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Busting Barbershop Myths

Kirsty Bui has more than a trained ear for the human voice. It’s her passion and her career.

She works at St Mary’s Hospital, one of London’s major trauma centres, as a Specialist Speech and Language Therapist. Part of her role includes helping people take care of their voice, make the most of it – and fix it when things go wrong.

She loves singing in choirs – and enjoys bringing her clinical skills and knowledge to her hobby.

Kirsty Bui

Kirsty’s also used to dealing with emergencies. So when the Knight’s annual Retreat programme fell apart, she stepped right in with a fascinating two-hour programme about the voice.

But it was her segment on ‘Busting Barbershop Myths’ that really caught the Knights’ attention.

She says: ‘I came up with an idea for a section based on some popular misinformation that I had heard from barbershop singers and other singing groups.

‘I wanted to make it fun – but I also wanted to help steer the Knights towards the best way of using and taking care of their voices’.

Here are just some of the barbershop myths Kirsty ‘busted’, in her own words:

Myth 1:  ’Barbershoppers only drink beer, they don’t need to drink water.’

‘Sadly, guys, you need to be aiming to drink two litres of water every day to keep your body properly hydrated. This will mean that your body can properly lubricate your vocal folds and keep them happy while you sing.

‘Caffeinated drinks and alcohol are both dehydrating as they are diuretics, and therefore should be taken in moderation and with regard to your water consumption.

‘Other drinks, such as fruit juices and flavoured waters, often have a high acidity content and can therefore cause problems with reflux. We all reflux, but with a high-intensity abdominal activity, such as singing, acidic food and drink will impact the delicate tissues of the throat. If possible stick to water.

Myth 2: ‘Barbershoppers need ‘special’ water to sing best (e.g. hot/cold)’

‘Water can be taken hot, cold, or at room temperature. The temperature of the water doesn’t impact on your vocal folds directly, as they don’t actually meet—if water were to meet your vocal folds you would likely cough (a lot). It’s the same feeling as when food goes down ‘the wrong way’, and that’s because it would be heading to the lungs.

‘Some people find that ice-cold water can cause spasms in the throat. If this happens to you then drink what feels most comfortable.

‘The only safe way for water to come into contact with your vocal folds is by steaming, and I highly recommended this. You could do this daily, on the odd occasion, or just before you perform. You don’t need anything special; the old fashioned bowl and tea towel works great. The best thing is that you can’t really over-do it—but five to ten minutes at a time is probably ideal.

‘Ever wondered why you sound better when singing in the shower? It’s not just the beautiful resonance of the bathroom tiles, but all that lovely steam – and probably a splash of naked inhibition.’

Myth 3’Barbershoppers need only worry about their voice on contest day.’

‘Sadly, not true. Good vocal care and vocal technique should be ingrained in your rehearsal routine so that they are intuitive. This allows you to really focus on other aspects of your performance—such as your performance!

‘There may be some additional aspects that you include just before you compete. What do you normally see A-level quartets doing before they perform? You will probably find them drinking plenty of water, getting an early night, and not talking or singing unnecessarily. I know it sounds boring, but once the performance is over they are probably the first in the bar celebrating with the knowledge that they gave it 110%.

‘Of course, one of the most important things to remember when you get off that stage, just like when you finish a rehearsal, is to ‘cool down’ your voice—it’s as important as warming up. (You never see athletes just sit down after they finish a race, they always cool down.) It allows you to re-set your voice back to its normal speaking level after performing some rather impressive vocal athletics. It doesn’t have to be complicated—it can be as simple as doing your warm up backwards.’

Myth 4: ‘Barbershoppers shouldn’t eat dairy before they sing.’ 

‘This is a theory that I have heard from singers for many years. The truth is that there is no concrete scientific evidence for this. For some people there appears to be a correlation between dairy products and mucus production—limited evidence suggests that this could be due to an unknown allergy to the casein protein in dairy and could be combatted by eating low fat dairy products instead.

‘The majority of people appear to eat dairy products without a problem. Therefore­, eat dairy products before you sing if you like them, but if you already know that you are lactose intolerant then steer clear!

‘It is much more important to give yourself a rest after eating before a performance or rehearsal due to symptoms of reflux. Try not to have a highly acidic, spicy, or heavy meal just before you sing, and try to eat more than two hours beforehand.’

Myth 5:  ‘Barbershoppers don’t use vibrato in their singing.’

‘Voiced sounds are produced from vibrations of the vocal folds, which create sound waves. Therefore we all have natural vibration when speaking or singing.

‘All singers produce a “vibrato” as notes are created from “rapid and slight” variations in pitch above and below the note you are aiming to sing. It is therefore not possible to sing without vibrato. Attempting to do so would be impossible and likely cause vocal strain from excess muscle tension.

‘Some people—such as opera singers—sing with a very “wide” vibrato; however this doesn’t work well for the barbershop style due to its negative impact on beautiful, ringing chords. A “wide” unintentional vibrato could be due to weak breath support or poor technique.

‘Singers should always sing with their own natural “free” voice following, of course, the direction of the chorus director. For example, singers often “warm” the ends of phrases with a slightly wider vibrato once they have locked into the final chord.

‘Enjoy singing, however you do it. It’s what we’re all here for!’

If you would like to hear the other myths Kirsty busted or want to know more about vocal health and technique, Kirsty and her husband Sean (Chorus Director of the Knights and Royal Harmonics) are both available for group coaching.