Why singers like Sam Smith, Adele and Meghan Trainor are going silent

Posted July 28 2015 — 7:54 AM EDT
BY: Eric Renner Brown

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Back in February at the Grammys in L.A., Sam Smith joined Mary J. Blige on stage for a rousing performance of his smash hit “Stay With Me.” It was a triumphant moment for the artist, who picked up multiple awards for In the Lonely Hour, one of the biggest albums of 2014. But three months later, his luck ran out: He suffered bleeding on his vocal cords and had to cancel a run of tour dates. After undergoing a procedure and resting up for just under two months, he returned to the road for his U.S. trek. “My throat is looking bloody fantastic,” he wrote on Instagram July 16. “So it’s amazing news.”

Smith isn’t the only artist to recently suffer in silence. Meghan Trainor postponed shows in July due to a vocal hemorrhage, while back in 2011 Adele, the singer with the golden voice, was plagued with a polyp, which can develop if bleeding is left untreated. Artists ranging from Steven Tyler to Julie Andrews to John Mayer have also had to mute their pipes to heal. “I’ve been on tour for the better part of this year, which has been amazing but can be a lot of work for my little vocal cords,” Trainor tells EW. “They’re like muscles, and I feel like I basically pulled a muscle.”

If it seems that visible cases of vocal-cord issues among music’s MVPs are on the rise, they are. So what’s behind the recent spate? “Most of the performers that I care for, they know how to sing,” says Dr. Steven M. Zeitels, a leading surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who has treated Smith and Adele. “More often than not, the injuries occur because of their unbelievable work ethic. I don’t think there’s an increase in injuries. I think it’s being diagnosed more frequently because of awareness.”

Back in February at the Grammys in L.A., Sam Smith joined Mary J. Blige on stage for a rousing performance of his smash hit “Stay With Me.” It was a triumphant moment for the artist, who picked up multiple awards for In the Lonely Hour, one of the biggest albums of 2014. But three months later, his luck ran out: He suffered bleeding on his vocal cords and had to cancel a run of tour dates. After undergoing a procedure and resting up for just under two months, he returned to the road for his U.S. trek. “My throat is looking bloody fantastic,” he wrote on Instagram July 16. “So it’s amazing news.”

Smith isn’t the only artist to recently suffer in silence. Meghan Trainor postponed shows in July due to a vocal hemorrhage, while back in 2011 Adele, the singer with the golden voice, was plagued with a polyp, which can develop if bleeding is left untreated. Artists ranging from Steven Tyler to Julie Andrews to John Mayer have also had to mute their pipes to heal. “I’ve been on tour for the better part of this year, which has been amazing but can be a lot of work for my little vocal cords,” Trainor tells EW. “They’re like muscles, and I feel like I basically pulled a muscle.”

If it seems that visible cases of vocal-cord issues among music’s MVPs are on the rise, they are. So what’s behind the recent spate? “Most of the performers that I care for, they know how to sing,” says Dr. Steven M. Zeitels, a leading surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who has treated Smith and Adele. “More often than not, the injuries occur because of their unbelievable work ethic. I don’t think there’s an increase in injuries. I think it’s being diagnosed more frequently because of awareness.”

Sing for easier breathing!!

Belting out a tune ‘helps those struggling to breathe’

Singing can help people cope with COPD

Around the world an estimated 64 million people are struggling to breathe on a daily basis. But could a simple sing-song bring the relief they are looking for?

“If I want to walk any distance then I find a landmark about 15 paces away, make for that and stop to get my breath,” says Jane Petto, who lives near Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

“And if I see stairs – just looking at them tires me out. They take forever.”

Jane is one of millions of people worldwide who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD.

It is a lifelong condition caused by damage to the air sacs and passages that make up the lungs – and can make breathing a constant battle.

The World Health Organization expects COPD to be the third leading cause of death by 2030.

But despite having a profound impact on her daily life, there is one activity that gives Jane some respite – singing.

“When you’ve got COPD, breathing is on your mind all the time. But strangely I don’t notice it when I’m singing. I can hold a note for ages,” she says.

Surprising as it may sound, it has long been suspected that singing can help people with breathing difficulties.

But now a new long-term study on COPD and singing from Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent has shown that the benefits are real.

Dr Ian Morrison, a senior research fellow and one of the project’s authors, said: “Lung function improved dramatically, particularly after about five months, once people had got used to what they were doing and changed their breathing habits.”

“To get such an improvement really was quite remarkable.”

Take a deep breath

Joining a choir is by no means a conventional solution for such a serious illness.

But the research team felt they had good reason to investigate its effects.

Dr Morrison says that people with breathing problems tend to develop a lot of anxiety about the very process of inhaling.

“The tendency is to do ‘gaspy’ breathing so they’re taking short little breaths.

“This actually fills up the lungs without clearing them, making it even more difficult to breathe.”

Due to their obstructed airways, many people with COPD already find emptying their lungs a challenge.

Fill your lungs: the art of breathing

Healthy right lung
  • Trained singers can hold notes for longer than the average person because they know how to optimise their lung capacity.
  • Vocal coach Claire Alsop suggests visualising your lungs expanding by holding your arms in front of you like a ballerina, and moving them outwards as you breathe in.
  • Keep the shoulders down and knees “bouncy”, not locked, feet slightly apart at a “ten to two” position (like the hands on a clock).
  • Breathe out with a “tffff” sound – feel your diaphragm pushing the air out.
  • Extraordinary feats of lung control include A-ha’s Morten Harket, whose 20.2 second sung note on ‘Summer Moved On’ is believed to be the longest in pop history. This beats Bill Withers’ note on ‘Lovely Day’ by just over 2 seconds.

Gasping makes the problem worse and can, in the most serious cases, lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood, which can result in respiratory failure.

In contrast, the techniques used in singing encourage people to breathe in a much deeper, more controlled manner.

“The whole musculature around the lungs, throat and the upper chest improve with time,” says Dr Morrison.

“They use what they have much better and you really see a difference in the skill of actually breathing.”

To test its effects, Morrison and his colleagues asked over 100 COPD patients – ranging from mild to severely affected – to attend weekly singing sessions over a 12-month period.

They measured their lung capacity with a device known as a spirometer – which looks a bit like a giant breathalyser – and asked participants to fill in a questionnaire to find out on a qualitative level how they were feeling.

One of the tests involved measuring how much air a person could force out in a rapid puff.

“On average the people in our study had 50% of expected lung function,” said Prof Stephen Clift, the study’s lead author.

“That means about 1.5 litres of air in a one second puff. For healthy lungs, we would expect something more like 3 litres.”

Without treatment, people with COPD can expect to see the size of their puff decrease by around 40ml a year.

The very best the team had hoped for was that after singing regularly for one year, the size of that puff would stay the same.

“Instead we got an increase of 30ml,” says Prof Clift.

“Although the changes are small, the progressive nature of COPD means that any loss of function year-on-year is going to be more significant for them.

“In our study, we not only appeared to halt the decline but people showed a small improvement.”

Dr Morrison added: “There’s also the social and psychological side, because any long term condition is isolating.

“So if people can get out and do things and get peer support, then their wellbeing improves as well.”

‘Singing on prescription’

In terms of treating COPD, the study’s results are enticing.

What is COPD?

Lady coughing while doctor listens to her lungs with a stethoscope
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is an umbrella term which includes the conditions chronic bronchitis and emphysema
  • Inflammation to the airways causes narrowing, making it difficult to breathe
  • Symptoms include a chesty cough, breathlessness, wheezing, anxiety and sometimes depression
  • Because the lungs are sensitive, COPD patients should avoid traffic fumes, cigarette smoke, perfume, hairspray and extremes of temperature

Of the deaths predicted by the WHO, most will occur in low- and middle-income countries.

The beauty of singing is that whether you’re Tom Jones or tone deaf, anyone can strike up a tune anywhere they please – for free.

Cooking in indoor stoves and working in dusty places can lead to COPD, but by far the biggest risk factor is cigarette smoking.

It accounts for 80% of COPD cases worldwide, and quitting smoking is the best advice, according to Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation.

“COPD is a chronic disease and it cannot be cured – the damage is irreversible.

“However, someone already diagnosed with COPD could greatly decrease the progression of the disease if they give up smoking, helping them maintain a better quality of life for longer.”

The study’s authors certainly do not claim that singing can cure COPD or be an alternative to interventions such as giving up smoking.

But Dr Morrison thinks that it could be a useful tool in helping people to manage the condition and live with it day to day.

“Deep down, what we’re looking for is singing on prescription for various long-term conditions,” he says.

“However this was only a feasibility study so it wasn’t randomised and there wasn’t a control. But we can now set up a controlled trial where some people sing, some people don’t and that would be even more powerful way of showing these good results.”

But volunteers like Jane are already convinced that singing has made a difference.

She said: “I was diagnosed with COPD 17 years ago and then 13 years ago I was diagnosed with lung cancer as well so I had my right lung out.

“Surviving as I have with everything that’s gone against me, I put it down to singing.

“I’ve been involved with singing all my life and there’s so much going on with the words and the harmony that you’re not thinking about breathing at all. But yet the breathing is working.”

Deliberate Practice Brings Perfection

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December 28, 2013,

www.bigthink.com

People look at people we call geniuses, people who are at the very, very top of their field and think what do they have? They must have some kind of quality that all these other people don’t have and they must have been born with that because you can’t see what it is.

That’s what this researcher named Anders Erickson wanted to know and it’s been the subject of his own lifetime of study. He has built an army of researchers to study the invisible processes of acquiring skills and going from mediocrity to being really good at stuff.

It turns out that it’s a kind of persistence and a way of embracing failure, which Erickson calls deliberate practice. The idea is you push yourself slightly beyond your skill level and you want to fail. The idea is when you’re practicing the violin you’re not just trying to reinforce what you already can do. You are reinforcing what you already can do and then trying to do it faster or better or with more emotion or more dynamism or whatever you’re shooting for and you’re pushing yourself until you find a place where you can’t quite get there. And then you work at that and you work at that and you work at that and it’s not that enjoyable. Erickson really emphasizes it’s not the enjoyable part of practice.
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The difference in personalities between people who get good at stuff or get great at stuff is the people who get great at stuff really enjoy, not in a fun way, but they really find this kind of satisfaction in this constant pushing process.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.

 

Science Shows How Singers’ Brains Are Different From Everyone Else’s

By: MUSIC.MicGrabberRaster 0951
Tom Barnes August 27, 2015

Onstage, singers get all the attention.

They make the audience comfortable and keep them engaged. They’re often the ones most sought after for interviews to explain their art and intentions. Their voices define the music they make, whether they’re solo artists or part of a band.

But offstage, singers remain a mystery. We know very little about what makes them tick, and while researchers have delved into the brains of many types of musicians (piano players, drummers, those who have taken general music lessons), they have not gone nearly as deeply into the how singing impacts the development of the brain.

The few studies that have, however, have revealed some incredible findings: Singers develop strikingly different minds and bodies than instrumentalists do. In many ways, they are neurologically better suited to handle the pressures that come along with being the center of attention than others.

Fitter, happier, more productive: Many people can attest to singing being an absolute joy, and the full-bodied release it provides can help singers manage the stress of performing.

Much of this comes from the fact that singing stimulates the production of oxytocin, a chemical involved in happiness and bonding. Surveys of individuals who sing regularly report sustained high levels of emotional stability and well-being. Even professional singers, whose singing literally determines whether they’ll be eating or not in the future, still experience a sense of relaxation and energy after singing.

In addition to emotional wellness, singing can also impact one’s physical health. Studies have found that people who sing regularly exhibit increased levels of secretory immunoglobulin A, an antibody critical for the health of the respiratory and digestive tracts. Studies comparing the bodies of amateur and professional singers found professional singers exhibit greater cardiovascular fitness while singing than amateurs. This is why not just anyone can take the stage every single night on an aggressive touring schedule and belt for a full hour and a half, like Beyoncé or Freddie Mercury.

Singing also sharpens cognitive abilities. As one might guess, considering that singing relies on lyrics, semantics and syntax, singers have exceptional linguistic abilities. A 2009 study found that the language processing centers responsible for grammar and comprehension develop “earlier and more strongly” in young, highly trained male singers than in other children.

For those that continue their training, another 2009 study found that classically trained and opera singers develop a number of other cognitive faculties. Trained singers develop better verbal working memory and show higher activation in the basal ganglia than laypeople (ie. medical students), “resulting in more efficient information processing and implicit motor control,” according to the study’s authors. Singers also show increased activation in portions of the prefrontal cortex for maintaining goal-directed attention through changing sensory information.

These skill obviously help in a big way while singers are onstage. While training their voices, singers also train their minds to block out distractions and keep focused on the task at hand.

Beyond developing a sweeping range and expressive style with their training, singers derive a number of neurological, emotional and cognitive benefits from their craft. Even amateurs can get a good deal of emotional release from letting their vocal cords loose. The benefits people can get from finding their voice and using it to bring beauty into the world are too good to pass up, and it seems we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of all there is to know. Make more music.

Rare Encore at the Met as Mexican Tenor Stirs Crowd

By MICHAEL COOPER
April 26, 2014,
THE NEW YORK TIMES

There was a time, early in the 20th Century, when programs at the Metropolitan Opera warned fanatical opera buffs, in capital letters, “POSITIVELY NO ENCORES ALLOWED.”

The rule has since been relaxed only a handful of times in recent decades. But on Friday night the Mexican tenor Javier Camarena joined the small coterie of opera singers who have literally stopped the show at the Met when he got such a thunderous ovation in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” that he was compelled to give an encore of his bravura aria “Si, ritrovarla io guiro.”

The only other two singers to have sung encores during Met performances in more than half a century, by the opera house’s count, were Luciano Pavarotti, who sang one during a performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1994, and the man Mr. Camarena was filling in for on Friday night: the star bel canto tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who sang an encore in a 2008 performance of “La Fille du Régiment” and in a 2012 performance of “L’Elisir d’Amore.”

“My God, it’s so exciting,” a beaming Mr. Camerena said, slightly out of breath, in a brief interview backstage after the performance ended. “To feel this reaction from the public — it was like a big mountain of roars and bravos and applause. It’s really overwhelming. Fantastic.”

It was quite a feat for a stand-in. His role, playing the the prince opposite Joyce DiDonato’s star turn as Cinderella, was originally to have been sung by Mr. Flórez, who announced earlier this month that he would withdraw from the first few performances due to illness. Mr. Camarena, who had just had a triumph at the Met in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” agreed to step in.

He got rave reviews. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times singled out his singing of the second act aria, writing that Mr. Camarena “dispatched the aria’s impetuous runs — capped by thrilling top notes, including an effortless high D — finally finishing with a glorious high C that he seemed almost reluctant to cut off.” He wrote that the opening night ovation lasted so long that he expected Mr. Camarena to return for a bow, but he did not.
On Friday night, the ovation was again tumultuous, with several members of the audience jumping to their feet – which is unusual, mid-performance.

Mr. Camarena, who had exited the stage as the ovation continued, said: “I was waiting, because last time, there was very long applause, and I was behind the stage and was trying to think, what do I do? Do I come back, or stay? What’s going to happen?”

This time, he came out again, and not only bowed but repeated the second part of the aria, hitting another high D.

Now, given Mr. Camarena’s reception, there may be suspense about whether Mr. Flórez will return, as scheduled, to sing the three final performances of the opera, including a May 10 matinee that will be transmitted to movie theaters around the world as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series.

Mr. Camarena is currently only scheduled to sing the role one more time, on Monday night.GrabberRaster 0441

photo:Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera