The Singer’s Library: : Overcoming a Voice Disorder

The Singer’s Library: : Overcoming a Voice Disorder

When suspecting a vocal injury or voice disorder, most singers and voice teachers know to make an appointment with a laryngologist at a voice clinic. If a diagnosis is made, patients usually undergo rehabilitation under the guidance of a speech-language pathologist (SLP). But more and more we are hearing of an additional member of the “voice team,” called a singing voice specialist (SVS), who offers specific expertise relevant to singers.

While many voice clinics are employing singing voice specialists, the training processes they complete can vary dramatically. Unlike a laryngologist or SLP, SVS training has not been standardized, meaning there is no regulating body that has laid out the minimum requirements necessary to earn the title of a certified singing voice specialist.

One person hoping to change this situation is Karen Wicklund, who has recently released the second edition of her book, Singing Voice Rehabilitation: A Guide for the Voice Teacher and Speech Language Pathologist. In lieu of a nationally recognized standard for SVS training, Wicklund has created her own program, the Singing Voice Specialist Certificate Training Program, under the auspices of the National Institute for Continuing Education in Voice (NICEV).

Wicklund brings a varied background to her work; she is an active singer and voice teacher and has worked in the clinical rehabilitation setting as both an SVS and SLP. She is Emerita Associate Professor of Voice in the Music Department at Western Michigan University and Emerita Clinical Supervisor in Speech Pathology at WMU’s Charles Van Riper Clinic as well as the former director of the Chicago Center for Professional Voice. She currently runs a studio and clinic at the Florida Center for Professional Voice in Bradenton/Lakewood Ranch.

So what is different about training a singing voice specialist when compared to a speech-language pathologist or a singing voice teacher? “The singing voice specialist has to know how the voice disorder impacts the singing voice,” Wicklund says. This includes advanced knowledge of voice disorders, understanding which exercises will work with the injured voice, and training in behavioral management of voice disorders.

Since the primary task of a singing voice specialist is to work with the singing voice, Wicklund believes it is most important for an SVS to have substantial background and expertise as a voice teacher rather than the clinical background of an SLP. In fact, when applicants for her SVS training program have not had sufficient coursework or experience as a voice teacher, she recommends they get training from other institutions before joining her program.

“I like to have my teachers have at least one or two courses in vocal pedagogy,” she says. “If someone comes to me and says they want to take my class and I don’t see that they’ve taken a graduate pedagogy class, I’ll say, ‘You know what, you just need a little more chops with vocal pedagogy.’” For this training, she recommends programs through the New York Singing Teachers’ Association (NYSTA) or the McClosky Institute of Voice, among others.

Besides a background in vocal pedagogy, Wicklund prefers the applicants be active voice teachers and singers, working regularly with singers who are not currently experiencing voice disorders. “I don’t have anybody come into my course with less than six full years of full-time singing teaching,” she says. “I don’t want somebody who’s a novice singing teacher.”

Though recognizing it as a controversial opinion, as a speech-language pathologist herself, Wicklund does not believe the training SLPs receive by itself is sufficient to qualify working as a singing voice specialist. “The SLP looks at what the speaking voice technique is and how they might use therapeutic exercises to address that [while] also tracking vocal hygiene behaviors,” she says. “An SVS is a singing voice specialist. That means they have to be high-level singing teachers and also preferably know how to teach several kinds of singing techniques/styles because they’re going to work with more than just classical singers.”

Of course, the SVS and SLP both have important roles as part of a voice team. Obviously, non-singers would not need the services of an SVS, but Wicklund believes singers need more specialized attention due to their specific needs.

In fact, depending on the type of voice disorder, a client’s voice team could extend significantly beyond the laryngologist, SLP, and SVS. For instance, one of Wicklund’s clients had a cancerous growth on his vocal fold that required the involvement of a head and neck specialist. Clients experiencing reflux may need the advice of a gastroenterologist, someone with a vocal tremor may consult a neurologist, a psychologist can help address traumatic events that may lead to voice loss (like conversion phobia), and an allergist may assist with the treatment of asthma.

Therefore, recognizing the unique areas of specialization allows all members of the voice team to play to their strengths in order to better serve clients.

Aside from her experience as an SVS and SLP, Wicklund is also part of the 3 to 9 percent of the population who have experienced voice disorders. Dedicating a full chapter of her book to “The Psychosocial Effects of Singing Voice Loss,” she understands the grief injured singers go through as she speaks openly about her own past voice disorders. She knows firsthand that, in addition to the stress and self-doubt that can come about as a result of a vocal injury, voice teachers may also feel embarrassed or at fault if their students need to be referred to a voice clinic. But having the information the voice team provides allows a path forward beyond the vocal troubles. If there is no disorder present, the teacher can continue to encourage the student and address the technical issues that may have led to the vocal difficulty. “But if there’s a voice disorder, it’s probably not the teacher’s fault,” Wicklund says. “It’s probably the disorder’s fault.”

And when students do develop voice disorders, an SVS can be a resource for voice teachers, as well. “If you get your singer to go into training with a singing voice specialist, the singing voice specialist can help that student’s singing teacher’s teaching,” Wicklund says. “I teach my singing voice specialist students how to approach those teachers—how to work with them—and I’ve never had anybody be offended or anything.”

The specificity of duties that fall on the shoulders of the SVS make Wicklund fervently believe that there should be a more standardized process for their training. “Pretty much anybody can call themselves a singing voice specialist,” she says, even though, to her knowledge, her program is the only one that includes “Singing Voice Specialist” in the title.

Of course, she hopes those curious about SVS work will consult her book, consider submitting an application for her program, or just seek out the most thorough information they can find, whether it comes from her program or not. “I do get emails weekly from singing teachers/SLPs wanting to know how they can enter the field. And I happily advise them on how to further their training,” she says. “So because there is more interest in the field, perhaps we will see more voice-speciality training programs and more qualified SVSs and SLPs in voice team work in the future.”

Book Review
For the second edition of Singing Voice Rehabilitation: A Guide for the Voice Teacher and Speech-Language Pathologist, author Karen Wicklund outlines the updates in the Preface. The stated purpose of the second edition is “to provide voice teachers and speech-language pathologists with an easily accessible and user-friendly guide to the workings of the vocal mechanism and processes of singing voice habilitation and speaking voice therapy” and “to encourage all voice teachers (with proper training) to have the courage to undertake the vocal habilitation of their own students with as much vigor as they do their students’ voice building.”

Following the printing of the first edition in 2009, the second edition—published as an e-book by NICEV press and only available at—keeps the same nine chapters and epilogue but has greater clarification in defining “habilitation” and “rehabilitation” and which member of the voice team takes on which role. In particular, she describes how the singing voice teacher addresses habilitation to enhance singing voice function, whereas the SLP and laryngologist supervise the rehabilitation necessary to restore lost vocal function.

Wicklund points out that singing teachers are considered a vital part of the voice team, helping their students improve technique even while working with a disorder. She makes the important distinction, however, that “therapy” has a different implication and is outside the realm of duties for most voice teachers.

But, as the title implies, the target audience of the book includes voice teachers—even those who have no intention of becoming singing voice specialists. Voice teachers will appreciate the detailed descriptions and depictions of vocal function and anatomy (rivaling top vocal pedagogy texts). The chapter called “Vocal Injuries and Their Effect on Vocal Parameters” is also pertinent as it describes the myriad of vocal disorders that can occur, their causes, and their common treatments. This level of detail can lead to more thorough understanding of voice disorders with specific information on how they impact the singing voice.

Voice teachers will also benefit from the expanded chapter on “Habilitative Song Repertoire.” Wicklund broadened the list of song titles to include additional selections from musical theatre, jazz/cabaret, pop/rock, country, folk, and gospel literature for those who are not specifically classical singers.

Also useful for voice teachers are the practical guides like the “Singer’s 10 Steps to Daily Vocal Wellness,” the steps to prevent vocal re-injury, and the suggested vocal exercises for everything from reducing vocal fold hyperfunction to addressing resonance and articulation.

Among the scores of textbooks vying for shelf space in voice teachers’ studios, each earns its place for the value of its specific focus. Karen Wicklund’s Singing Voice Rehabilitation, 2nd edition, makes a strong case for inclusion with its emphasis on vocal habilitation and healthy practices from the basis of a solid understanding of vocal function. Its additional information on voice disorders, the considerations that must be made for vocally injured singers, and the explanation of the unique role of the singing voice specialist make it an uncommon, though increasingly relevant resource.

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /