Anyone who has seen the video of Mariah Carey performing at Rockefeller Center this Christmas can hear that something is up with Mariah’s voice – 5 octave range, impeccable trills, incredible power? None of those hallmarks were present in her Christmas performance of her classic hit ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’. In their place was a shouting, forced, painful and inaccurate performance which looked pretty uncomfortable for Mariah, as well as for the audience. So what went wrong?
First of all, let me say that I am a huge Mariah Carey fan, and writing this post saddens me. I grew up listening to her albums, copying her trills and longing for her whistle register. The tone of her voice, and its flexibility, fascinated me and as such she has been my personal vocal idol for over 20 years. I really would rather be writing about how great Mariah’s voice is and how it’s lasted so long, but the truth is, her voice is in trouble.
Let’s start at the beginning…
Mariah was born with a natural mix voice, which means that her voice seamlessly mixes head and chest voice through her whole range without any awkward imbalances. About 2% of people are born with this skill (but the rest of us can learn it, so don’t write yourself off just yet!).
Mariah also received vocal training from an early age from her mother, who was an opera singer. As such, she could naturally sing with power, flexibility and range, and whatever skills she didn’t naturally possess were learned so early that it became second nature to her. Just like kids who grow up bilingual can easily pick up new languages – it’s the same principle.
Mariah was signed to her first record label at the age of 19, and from then until now has consistently put out at least one album every two years, as well as maintaining a heavy schedule of performances, touring and press commitments. That’s a lot for the voice – even a natural mix voice – to handle. The term generally used for this is ‘over-singing’. Basically, taking on more vocal commitments than is healthy for your voice. The eventual result of this vocal overload was that Mariah developed vocal nodules, which are growths on the vocal cords which prevent the cords from closing. This means the singer can no longer hit certain notes in a healthy way, which causes the body to develop coping mechanisms for getting to the notes. In Mariah’s case, this generally means pushing chest voice WAY above its normal register, so that she can get power through that trouble spot. Her other coping mechanism is to flip into the very light, airy voice (which has become one of her trademarks). This means she can hit those notes without proper cord closure, but she sacrifices the power to do it.
The trouble is, the more she uses those unhealthy coping mechanisms, the more habitual they become, and eventually they override her previous healthy vocal habits. The result is that she loses her naturally good vocal technique (the ability to mix head and chest voice healthily) and she can no longer reliably hit notes. And if she can’t reliably hit the notes, she can’t trill accurately. A Mariah Carey song without trills is not a Mariah Carey song.
When Mariah started having problems (there is a noticeable change in the quality of her voice from 2003 onwards), she didn’t take time off to rest and allow her voice to recuperate – she just kept on singing. She has even boasted about her ability to ‘sing through’ her nodules which can only ever make them worse and may result in serious vocal surgery, or losing her voice entirely in the long run. Singing through vocal damage only results in more damage – like trying to drive a car without any oil.
It’s a coach thing
Unlike other naturally mixing singers whose careers have spanned decades (Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand) Mariah hasn’t sought professional vocal coaching to help her maintain a healthy voice and deal with her heavy vocal schedule.
Without an objective ear, it’s hard for a singer to notice bad habits which creep into their voice, and even harder to know how to fix them. The bottom line is, even natural born singers need coaching. And (here’s the hope for the rest of us) coaching can turn any voice into a natural mixing voice. Singers need ongoing coaching in exactly the same way that athletes do, because good vocal technique depends on the vocal muscles being trained to do what the singer needs them to do, in a healthy, balanced way.
I really hope this isn’t the beginning of the end for Mariah’s voice. If she seeks medical help and vocal coaching from trained professionals we could be hearing her 5-octave range and impeccable trills for many years to come.
If you think you have vocal damage, let us help you get back to full vocal health. Check out our Vocal Repair Clinic. Sessions start from $47.
If you want to reach your vocal potential, learn to mix, trill and reach every note with ease, check out our training options, which start from $45.