness, Liz was interviewed for this!

The Mel Beta article also interviewed Steven Camarata, an SLP and professor at Vanderbilt University, who said that Mueller is just a breathy talker.

My opinion is that Mueller’s voice issues may be partially due to Liz’s observations, but also reflect what can happen to an aging voice: Presbyphonia, or vocal fold atrophy and bowing, is common in those of Mueller’s age.

Voice changes due to vocal cord atrophy are common in people over the age of 60 years. The most common symptoms include:

  • Reduced vocal volume
  • Higher pitched voice
  • Breathy, “thin” sound
  • Increased speaking effort
  • Vocal fatigue
  • Difficulty communicating with friends and family (especially with noise in the background or on the telephone)

This is why Mueller’s voice may have been perceived as breathy by Camarata, but it is also why his breath usage is “off.” If the vocal folds are not able to come together, natural robust support will falter and the speaker has to make more effort to speak, which is very fatiguing on all levels.

Targeted vocal function exercises done with recommended pacing do help aging voices. And just for the record, there are much younger speakers and singers who are diagnosed with this condition early in their lives. And it has nothing to do with poor technique or vocal abuse.

Also, if brain function as we age contributes to any of Mueller’s perceived “doddering,” ‘white matter’ can change in the elderly. ‘White matter’ is brain tissue composed of nerve fibers that connect nerve cells.This correlates with the speed of their mental processing.

The speed in mental processing is what is perceived as doddering. But it has nothing to do with ‘failing’ as a leader or expert.

“America champions the loud and the garish” –Wynton Marsalis

The Alchemy of Teaching Singing

Singing Voice Rehabilitation

Cate’s Collegial Consults

Vocal Conditioning

Changing Your Story: Private Lesson Fees, Part I

Most private music teachers will price their one to one lessons based on the average cost of lessons in their city or town. While this may be a good place to start, it is something that is in your best interest and the best interests of our communities to outgrow.

I am sharing this post, verbatim, from Cara Transtrom, an Independent private voice studio owner. We met through The SpeakEasy Cooperative founded by Michelle Markwart Deveaux.

Raising rates doesn’t work when you randomly decide to do so without doing the work of understanding yourself, your abilities, your path, your passions, and how that LEADS to rate raises.

Cara’s Words

“Colleagues, I want to share a thought about pricing that has helped me over this last year or two. As is true of many of us, I’m sure, the prices I need to charge for my services in my particular region of the U.S. means that I could never have afforded me (nor could my family) in my growing-up years, college years, or grad-school years.

As you can imagine, I’ve had mixed feelings about this.

So it has often been a struggle to continue to define what it means to take care of myself and my family financially while also fulfilling the passion I have for seeing that vocal education is accessible to those whose limited family resources don’t permit it.

These two things often appear to be in conflict, even though both realities are fully, 100% true simultaneously.

So over the last few years, I’ve been thinking hard about pricing as social justice. I kid you not: if we (mostly female) voice teachers continue to price our services at hobby rates, we help to ensure that the next generation of voice teachers will largely be privileged women who are partnered with someone who can pay all their bills.

So a choice to charge “hobby” rates (which will differ significantly from area to area within the United States, let alone internationally) is actually a choice that will eliminate the following folks from the next generation of voice teachers: large swaths of people of color, first-generation immigrants, some segments of the LGBTQIA+ communities, socio-economically-disenfranchised folks, and others who do not have the luxury of being entirely or almost-entirely supported by family wealth or by a wealthy partner. ”

Cate’s Comment

This may seem like a slap-in-the-face comment to those who keep their rates low to serve a certain demographic. But consider how this can affect anyone who wants to go on in the arts or arts’ education work. They need to work with someone who models both charging a livable wage AND passing it forward to those who can not afford them. After all, your wage has to allow for the on-going bare minimum expenses of self-employment taxes, business expenses, practice and research time and continuing education for the teacher. Otherwise, it is a hobby and you are undercutting those who don’t have a partner who supports them financially.

Cara’s Words

“My choice to charge rates that allow for a basic standard of human needs for me and my family being met, is a choice to help ensure economic justice for the next generation of voice teachers, artists, and teaching artists.

Grit, determination, passion, insatiable curiosity, talent, artistry, creativity, and a relentless desire to grow IS NOT LIMITED only to those with enough privilege to pay for the development of these things: it is instead our human birthright.

I cannot individually change all the world’s economic systems of (in)justice, but I CAN see that the legacy I leave behind for the next generation seeks to ensure that they will have a living wage as artists, teaching artists, or teachers.

We often speak within The Speakeasy Cooperative of pricing for generosity, (pricing in a way that allows us to quietly offer lessons and other services to certain clients in need on a sliding scale different from our published or “usual” rates).

But do we often stop to think of the fact that the way in which we price our services MAY BE ONE OF THE MOST POTENT, EFFECTIVE, AND VALUABLE WAYS THAT WE INSIST UPON ECONOMIC, RACIAL, AND CULTURAL JUSTICE in the communities, countries, and the globe in which we live?

We can and we do touch & change the hearts and minds of people with our performances and our teaching: this we take for granted.

But let’s also embrace the reality that we can and we will change the economic (in)justice that surrounds artists and teaching artists of almost every culture by the ripple effects of our own pricing and money-value choices.

Michelle Markwart Deveaux’s words:

Income + Intention + Impact = BeastyBoss. 

Our money does MORE than help us. 
Our rates are about impact in the world. 

Greed is an insatiable, excessive, selfish craving for more more more. (Jen Sincero) 

Let’s not confuse Greed and Money.

Comments? Thoughts?

Singing Through Change: Who We are Writing For

If menopause symptoms were due solely to hormonal changes then the menopausal experience would be more homogenous.

In “Singing Through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause and Beyond, Nancy Bos, Joanne Bozeman and I are writing for a wide variety of singers who:

–Have sung all their lives but don’t understand that singing through the lifespan is like being active in sports. You need to tend things along the way or you can’t play.

Don’t know much about their bodies or biological cycles other than what they hear in media or what their doctors tell them.

–Work with singers through midlife and aging: coaches, teachers, performers, choral conductors, music directors and medical personal.

–Are colleagues, students and medical professionals. We are writing the book we wish we’d had as we moved through our changes.

A very T-A-L-L order? Yes.

That’s why there are three of us writing in collaboration. We are really excited about the very unique way of co-authoring we’ve created! It takes longer than if we each write a chapter, but it’ll be worth it!

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