Many refer to her simply as "The Voice", and rightly so. At her peak, Whitney Houston's tone was the perfect combination of richness, intensity, and brilliance. Her range - powerful, wide, and seemingly effortless. For years her magnificent instrument has inspired countless singers around the world. Mariah Carey once stated, "I believe that all girls who aspire to sing have looked up to Whitney Houston."
In recent years we have witnessed her decline: pictures of her body frighteningly thin; a reality show depicting the disintegration of her marriage and of her wholesome diva image. But most upsetting are the changes that we, her fans, have noticed in her - once golden - voice. Often I receive the question from friends, family, students, and fans... "What Happened to Whitney's voice?"
Before I attempt to answer this question I'd like to note that the following article is my absolutely objective analysis of Whitney Houston's VOICE - not a critique of her as a person. I am in no way attempting to detract from her talent or from the merit of her illustrious career. This is pedagogical, not personal. My assessment is based on her audio recordings, video footage of live performances, and her own personal testimony about her lifestyle and substance abuse issues.
It is no secret that the voice we now hear being promoted for her new album, I Look To You, is very different from the voice we heard belt out those high notes in such hits as "I will always love you" and "The Greatest Love of All". How can a voice that seemed to be practically flawless, begin to wane so dramatically? Was it the drugs? Have her vocal folds weakened with age? As a professional vocal coach, who works with 100's of singers every week, I believe that Whitney's vocal decline can be attributed to several factors.
Early Technical Faults
It is important to note that someone "sounding good" to our ears is a very relative phenomenon. It's a matter of opinion. It is very possible for someone to sound great, while singing in a way that is damaging to their voice. The human voice is very resilient, and youth often allows for us to push the limits. Early in Whitney's career, her immense talent was apparent (Hence her record deal and worldwide fame). What was equally apparent, was her lack of formal training. Many will say, "She sounded magnificent...How can you say she had no training?". Indeed, Ms. Houston did sound magnificent. But solid and effective vocal training is just as much about preserving your voice, as it is about enhancing the sound of it. Whitney Houston, by her own admission, had never had formal voice lessons.
A professional singer has ridiculous demands placed upon their instrument. There are recording sessions, interviews, private showcases, and public performances that happen on a daily basis. You are required to use your voice, dynamically, for hours on end. Such a hectic schedule, in itself, can shorten the career of any promising new singer. The number one evidence of a singer abusing her voice - nodules: calluses that form on the vocal folds, due to trauma and irritation (caused by overuse/misuse). Whitney has had to cancel performances and tours numerous times, on the basis of temporary vocal damage. This brings me to her first major hurtful blow to her golden pipes:
1) Nodules: Whitney developed nodules, during her bodyguard tour in 1993-1994. At the time, she was unable to rest to prevent permanent damage. There was a noticeable change in her voice, thereafter. Nodules make it difficult for the vocal folds to fully close; thus, a huskier sound results. To make matters worse, nodules force the singer to work twice as hard at producing clear and high tones... the strain causing even more damage. Any vocal coach or singer, who has dealt with nodules, knows that immediate vocal rest(upon diagnosis) is of the utmost importance. This vocal rest is then followed by vocal rehabilitation(speech therapy and/or voice lessons), and sometimes even surgery(depending on the severity of the case). It is essential that the damaging behavior be corrected, in order for the condition not to return or worsen. Whitney continued to push her damaged voice, and the initial huskiness and loss of range began. She later worked with vocal coach Dr. William Riley (also helped Celine Dion get over nodules), but some of that damaging vocal behavior remained. This damaging vocal behavior caused a continuous decline in the quality of her sound and in the health of her voice.
2) High Larynx: While singing, Whitney suffered immensely from a high larynx condition. A high larynx often results when a singer attempts to pull a powerful, 'meaty,' or 'chesty' sound up high in the range. We often call this "belting". When the larynx is high, it constricts the throat and makes it impossible for the vocal folds to vibrate freely. There is excess pressure and tension, and any number of vocal disorders can result : scarred vocal folds, nodules, hemorrhaging, polyps, etc. Any singer, who has taken voice lessons, knows the dangers of a high larynx. In many cases, teachers use Whitney Houston as an example of what NOT to do. This is because she sounds good IN SPITE of her flawed technique, not because of it. Watch any live performance of Whitney Houston and you will see the bulging veins in her neck and trademark wobbling jaw (another sign of excessive muscle tension). This is the attempt of the body to hold down the larynx(your 'voice box') from rising up too high. A major part of most forms of vocal training is learning to relax the larynx, during singing. Unfortunately, Whitney never learned this and - to this day - continues to sing with a heightened larynx (evident by her recent Oprah performance and by her excessive hoarseness).
The high larynx also traps Whitney in her chest voice, and disconnects her from her head voice. This creates a gap in her range, where " the mix" should be. The mix allows singers to belt out high notes with power and freedom, without the strain. Singers like Celine Dion, Lara Fabian, and Haley Williams, give good examples of powerful mix belts in much of their music.
For those of you who are not singers or who have never had training, you might say... "Of course she's hoarse. She's working a lot. " But you might be surprised to learn that hoarseness is not something that HAS to happen. There are some singers, with solid vocal techniques, that sing VERY frequently... yet, you will rarely(if ever) hear them hoarse. Vocalists, like Patti Labelle( who CONSTANTLY sings at the top of her range), are rarely heard hoarse. It has nothing to do with talent, and EVERYTHING to do with training and vocal coordination. As singers, we have to educate ourselves to know the difference between talent and training; just sounding nice VS. healthy singing. Talent will enable you to naturally sound good; training will KEEP you sounding good. Talent, alone, will not protect your voice from damage. A well trained voice, however, can sing for hours on end - daily - and survive healthily.
3) Marijuana/ Cocaine usage: The blatant truth - drugs suck. Whitney, by her own admission, used Marijuana laced with Cocaine on a daily basis for years. This is damaging in too many ways to specify in this one article. So I'll just hit some main points. A) Smoke itself attacks everything that you need for singing. It weakens and inflames your lungs. B) In order for the smoke to reach your lungs, it must pass through your vocal folds. The membranous tissue of the vocal folds is easily damaged by smoke. The vocal folds can suffer burns and over-drying(making them even more susceptible to damage). Plus the diaphragm begins to deteriorate. C) Cocaine constricts the blood vessels, thus making it more difficult to prepare the voice for singing (ex: one of the primary purposes of lip rolls is to increase blood flow through the cords; Also, those who choose to drink hot beverages do so because hot beverages dilate the blood vessels and give a sense of freedom to the voice). So, if the blood vessels are constricted, freeing the voice becomes nearly impossible. It also causes one to neglect basic life necessities like eating regularly and sleeping. Your body is your instrument. The vocal cords do not exist in a special box on a shelf somewhere. They are housed within your body. Unhealthy body = unhealthy voice.
4) Age: Is it her age? Whitney's range has obviously changed over the years. Her registers have shifted; her voice is thicker and lower. This can partially( and I emphasize PARTIALLY) be attributed to age. For the healthy female singer, the voice may deepen, but it becomes richer and fuller with age. If daily vocalization is maintained, the registers may still shift, but the range does not necessarily have to be lost. For many women, pregnancy and menopause can also affect the voice, causing the registers to shift and the voice to deepen. But understand that there are many singers Whitney's age, and older who maintain their vocal ranges, in spite of the fact that they have also had kids and/or gone through menopause: Celine Dion, Patti Labelle, Rachelle Ferrell, Barbara Streisand.
Any single one of the above factors, alone, can cause dramatic changes to the voice. Combine all four... and you have a basic formula for the breakdown of one of the greatest voices of our time. The good news: even a severely damaged voice can recover some of it's elasticity and health. If not fully recover, I believe that Whitney can AT LEAST regain some clarity and range. What would I do, if I had the chance to help her?
Whitney's Vocal Bounce-back Plan
1) I would immediately get her on some cord closing exercises, to aid in the excessive huskiness and occasional delayed onset of sound that she's experiencing today. It would remove the sense of vocal weight and restore some of her voices intensity.
2) Breathing exercises would be employed, to alleviate excessive throat tension and give more depth to her sound.
3) We would work greatly on helping her to achieve a mix. This would allow her MUCH more vocal stamina and restore much of her upper range.
...Perhaps one day, I'll get an opportunity to work with her. Till then, I'll keep her in my prayers, as I'm sure we all will. In the end, I'm just glad to have her back. I wish her all the best. And, if you're a singer, let this be a lesson to you. Take care of your gift; it can be taken away.
Peace & Blessings,