How Bono lost his vox: An ageing rockstar’s big fear
Why are singers’ voices at risk as they age, and what happens if they are lost on stage?
As Bono stood onstage last weekend in Berlin, presumably horrified as he felt his voice go, did the irony of his nickname pass through his mind? “Bono Vox” came from the name of a Dublin hearing-aid shop, Bonavox, whose name comes from the Latin for “good voice”.
It seems the U2’s singer’s vocal setback is temporary and not serious, and U2 will complete their tour. But a singer’s vital instrument is deep in their body, and vulnerable – increasingly so as they grow older.
“It’s terrifying for that to happen in the middle of a concert. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a singer of any calibre or profile, a huge shock,” says Kathleen Tynan, soprano and head of vocal studies and opera at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. She says she feels sorry for Bono, who she observes is “known for strong high notes”.
Such incidents can occur easily. “If we overstress as singers, or take on too much work or place stress on voices, or have a cold, it puts pressure on the instrument – the voice – and eventually it will break or we will strain it.”
Vocal cords are small muscles supported by the rest of your muscular system and voice is affected by general fitness, hydration, and posture, she says. “Looking after your body and living a healthy lifestyle are important for maintaining voices,” she says, acknowledging that these are not synonymous with “a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle”.
“Smoking, drinking, late nights are not ideal – they are not part of classical singers’ toolbox for vocal survival. For rock singers, it’s more difficult to perform [because they often have to do so] in huge stadiums. The pressure must be phenomenal, and touring too.
“So U2 must have fairly healthy lifestyles to have maintained their longevity.”
The former Stunning singer and actor Steve Wall is a firm believer in vocal warm-up exercises.
I was getting over a cold, and halfway through my voice stopped altogether. There wasn’t a squeak. I whispered some lyrics
“In The Stunning’s heyday I never heard of them, but Joe [his brother and bandmate] has been teaching in BIMM. He did vocal lessons there and talked about the importance of warm-up and vocal exercises. He started, so I kinda join in.
“I think a lot is down to the type of singer you are. I often wondered how Bono could do it. Singing U2’s back catalogue for two hours: very emotive, big songs, a lot in quite a high register.
“My singing style is a lot lazier. I’m more in the Bob Dylan camp. I tend not to reach for the really high notes. And in retrospect as I’m getting older I’m glad I wrote the songs that way. I can completely understand the challenge for Bono.
“Punk rock was the defining music [of] my generation – it was more about the attitude than purity of the voice,” says Wall. “Which is why I never did vocal training, though I can definitely see how you would benefit from it.”
Singer-songwriter Seán Millar also observes that a lot depends on “how you sing, what sort of songs. My heart goes out to Bono – it’s a horrible thing to happen [to a singer].” Currently rehearsing his and Pom Boyd’s theatre show Shame (“we call it sacred punk”) for the Dublin Fringe Festival, Millar recalls losing his voice mid-gig 18 years ago in a noisy pub.
He laughs. “I was getting over a cold, and halfway through my voice stopped altogether. There wasn’t a squeak. I whispered some lyrics. There was a lot of guitar and drums workout that night – Dave Hingerty and Brian Hogan from Kíla are fantastic players to fall back on. I got away with it – it’s not quite as big a deal as Bono.”
What goes through your head? “I have a well-developed sense of humour, so I couldn’t help seeing the funny side of it.”
Millar adds: “When I was in my early 20s I was naturally a good singer, but I got into a different way of singing – very nasal, like Brechtian Sprechgesang with an Irish accent – so I didn’t work on my voice for years. I had abandoned the higher ranges and sang in a low guttural voice.”
Some years ago Millar started to “genuinely try to sing sweetly and properly”, and worked to get more timbre and get his original tone back. He says a workshop with Swedish voice coach Eva Hillered “was the best voice workshop I ever did. I found nice sounds. I thought age had diminished that for me.” After doing the exercises, his voice improved.
Singers don’t want to get a reputation for cancelling, and will push themselves
“Now I really enjoy singing,” says Millar, admitting he doesn’t always do the exercises now. “It’s laziness,” he says, but also the fact that “I’m singing publicly all the time now, so my voice is getting a workout. I notice that when I’m touring I can hit notes three nights on the trot.”
The exercises involve yawns, stretching, breathing, and relaxation. “I don’t push anything hard, just very gently move around notes and gradually get more confident.” Others say gargling whiskey without drinking it is good, but Millar swears by drinking warm water and steam inhalation before a gig.
Mind you, when he sang at Electric Picnic with The Unelectables – “loud, punky stuff” – his voice was hoarse afterwards (and that was nothing to do with the extracurricular poitín someone gave him, he swears).
Tynan says: “It’s hard for singers to talk about losing their voices. They don’t want to admit it. They are afraid people will say their technique isn’t good enough. Every singer has a little crisis at some point for whatever reason and has to work through it.
“Singers don’t want to get a reputation for cancelling, and will push themselves.”
Steve Wall remembers how terrifying losing your voice is. Many years ago The Stunning were playing at the INEC in Killarney on New Year’s Eve. Steve Wall had a throat infection, and was on lemon, ginger and honey. “Three-quarters of the way through, my voice started to go. I could feel it happening. Luckily Joe knows all the lyrics and he ghosted me. I got through it by the skin of my teeth.”
Tynan comments on the prevalence of rock comeback tours and the pressure they put on the voice.
“For a singer on a major tour, in an opera house or stadium, the pressure of travel, rehearsal and stress on the voice increases as a singer ages, so they need to be more careful.” She compares older singers to athletes in similar circumstances training for a race or a match. “They have the same regime and training and diet as a younger athlete, but when you’re older it’s more challenging to maintain it.
“If an athlete pulls a muscle or is injured, no one expects them to play a match. It’s the same for a singer. They need to rest and allow muscles to recover, hydrate, and be aware it’s more difficult to do the things you did at 30 when you are 60. As you age, the audience’s expectations are the same, but it is harder. It is a real challenge to maintain.
It’s hard in the entertainment business to adhere to good practice: there’s always aftershow parties or someone invites you somewhere. The adrenalin’s going; it’s hard to say no
“As you go through a career, elite musicians make choices [in this regard].” Some opt for fewer performances, or shorter or less strenuous tours, or sing songs differently, or adapt their repertoire. She mentions how American soprano Renée Fleming , at 58, retired her signature role in Der Rosenkavalier last year, but continues to sing other roles.
Hormones can affect women’s voices in particular, which was the subject of Tynan’s colleague Imelda Drumm’s thesis. Tynan recalls a friend, a high-profile UK soprano, who for a time “didn’t know if her voice was going to come when she sang in a concert. The technique she took for granted for years started to let her down. It was deeply distressing. She took lessons in her 50s to understand her voice all over again. She had the courage to go back and came out the other side.”
For Steve Wall, who is touring with The Stunning until the end of the year (including an appearance at Féile Classical with the Irish Chamber Orchestra on September 21st-22nd), the hardest thing is “after a show, talking in a loud environment when you meet people. Conversation in loud places, where you are speaking loud – that’s much harder on your voice than singing.”
As a voiceover artist, too, he is aware “you feel the damage from too much blather the night before. Next day you feel the mid-frequencies in your voice are gone and the voice is huskier.”
But “it’s hard in the entertainment business to adhere to good practice: there’s always aftershow parties or someone invites you somewhere. The adrenalin’s going; it’s hard to say no. It’s down to discipline and the demands of the type of singing you have to do.”
He says he hasn’t noticed changes in his voice as it has aged, “probably because most of our songs aren’t as vocally challenging. I’m more in the Frank Sinatra range! I’ll keep going as long as I can, and if my voice gets gravelly I will write gravelly songs.”