To Fry Or Not To Fry

What am I talking about, friends? I’m talking about The Vocal Fry? Something that you likely hear throughout your day, every day. Think, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, Zooey Deschanel, all of whom tend to end their sentences, trailing off, with a creaky, gravely sound.

This phenomenon has slowly creeped its way into our society and much of the credit can be ascribed to the educated, urban oriented, and upwardly mobile women in corporate America. Women, who are looking to climb the ladder of success in a, still male dominated, society. The thinking is, that using this speech style imbues them with more authority in the eyes of others, making them more competitive with their male counterparts.  Take a listen and see if this doesn’t sound familiar to you.

Well what does any of that have to do with singers? I’m so glad you asked. You see, societal trends have a way of being adopted by the general population, and especially those under forty, who are exposed to, and influenced by, the world of entertainment and social media. That makes up most of my teaching demographic. Over the past several years more and more of my tweens, teens and young adult students have adopted the ‘fry’ speech pattern. And the ones who have, are the ones who tend to experience vocal fatigue with some regularity.

Now, my intention here isn’t to vilify the Vocal Fry. It is, after all, one of four naturally occurring voice registers.

  • Vocal Fry is below our chest voice. Think of it as the southern-most hemisphere of your voice.
  • Modal, is where most of us sing and speak
  • Falsetto, refers to the frequencies produced just above modal, and enjoys some shared notes between the two
  • Whistle, which is also known as the flute register, is the northern-most hemisphere of your voice.

The Vocal Fry, though not a villain, needs to be understood with regards to usage, so that it can become an asset both in conditioning the cords, and as an artistic device for adding stronger emotion to songs. Let’s increase our understanding of how the vocal cords work by first looking at what the vocal cords look like under normal usage.

Now let’s look at what happens to the cords when they are used to produce the Vocal Fry, as well as other modern usages of the voice. You will notice that the vocal cords are forced shut, allowing only bubbles of air to get through, and this is what creates that creaky, gravely sound.

Growing up, I trained under a vocal instructor who used the Vocal Fry as a teaching tool. She didn’t call it that. She called it the ‘Motor Boat’. I’m guessing, because I was a kid and the motor boat was more visual.  She’d have me start with a very low crackle in my voice, have me idle there for a few seconds, and then progressively have me add more concentrated air, as I raised the pitch. It sounded just like a motorboat with that low burbling sound that tunes up to a higher pitched whine, once you give a little more gas. This technique was great because it caused the cords to become short, fat and loose with light, not squeezed, medial compression, helping the thinner edges of the cords to come together to create a more focused pitch. Then she showed me that, not only could the ‘Fry’ be used to condition my voice, but it could also be inserted into the beginnings of words, in the phrases of songs, we were working on, to add more light and shade. It brought a more organic feel emotionally.

So, the Vocal Fry definitely has its place, but here is the caveat…

Breath is the fuel of the voice.

And great singing happens when the right amount of air comes in contact with the right amount of cord.

When the Vocal Fry is adopted as a pattern of speech this is when it becomes a problem. Vocal Fry should be a garnish NOT the main course. When it’s used on a consistent basis, without any of the other registers in play, you run the risk of doing damage to your cords.  Breath, acts like an air cushion to the vocal cords, but when we are only supplying small bubbles of air, the cords don’t benefit from the insulation that air provides, and friction is created.

Let me ask you, what happens to your body when friction is created? It produces heat, and over time, a blister forms. The body’s way of trying to protect itself from the damage being done to it. For a singer this can result in granulomas and nodules. Once this happens your ability to produce sound will be impaired. So if you want to ensure longevity as a singer, my advice…everything in moderation and as a rule, provide breath energy throughout each phrase you sing and speak. Here’s to having strong vocal cords when you’re eighty!

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