Your voice is intermittent, weak or hoarse and you can’t seem to produce the high notes that you normally sing with ease.
“Laryngitis is one of the most frightening and demoralizing things that can happen to a singer,” says vocal coach, Michael O’Connor.
He says laryngitis can strike at the worst possible time, when a singer is about to do an important gig.
What are swelling tests?
Swelling tests are exercises that anyone can do to detect vocal fold swelling. Doing these tests every day – even when you are not ill – can help you recognize swelling in your vocal folds, and take the steps you need to heal your voice.
Swelling tests work best when you already know the highest and lowest notes you can sing quietly.
Even if you don’t know your highest and lowest notes, you can and should still do these each day as they will show you if your voice is getting worse or getting better.
1. O’Connor’s laryngitis test – You can sing lower than normal
Voice teacher, Michael O’Connor uses a very simple test to check for laryngitis. The test involves noticing if you can sing lower pitches that are usually not possible for you to sing.
First, find a piano (acoustic, digital or an app). “Sing a [descending] scale to discover the lowest note you can sing while sick,” says O’Connor.
Now compare your current lowest note to your normal lowest note. If you can suddenly sing lower notes than normal, you have just found evidence that points to laryngitis.
“When you have laryngitis, your cords are puffy and larger, they will therefore generally give you a slightly lower timbre,” says O’Connor.
Some singers find that they can sing about four semitones lower than usual when they have laryngitis.
Note: other types of vocal fold swellings such as polyps or nodules (bumps on the vocal folds) cause hoarseness – just like laryngitis – but they do not cause a lower vocal range.
2. Bastian’s Test – You can’t sing as high as usual
Dr. Robert Bastian’s daily swelling test from The Ultimate Guide To Singing has been adapted here for those who have never done swelling tests before.
Sing a familiar warm-up or short vocal phrase that is high-ish in your range. It should contain a high note that you can normally sing with ease. Instead of singing like you would in a performance, sing with a quiet, small voice.
Compare your singing pitch to a piano or other pitch reference to make sure you are singing the right notes, and so you can notice which notes sound normal and which ones sound impaired.
Sing your phrase quietly, resisting the urge to get louder to make the notes come out.
If your voice is noticeably weak, hoarse or totally absent on high notes that are normally no problem, you have discovered evidence that points to some kind of vocal fold swelling.
To use Dr. Bastian’s test as he himself describes it, sing the first phrase of “Happy Birthday” repeatedly, raising the starting note by a semi tone each time.
Notice at which pitch you can no longer sing the word “to” in a quiet voice. He calls this your vocal ceiling. When your vocal folds are swollen, your ceiling gets lower.
Keeping track of your vocal ceiling every day will alert you to vocal fold swelling and allow you to adjust your vocal load accordingly to allow for healing.
3. Dan’s test – Your voice cuts in and out, has delayed onsets
This test is taught by Dr. Daniel K. Robinson and he credits Joe Estill for creating the exercise:
Flare your nostrils, place your pinky fingers one either side of your nostrils and the rest of your fingers across your cheek bones.
Now, put on a fake smile so your cheeks are raised and your eyes are squinting. Start on a high pitch and sing a descending slide of about half an octave on the sound “Ng.”
At the bottom of your slide, try to keep the same sound and feeling as your “ng” but now sing “No more money” on the same pitch.
If your voice doesn’t make a sound immediately when you begin your ng, or it cuts in and out as you slide down on your “ng,” it is likely evidence of swelling.
A delayed onset, is when your voice doesn’t make sound momentarily when you begin to sing a note. Another test for delayed onsets comes from Dr. Bastian’s work: Sing “ho ho ho ho ho” with short staccato (short and detached) notes on a medium to high pitch.
If you can’t sing a series of staccato notes, you probably have some vocal fold swelling.
With Dr. Dan’s test or the staccato test, you may find you can improve your success after a few tries. This doesn’t mean you are cured, but it does mean you are making tiny adjustments to reduce tension.
Non-singers can usually tolerate a croaky voice for a week, but singers will find that even mild laryngitis can have a devastating effect on their ability to sing (even if they can speak). This is especially true if their singing work requires them to sing in their high range.
If you have found evidence for vocal fold swelling, your job is to figure out what caused it.
If you’ve recently had a cold or a yelling match, it’s most likely short-term laryngitis, and will go away in two weeks with rest and hydration.
If your voice doesn’t get better after two weeks of resting, it could be chronic laryngitis or a vocal fold injury, and so you should see your family doctor and/or an ENT doctor.
Michael O’Connor (Potts) is a New Zealand tenor and voice teacher. He has trained under renowned soprano Dame Malvina Major. His vocal journey took a hiatus at 23 when he had to have surgery for reflux. He retrained using traditional Italian/Swedish methodology and has been performing ever since. Recent performances are: Tony (West Side Story), Piangi (Phantom of the Opera), and the Auckland gala. Web page | Michael’s Article on laryngitis
Dr Daniel Robinson is a freelance artist and educator. He is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts and presents workshops to singers across Australia and abroad. He has served as National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11) and currently sits on the national board of the Australian Voice Association. Over the past two decades, while maintaining his performance career, Daniel has instructed thousands of voices. This vast experience enables Daniel to effortlessly work with voices of all skill levels: beginners to professionals. You can join Dr Dan every Tuesday on his YouTube Channel: Dr Dan’s Voice Essentials. Dr Dan is also the creator of 7 Days to a Better Voice: a FREE one-week technical detox for your voice.
Dr. Robert W. Bastian is a Board Certified Otolaryngologist and an internationally-recognized authority in the treatment of voice, airway, swallowing, and coughing disorders. He has been listed for several years by Chicago magazine as one of “Chicago’s Top Doctors,” and by Castle-Connolly as one of “America’s Top Doctors.” Webpage |
Kathy Alexander is VP of Curriculum for Singdaptive. She was a staff writer for 6 years at VoiceCouncil Magazine and works for the University of Victoria as a practicum supervisor. Kathy is also a singer, vocal coach and choir director. Career highlights include guest appearances in Europe with Quannah Parker jazz fusion band in Norway, and back on the West Coast with Vision TV’s Let’s Sing Again, The Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra and the Victoria International Jazz Festival.