Dr Dan Jess has been teaching singing in Brisbane for more than 15 years, to a mixture of students from contemporary, jazz, musical theatre and classical/opera backgrounds. Regardless of the singing genre you want to learn, it’s important to know what vocal fry is and how to avoid it sneaking into your practice, which in turn helps to keep your voice healthy, safe and long-lasting into old age.
Sounds like a food… so, what is vocal fry?
In a nutshell, vocal fry is an unattractive, creaky vocal tone in the lowest register of your voice, and it’s characterised by breathy, creaky, broken sound. It has been used in some singing styles to add contrast and effect to some songs, and this does not always cause a problem for the singer or the performance. To the ear, it adds a slightly ‘anxious/nervous’ sound into the singer’s performance. However, when it creeps into your everyday singing approach, you definitely start to do real damage to your voice, and sometimes that damage is irreversible.
That said, vocal fry often happens in a singer’s voice, because they simply lack an understanding of how their voice works, which makes them unaware of the issue altogether.
When you speak, your vocal cords naturally close to create vibrations as air passes between them. Like a piano or guitar string, these vibrations produce sound (your voice). When you breathe, your vocal cords are relaxed and open to let air pass through freely, which doesn’t produce any sound.
When you use vocal fry, you relax your vocal cords but do not increase the amount of air you’re pushing past your vocal cords, which produces slower vibrations and ultimately results in the lower creaky sound.
Some experts argue that vocal fry does not harm your voice or vocal apparatus when you speak, however most agree that continuous, high-pressured singing in vocal fry techniques can, and does, cause inflammation in the vocal cords, which can lead to cord nodules and other issues requiring medical intervention. Regardless, it can become a seriously annoying habit in a singer, and you should avoid singing in vocal fry unless ‘on purpose’ with a specific intention to embellish a song in a certain, characteristic way.
How can I avoid vocal fry when I sing?
There are many things you can do to reduce vocal fry impact on your cords, and to remove it if you already have this bad habit. Here are some of my favourites:
- The straw exercise. Simply take a plastic straw, take a good breath in (inhalation) and exhale only through the straw. This slows your exhalation, trains the sensation of a safe, supported outward breath and helps prevent tension in areas of the soft tissue and tongue that can have an influence on the creation of fry.
- Check your posture: Poor posture undoubtedly has a negative impact on lots of things that change how you sing. Correct your posture to an upright, relaxed yet supported position. Ask your singing teacher to show you how, if you’re not sure.
- Sing in the correct key for YOU: Vocal fry occurs in the lowest register of the human voice. If you notice it only happens in certain songs and you’re not trying to do it on purpose, you may need to transpose your song to a slightly higher key.
- Support the ends of sentences: If you trail off when you speak, dipping down at the end of sentences, this approach can sometimes sneak into your singing practice habits. Keep supporting the sound right to the end of the last sound wave!
- Take time to listen to yourself: You will gain immense benefit by recording yourself on your phone, and listening back to how you sound when you sing. Do this with different parts of your vocal range, to see what sounds different, and where vocal fry starts. Then workshop that with your singing teacher.