“We were a silent, hidden thought in the folds of oblivion,
and we have become a voice that causes the heavens to tremble.”
Screaming In Pain or Screaming For Change?
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave” penned a famous writer while referring to what it feels like to sing in a hardcore band.
This author obviously knew that singing hardcore or punk was an entirely complicated and seemingly ridiculous undertaking with few, if any, hopes for success included. By success, I don’t mean a spot on the next Monsters of Rock tour, but rather just being able to speak after your tours were over. Nothing punishes the voice more than singing in a hardcore band.
In writing this article, I am assuming that you sing or want to sing in a hardcore band and are not one of the chosen few who never have trouble with their voices. There actually are people like that out there…my vocal coach called them “genetic anomalies” who had vocal cords of “tensile strength steel”. If your voice gets hoarse after band practice or you sound like you have no voice at all, then know that you are not one of these lucky people and need instead to focus on training yourself, or getting trained by someone else.
Since starting to share stories of the vocal problems I endured while singing with Trial, I have had no less than a hundred people ask me for advice on how to keep their voices healthy. People want to know how to avoid ending up with medical problems as a result of their hardcore/punk addictions. I hope that this article helps some of you have healthier voices, but keep in mind while you read that I AM NOT A DOCTOR. I am sharing information here based only on my personal experience of singing for five years in a hardcore band. I recommend that you check out and read everything on the site in conjunction with this article. Please know that every voice and every person are different, so don’t take anything you read in my article religiously. Your voice and your body are different than mine and you will need to find your own answers. With that disclaimer down on paper, now we can continue…
My best advice: learn to play an instrument. Forget about singing. It is fun to share your words with others, but is it really worth wrecking your vocal cords? Guitars are cheap, and if Greg Ginn got away sounding the way he did for years with Black Flag, you can get away with anything. Well? Hmmm. I see you aren’t convinced. Well, if that is the case, I can offer you my second best piece of advice. Buy a P.A. system, take vocal lessons, and breathe steam. There you go. That is all you really need to know in order to stay on the edge of health. You can stop reading now if you want, because you know everything there is to know about trying to save your voice. Everything else in this article will be a review.
Okay, if you are still reading, I will give you some explanations. First, an important point: there is no way to have your voice be healthy if you are screaming all the time. That is a fact. What your goal should be if you are singing hardcore or punk is NOT to have your voice stay healthy, but rather to do everything you can to help it not get hurt more than it already is. The things I mentioned above can help, but you will have to find your own methods as well.
Here is a bit about my experience: when Trial first formed in 1994, I had never sung in a hardcore band before. I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing or what my voice was going to sound like. The first practices were really bizarre as I tried to come up with a comfortable sound for my voice based on what I had heard in the past from other vocalists. There exists somewhere a copy of us when we were still called “Headline” doing the two songs we knew at the time, with me sounding like John Joseph of the Cro-Mags if he’d been shot in the neck by a bazooka. If you find that tape, you can blackmail me for a million dollars so that you don’t release it. Or maybe I will help you release it. It never hurts to be able to laugh at your self, right? Anyway, during the first few meetings of the band, I decided that I would tape the practices to see what my voice sounded like. I went home and listened to the tapes, heard the John Joseph/bazooka sound, and became really disheartened. I somehow expected that if I just screamed out the words, that my voice would sound “tough” and “intense” and all the things we are supposed to have our voices sound like when we sing in a hardcore band. I never expected that my voice would sound strange to me. As a result, I decided that I didn’t want to be distracted by the sound of my voice at practice and I also decided that I would rather not have the other guys in the band hear it until I got down a good sound and practiced some more.
I started turning the P.A. system at the practice place we rented way down (or even off sometimes) so that it was hard to hear the vocals. Doing this made me feel better and a bit more confident, since I was so insecure about the sound of my voice and no longer had to hear it. However, this was also big, enormous, unfathomable mistake number one in my vocal history. I would scream at practice, and of course I could hear what I was doing, but I had to push way too hard to hear myself, even the little bit that I was wanting, over the music. The other guys were busy working on musical aspects of the songs and it was less distraction for them to not have to hear the vocals, so they didn’t complain. I found myself getting used to not hearing myself.
When we played our first shows, I asked the sound guy/girl to turn down the vocals in the monitors so that I would have the same situation as at practice. This was huge, outrageous mistake, number two. Basically, I was screaming my head off, happy that I couldn’t hear myself and confident because the rest of the audience wasn’t hearing me either, but like I mentioned before, I was pushing WAY too hard to make the sounds which were coming out. One of the most important things a P.A. system does for you is to make you learn how to monitor the level at which you are pushing your voice in regards to how much needs to be pushed in order to make sound. What I mean, is this: if you have a P.A. system turned way up and you start screaming your head off, the sound you hear will be way too loud for anyone, including you. You then have the option of either turning the P.A. system down while still screaming your head off or of lowering the volume of your voice and still trying to get a solid sound. I would recommend the latter option. I chose the former, and the result was disastrous over time. I got used to screaming twice as loud to produce half as much sound and the quality of my voice (speaking and screaming) began to diminish without me even realizing it. The change was gradual, so I wasn’t noticing it in my everyday speaking voice, and the change in the vocals was never really heard because of the lack of P.A. volume.
When I did hear the change in my voice through sound systems, I was assured by a number of people that the changes I was hearing were the result of my voice “breaking”. They said that after awhile of singing hardcore, that your voice goes through “a change” and then you are able to sing without the voice going out, and without getting hoarse. This, I learned later, is not true. I want to repeat that: this is NOT true. If you find that your voice is going out after you sing, know this: you are damaging yourself. There is no such thing as “your voice has to break”. The ‘breaking’ which people refer to is a damaging of the vocal cords, and a subsequent swelling of them. When the cords are damaged, and I will go into this later, they swell and are unable to produce higher tones as easily as they once did. Since they find lower tones easier to produce, the result is that the voice sounds deeper. Oftentimes, the sound we as hardcore listeners have become accustomed to striving towards is a lower and deeper sound (Mike Ski from Brother’s Keeper is a rare exception to the rule). As a result, we welcome this change. What one needs to realize is that the change is nothing more than injury. It is not progress, it is detriment, and at that point care really needs to be taken in order to avoid further injury. Vocal folds/cords have no pain receptors in them, and as a result, the only way you know when you are hurting them is when they swell and no longer sound right.
I did not know this back in 1996 though, so when Trial went into the studio to record our first record, I was really surprised to hear my voice so loud for the first time. I ended up overworking in the studio, and really pushing too hard to get sounds since I was so used to doing that regularly. It didn’t help that the guy we chose to record with was a total moron who had no idea what he was doing (remember: record with someone who has lots of experience if you can afford it…it is worth every penny/farthing/drachma/yen). From the recording session, the first record was released, and I started trying to match the sound on the record when we played live. How is that for dumb?! Greg=dumb. I was doing my best to match my injured sound with my injured voice! I cringe when I think about it. This went on through the next year when we recorded the “Foundation” record as well. I actually find it hard to listen to those first two records now because of the damage I hear in my voice.
It was around 1998 when I started to have problems. I noticed that my voice would go out every once in a while at shows. Maybe it would be on a long scream, or maybe in the middle of a long breath, or maybe even when I was talking in between songs. I noticed it and began to get worried, and at times that made it even worse. The hoarseness and throat problems started to get worse and worse and eventually there were a number of shows on the tour at which I could not sing at all. Timm (guitar) helped me out and would sing on those nights while I stood on the side of the stage. Lucky for us we had two guitarists! Still, it wasn’t fun for anyone.
We had planned a European tour for the fall of 1998 which we had to cancel because my voice eventually got so bad that I couldn’t be sure that I would be able to sing ANY of the shows once we got over there. It was at that point, fall of 1998, when I realized I had to do something drastic if I was going to continue with the band. I had the beginnings of a cyst on one of my vocal cords, which is the same thing as a hardened blister or callous on your hand. It is the vocal cords way of saying: “Greg, you are an idiot and you are making us hit together too hard by forcing your voice too much. We are going to build a blister along one edge of one or both of the cords so that the cords stop hitting together so hard.” It is the vocal cords way of protecting itself, but what it means in terms of the voice is that you sound hoarse all the time. There are also situations where vocal “nodules” form on the cords, which are similar to the cysts I showed signs of. The medical cure for one of these things is either a ton of rest and proper care (which is what I did) or surgery if they really begin to grow. Trust me, diagnosis of one of these thing is not fun. They stick a scope either down your throat or up your nose and then down your throat (I had both done) and then take video of your cords working. If you think it is hard to sing now, then try it with a microscope shoved up your nose! I had the doctor during one of my sessions let me have a VHS copy of my vocal cords working and if you ever come over to my house for vegan Thai food, we can watch it and throw up.
So…you ask…what did I do? I did what I should have done before the first practice of the band in 1994: I found a really good vocal coach and started taking breathing and voice lessons. Lessons are not cheap ($30 for thirty minutes is normal here in the States), but from a good teacher (preferably someone trained in opera or classical singing) the amount of learning is worth every cent/pfennig/zloty/lira. I took eight months off in late 1998 and into 1999. We didn’t play any shows and spent that time finding some new members and finishing work on music and lyrics for the “Are These Our Lives?” LP. I didn’t sing at all. I really didn’t raise my voice above a speaking voice at any time during that time. I just trained with the vocal coach and tried to restructure what I was doing overall. I learned that singing hardcore is not normal, recommended, or even smart really. But, given that it is in our blood to be involved with this music, we need to do what we can to keep ourselves as close to healthy as possible.
A good start is to learn proper breathing and about the production on sound. Sound is produced by air passing over the vocal cords or vocal folds, which vibrate in the throat. The two vocal cords have smooth edges on them that hit gently together when the voice is used. This “hitting” together happens very rapidly, hundreds and thousands of times while we speak. Think of a “V” with each of the lines on the V being one of the cords. When the voice is used, the sides of the V come together and form what looks like an “I” and then separate again to the V position. It is like they hit together in the middle. What happens, when we overuse our voices, is that one or both cords begin to swell. When the cords swell, they are unable to hit together smoothly. The bulge in the middle of each cord causes little spaces at the top and bottom when the two cords meet together. This space allows for air to continue to pass through even when the cords meet together, and that air is the hoarseness you hear in your voice after you blow it out at a show. Your vocal cords are swollen. This is called “edema swelling” and it is a signal from your body to shut the hell up for a little while and chill out. Proper breathing during singing can help to prevent overuse of the cords, but once they are swollen, care really needs to be taken. I had quite a bit of confusion over what I had heard about “breathing from my stomach” versus breathing from my chest. When I started lessons, it made no sense to me whatsoever. The most important thing, and remember that you MUST practice this for yourself with someone who can physically train you, is to support the voice by breathing from the diaphragm, rather than breathing high up in the chest. This is called “breathing diaphragmatically”.
There is no way to breathe into your stomach, and don’t feel stupid for being confused. The way people make it sound, there is some secret way to breathe with your intestines or something. What is really being referred to here is the diaphragm…the piece of cartilage which supports the lungs from below. When you stand up straight and take a breath in and that breath sits high in your chest, the only way to release it is to let all of the air rush out past your vocal cords all at once. It is really hard to gauge that release of air. What you must learn in order to save your voice, is how to inhale in such a way that you place the air lower in the lungs, so to speak, so that you can then control how the air is released when you exhale. The place to feel expanding when you inhale is not your chest, but rather the area just below your ribcage. If this doesn’t make sense, take this article to a vocal teacher and they will understand. (By the way, one of the hardest things for me when I went for lessons was explaining what I wanted when we started, so if this article even helps with that for you then it is a success!). Pushing too much air past the cords all at once in order to get maximum volume and maximum power is a dumb idea. Opera singers have learned how to belt out incredible volume with about one-tenth the work which hardcore singers put into signing. They are relaxed and centered, even when filling a huge theater with angry or passionate words (just like we do!) and this relaxation and centering is one of the keys to their success at making great sound without blowing their voices out. That is the key: training for maximum power with maximum relaxation and minimal force of air.
One important thing to think about is the position of the tongue and the way the throat is being used. It is important to think of the tongue when singing, not because it helps you forms those anti-imperialist words you are screaming to the world, but rather because it can actually get in the way of good vocal production. The tongue needs to lie flat as a general rule, so that the flow of air out is not impeded. There is a concept called “the open throat” which means that the tongue lies flat, the body is upright, and the throat is wide open for air to pass through in a controlled manner. Please note the words “in a controlled manner” so that you don’t push too much air all at once. Air control is complicated and takes time, but it is a critical part of your training process. Remember this: your body is an instrument, and all the parts of the instrument need to work together like any other musical instrument. The guitar for example is not just strings. It is tuning pegs, pickups, knobs and dials, strumming and more. The voice is an instrument in exactly the same way. It consists of a supported breath, an open throat, controlled release of air, a properly placed tongue, and even more than that too. Think of the voice as an instrument and you are on your way to having a healthier voice. I made the mistake for years of not doing that and had no way of helping myself because you must really put all of the pieces of the instrument together in order to make the voice work more effectively.
I mentioned posture, and would like to tell you a little more about that here. . I was lucky to find some rare close up photos of me before and during a Trial show that I can share with you to demonstrate a little of what I am talking about. In the first photo you can see me before the big show in NYC with Twisted Sister, Nine Inch Nails, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Morbid Angel, and Marcel Marceau.
I look a little nervous, which is something really important to consider. As I mentioned before, relaxation is really important, and when you are nervous, it is normal to be tense as well. That tension will translate into a tight throat and minimal space for air release. The tendency is to force air out when we are tense in the throat, and as we have learned here, that will lead directly to vocal cord damage. It is not at all easy to stay relaxed doing what we do: the music is intense, the shows are filled with energy for many bands, and we get swept up in the excitement. As crazy as it sounds, I would recommend finding a means of meditation or centering which you can do in the ten minutes before you go onstage. The other people in the band take up to 20 minutes to get their instruments ready by tuning and adjusting their amps, so why shouldn’t you? The tendency is for the vocalist to run around and do a million things and ignore their voices until the first words are screamed out. Nothing could be worse for your vocal cords.
I suggest that you take the same time as everyone else in the band for preparing YOUR instrument. It might seem weird to them at first, but it is your health we are talking about here, not theirs, so stand your ground and take care of yourself. Warm-ups are really important and there are a number of things you can do to get your cords, your mind, and your body ready. I found that taking time to think about what I was going to be singing about helped. I found somewhere where I could be alone backstage or even behind the amps and just focused on the words. I also found that taking about 50 deep breaths slowly in and out was a good way to calm down. For the voice, humming is a good idea. It engages the cords actively, but doesn’t overwork them at all. Do some scales of lower and higher notes just humming over and over again. Your friends and band mates will look at you like you are a lunatic but that is okay. You want the voice to be ready to work hard, and the best way to do that is to ease into it gently. Find your own methods, but know that when you walk out onstage that you should be calm, cool and ready for action, sort of like Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction”.
Oh no! You can see here in the second photo that the show started without me being warmed up at all or in shape enough and that my posture is really bad. Note how I am bending over at the waist, like many hardcore singers do. I stood this way for years, and it is one of the main reasons I blew my voice out. I stood like this mainly because my stomach and lower back weren’t strong enough to support my screaming. Remember once again that the voice is an instrument and the voice is connected to your body, so really, the entire body is your instrument. What that means is that you need to exercise and keep yourself in enough shape to be able to support what the voice needs to do. That doesn’t mean that you have to work out like a psycho, but rather than you keep yourself fit. Think of yourself as a vocal athlete. Use your best judgement and exercise in a balanced way. Keep thinking of any other instrument: if you focus on a thousand sit-ups a day, it will be like tuning one string on a guitar for 30 minutes. Eventually that string will be in tune, but if you forgot to string the rest of the guitar, there will be no sound at all. That is, unless that one string was the low E string, because then you could do an entire set of Hatebreed covers without any problem. Look at the photo and think also about the problem of airflow created here. If I try to breathe lower, into my diaphragm, I won’t be able to because my body is all crunched up and the lower areas of my lungs are crunched too. I will only be able to breathe into the higher parts of my lungs, and then force air out all at once like we talked about before. Breathing diaphragmatically is out of the question. This photo is a good example of what not to do.
Later on in the show, I realized the error of my ways, and started to maintain proper posture. Here, you can see me standing upright and focusing on drawing air in and supporting it with the diaphragm. I have expanded the area at the base of my ribcage and I am ready to let air out in a controlled manner and then to be caught in a mosh. It is not easy to maintain this posture when playing live, especially if kids are trying to sing along, run around onstage, kick you in the groin, etc. What is important is that you use this position as your home base, so to speak. Keep referring back to this position throughout the show rather than relying on the hunched over position we saw in the second photo. This position won’t save your voice either necessarily, but it is a good building block to start with for your new vocal foundation. Now, I would like to give you some practical tips of things you can do to help your voice when you are in a show, tour or practice situation and are actually using your voice.
These are things I did while in the studio recording the Trial LP, while on the road with the band, and after rehearsals. I did all of these things in addition to the things I have already mentioned, not instead of them. First of all, drink a ton of water. I am talking about a two to four liters per day, especially when you are on the road touring or in the studio. It is really important to keep the body hydrated which in turn will keep the throat and vocal cords hydrated and moist. Next, start avoiding cold foods and cold drinks. In fact, avoid cold air too while you are at it. Think: cold=bad, warm=good. Cold foods and cold air will cause constriction in the muscles of the throat and will make for increased tension. Drinking warm fluids and eating warm foods, along with wearing a mouth covering like a scarf if it is cold out, will keep the throat warm and the muscles and body parts there more relaxed. Martin from Los Crudos, now of Limp Wrist, once told me that when he toured Europe he kept a scarf on the entire time he was there. I did the same thing as much as I could and it helped. Another idea: I got a copy of our songs without vocals and spent time rehearsing the vocals with just themusic track playing in our practice space. If you try this, plan the delivery of every word, and consider dropping words at the ends of lines to give yourself more time to breathe and then add them back in when you get stronger vocally.
A very important point on drinking tea for the throat or taking ‘Slippery Elm’: many people told me to drink “Throat Coat” tea or other teas in order to help my throat. They recommended the herb “Slippery Elm”, which I ended up taking for a long time thinking it was the cure for all throat problems. They told me to eat lots of honey if I was hoarse. These are interesting ideas, but they will not help your vocal cords. Here is why. Honey is not vegan, and any non-vegan food you eat will cause vocal problems. Just kidding. Here is the real reason. The foods and drinks you swallow go down your esophagus and into your stomach. The air you breathe follows your trachea into your lungs. When you drink tea, the heat of the tea warms your throat and relaxes your muscles there and the liquid itself hydrates you to a certain degree, but the tea does not touch your vocal cords. The honey you eat coats the throat, as does the Slippery Elm tea or lozenges you are sucking down by the dozens, but they do not touch the cords. The only thing that will help to soothe swollen vocal cords is breathing steam. I mentioned this much earlier in this article, and I can’t stress its importance enough.
Breathing steam saved my voice. The idea is that when you breathe steam that the hot steam passes directly over your cords on its way into the trachea and thus reduces cord swelling. I mentioned that the vocal cords would protect themselves after they begin to swell by producing cysts or nodules (and trust me when I tell you that you want neither of them).
Well, something to keep in mind is reducing that swelling. Hot teas aren’t going to do it. Breathing steam will. What you need is a pot, preferably one that you can plug into the wall and about 3-5 cm of water in it. After you sing, and I mean immediately after you sing, heat the water, and breathe the steam from that water when it starts to boil. Now, it is important to do this correctly.
I have some rare photos of Brian, the singer of Catharsis, utilizing this technique. Here in the first photo, he has just finished a set with the Catharsians. Note the wild stare and manic facial expression. He really needs to calm down and get himself breathing some steam. Thankfully, Brian has a pot of water right nearby. Strange how that looks exactly like the pot of water I had on the last Trial tour. Anyway, in the second photo, Brian has rushed over to breathe steam, which I commend him for, but he has not focused enough on healing himself.
He is focusing far too much on reading the book Revolution on Only Five Cents Per Day and not focusing enough on proper posture. In this picture we see Brian sitting all hunched over. He is focused on his book and not concentrating on the steam. Remember what I told you about singing in a hunched over position? You can’t draw air in correctly if you stand that way. Well, the same is true for breathing steam. You need to position yourself so that you can draw air slowly inward and be able to take full breaths. Sitting crunched over will not allow that to happen.
So, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see the last photo. Here, Brian had put his book aside and is sitting the way I used to sit after every Trial show on the last U.S. and the 1999 European tour. Note how he looks like he is going to puke. Everyone will look at you and think that, but that is okay. They are not the ones with the swollen vocal cords. You are. The important thing is to position yourself so that you are far enough away from the steam that you don’t burn yourself or your throat, but close enough that the steam doesn’t just dissipate. You should feal heat as you take long, slow, open throated breaths in. This will take a lot of practice, but stick with it as it is totally worth the time you put in. Try to feel the steam on the back of your throat. Think about your cords while you do this and it will help to direct the steam. Do this for about 10 minutes after each show. I did it for 10 minutes minimum and it worked really well.
After you get done breathing steam, do not talk for the rest of the night. I mean it! Do not talk. Do not even whisper. People underestimate the amount that their vocal cords are engaged even when they are whispering. You can continue to do damage to your vocal cords even when you are whispering. I used to carry little cards with me which said things like “I am not talking for the next few hours to save my voice” and I would hand them out to people to read after shows. People would think I was nuts when I first handed them a card but after they read it they completely understood and were very supportive.
I would suggest not clearing your throat, even if your voice feels like it needs it. This is a good general rule, but it is especially important after singing. Your cords will begin to coat themselves with mucous in order to hydrate themselves. This is a good thing, and if you clear your throat in order to clear what feels like a blockage, you will be doing yourself a disservice. Keep that feeling and don’t clear your throat.
This takes practice too because it is a bit uncomfortable to want to clear you throat and then not do it. I would suggest that the first time you use your voice is the next morning. I would wake up and stretch and go maybe for a run or at least be awake for awhile and give my body a chance to get working. Then, I would start with a little humming to engage the cords, then a little more maybe a little louder. Then I would try some scales or notes and then after that I would begin to gently speak. Take it slow. If you breathe a little steam in there somewhere too, it will help you along and keep the swelling down. By the next night’s show, you should be as good as you are going to get for singing again. Just repeat the process afterwards and you might just end up okay.
I made it through the entire European tour with my voice only going out on the last two nights. In Poland, there was a fog machine, which are totally destructive to the voice. Avoid and destroy them at all costs. And the last night, in Munich, I just pushed WAY too hard because it was the last night and I had made it. I got a little too excited. Remember to keep yourself calm, okay? Ultimately, this is punk rock. Who cares if you look like a nerd when you are taking care of your self. Forget about looking cool. Your health and your body are the top priority. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself and let everything else be secondary.
The more you care for your voice, the more shows you will be able to play. I know this has been a large amount of information, but I still suggest that you go out and research even more on your own. Talk to a vocal coach or two and explain what you want to do. Play them some hardcore CD’s to explain and be ready to explain the music. My teacher had no idea what was going on when I played him some hardcore for the first time. And don’t be afraid to switch teachers if you think things aren’t going well with the first one you select. I did. I switched from one who really wasn’t helping me the way I needed to one who helped me record the LP and tour for three months.
Okay, email me if you have any questions anytime and I will do my best to answer them.
Now go breathe some steam.