Reviews: A Young Person's Guide to Vocal Health

Sara-Lois Cunningham
Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Sara-Lois Cunningham takes a look at A Young Person's Guide to Vocal Health and evaluates its suitability for your students.

Never before have singing teachers been so well-informed about the basic mechanics of the voice, what makes for effcient technique, and how best to look after this instrument to ensure healthful longevity. The surge in scientific research in the past few decades has resulted in an explosion of interest in vocal pedagogy, which has led to a wealth of courses and publications for voice teachers.

However, it is a difierent story for the young singer. Other than repertoire volumes and their own valued teacher, there is very little available for them. For choristers, there are RSCM's The Voice for Life: Chorister's Companion and Anita Morrison's The Chorister and the Racing Car: A Guide to High Performance Singing. Now, for all young singers and actors, not just choristers, there is Olivia Sparkhall's 56-page A Young Person's Guide to Vocal Health.

Sparkhall is a popular and much-loved teacher in Wiltshire. She describes herself as a voice specialist, and she teaches at the Godolphin School, Salisbury, where she directs the Godolphin Vocal Ensemble. She recently completed a master's degree in vocal pedagogy with the renowned Voice Study Centre.

Sparkhall's book ofiers children a whistle-stop tour of the basics in looking after their vocal health, with advice that is generally in step with current practice. The publication is an ideal format for a young reader to dip into, with bite-size information that doesn't take long to digest. With sections on the efiects that alcohol, eating disorders, smoking and drugs have on the voice, the target age is probably 12 upwards, although the book also covers voice change, which will have sometimes started by then.

One of the highlights of this slim volume is the ‘My Voice Matters Flowchart’, which takes the readers down a series of questions and options relating to vocal health. These then point to relevant pages in the book – or to the important advice: ‘If symptoms persist for more than three weeks, speak to a medical practitioner.’

The simple labelled diagrams (mostly created by Sparkhall's father, David Walsby) are useful in helping the young person isolate various parts of the anatomy at an appropriate level of detail. Yellow ‘sticky notes’ are scattered throughout with tips and advice. Other areas covered include general health, hydration, allergies and medication, performing, eating and drinking, the changing body, bad habits and the environment.

A section on voice exercises introduces the popular ‘pufiy cheeks’ exercise, which can be a good gentle warm-up when used efiectively. (It's worth noting that vocal pedagogue Janice Chapman changed this to ‘pufiy lips’ in recent years to ensure that the air pressure isn't too high.) Though not strictly voice exercises, silent breaths are also covered in this section. The paragraph on vowels talks of mouth shape, lips and tongue, all crucial in creating resonance and energised diction.

The chapter on ‘Allergies and Medications’ recommends rinsing the nose to deal with allergies, and this is illustrated with diagrams of a person using a neti pot and a sinus rinse. As useful as this is, I would have expected a note on the risks associated with these; for instance, the potential for bacterial infection if anything other than sterilised water is used and how advice should be sought before use.

The paragraph on asthma highlights that singers using an inhaler should couple this with a spacer. This is good advice as it has a protective efiect on the vocal folds and prevents them from drying out. What could have been added, perhaps, is that drinking water (some suggest gargling) after using the inhaler is also beneficial, as this will help to clear any steroid particles from the vocal folds.

The author is in line with current thinking regarding what used to be called ‘posture’ but is now generally described as ‘alignment’ – a word less likely to bring about physical tension. She also refers to Alexander technique, a useful pointer for young singers.

The design and look of the book are well suited to younger readers, although there are a few production issues: the illustrations are rather low-resolution, and the inside margins are so small that print is venturing into the spine (for my copy, the covers have also curled up).

These minor points aside, the publication covers an important area well. In addressing the young vocalist directly, it provides a useful tool for an area often overlooked by families, schoolteachers and a proportion of performing-arts teachers. Understanding this most expressive of instruments and taking good care of it will help sustain the voice for a lifetime.