The Top Three Common Vocal Pitfalls to Avoid While Speaking 

Part One of Three: The Glottal Onset

©Laura Handke, 2017

Do you know who Adele is?

Of course, you do. (Unless you’ve been living on an uncharted south Pacific island with iguanas, parrots, and not a single electronic device to keep you company for the last decade. In which case, if you Google, you’ll find a lovely, 29-year old English singer-songwriter who has won 15 Grammy awards and sold over 150 million albums.)

Did you know Adele needed vocal cord surgery in 2011?

In a 2012 interview on 60 Minutes, Adele said it was “’Like someone put a curtain over my throat…and I could feel it. It felt like something popped in my throat.’ She found out she had a polyp on her vocal cord that had hemorrhaged. She said, ‘I had laser surgery. [They] put lasers down your throat, cut off the polyp, and kind of laser your hemorrhage back together and fix it.’”

By all media accounts, the surgery was a great success.

But perhaps the real question is, why did Adele need surgery in the first place?

Which leads to my next question. Do you know what a “glottal onset” is?

Probably not. I wonder if Adele does. I’ll ask her if I meet her. Her home base is in England when she’s not on tour, and mine is in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and I’ve never been on tour, so I’m not sure how likely our paths are to cross.

All the same, I was first on stage in an operetta in fifth grade, at the age of 10, so I’ve been vocalizing and performing virtually my entire life. However, I didn’t meet my voice teacher and founder of the Transformational Voice® system, Linda Brice, until I was in my 40’s. It was from Linda I learned about the three kinds of onsets: Glottal, aspirated and coordinated. A glottal onset is the one you don’t want. Avoiding those could have helped Adele avoid vocal cord surgery.

Google Adele’s live performance of her wonderful song, Someone Like You, from the 2011 Brit Awards. The lyrics are “I heard that you settled down, that you found a girl, that you’re married now. I heard that your dreams came true…”

Before you listen, let me explain the mechanics of a glottal onset.

Our voices start with the breath. We inhale before we speak. (Have you ever noticed you can’t talk while you’re inhaling?) We always exhale as we’re vocalizing.

Ideally, our vocal folds or cords (interchangeable terms) are open and relaxed before we start to speak or sing. If the vocal folds are together and vibrating too early (because of stress, improper breathing, abdominal clenching) and we start to speak, the air forces them apart…and you get the gravelly kind of sound you’ll hear in this Adele video. It also causes mucus on the vocal folds, and clearing your throat leads to more of that. You really don’t want that.

One last thing to keep in mind: You’re prone to glottal onsets when you open a phrase with a vowel sound as opposed to a consonant.

Now you’re ready. Listen to the Adele video from the 2011 Brit Awards. Listen particularly to I heard that you settled down, that you found a girl, that you’re married now. I heard that your dreams came true…”

The first onset is aspirated. The second is glottal. Can you hear the gravelly sound?

That gravelly sound is very popular in radio music these days. But it’s not healthy for your voice.

You don’t want vocal polyps or vocal surgery.

And, readers, since I wrote this article several weeks ago, I heard Adele is having the same issue again right now.

Avoid the glottal onset – breathe deeply as you speak. Speak with passion, with healthy vocal technique! Your throat will thank you, and so will your audience.

Speak with power and confidence; be remembered and be inspirational. 

HONE Your Message is coming to Toastmasters for Speaking Professionals October 17th. Stay tuned for details.

If peaceful conflict resolution is in your wheelhouse, come to the Oregon Mediation Associations’ 31st Annual Conference November 3rd & 4th in Portland, where I will be presenting HONE Your Message.

If you found this post helpful, please spread the love and pass it along to a friend!

Authentically Yours, Laura