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Stuffy ears

Many thanks to those who made suggestions regarding my student's complaint
of "stuffy ears" while she is singing. Several also complained of this
problem, either for themselves or for their students, so I am sending a
compilation to the entire list.


Alexa Doebele
DMA Student in Choral Music, University of Colorado at Boulder
Conductor, CU Women's Chorus
Interim Director of Music, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Wheat Ridge, CO
a_doebele(a)alum.wustl.edu
"Alas for those who never sing, but die with all their music in them."
Oliver Wendell Holmes

****

I used to have this problem tooI bet she only *notices* it when she sings.
It's just congestionmaybe from allergies? A decongestant would help.
Also, she needs to drink more water and get that stuff loosened up. A drug
called Guaifensin (sp?) is great for loosening that as well.

****

I would call the parents personally and strongly urge that she be taken to
the doctor to be checked.

I had a student once who had sung beautifully and in tune for three years.
Then one fall she came back and was really horribly out of tune. I was
baffled. After her allergies were addressed, she became a good singer again.

It could be allergies. It could be that she has a low-grade infection that
isn't significant enough to cause her problems in general. However when we
sing, we use all those open passages differently. The resonation may be
causing her to sense the stuffiness. We, as teachers, really can't make any
kind of diagnosis. That takes a doctor. But I would hate to think that she
is suffering from something chronic, and not getting the necessary medical
attention.

****

it does not only happen during singing, but it is certainly more
obvious when one is singing! I have the same problem off and on. It is
(for me) the result of allergies, and something like Tavist-D usually
clears it up right away.

****

Short of medical guidance (ENT) I should think this a issue of improper
focus which compromises the eustachain tube rather like the sensation when
one tries to clear their stuffy ears by stopping their nasal passages a
"blowing". I'm doing this as I write and my ears feel stuffy. Make certain
that your singer has a good sense of focus in the mask by whining like a
puppy, cackling like a witch, open mouth ng hum and see if this helps.
You might check with speech therapists/pathologists at your university in
a collegial way.

****

Here are some thoughts:

Is this a new development or did she always experience this? Could
she have a (hopefully temporary) head (throat/nose/ear) infection?
Does she have any other physical symptoms unrelated to singing?

Assuming it's not a medical condition: have her experiment with
production: does it vary with pitch / depth of breath / breathing
through nose vs. mouth? Humming with mouth open/closed/chewing?
Singing on vowels vs. consonants? If there is a "blockage" due to
tension, jaw exercises such as exaggerated chewing might
help relax her.

Experiment with sensation: have her cover each ear in turn - finger
tip over each ear canal, then whole palm over ear. Try a hand behind each
ear with palms forward and then in front of each with palms facing back.
Does the sensorial experience vary? (it should!).

****

Does she open her mouth to the extreme?

****

This would seem to indicate to me that the student is being overwhelmed by
the internal vibrations of her voice. Bone conduction of sound, in short.
In these instance I have found it effective to instruct the student to apply
gentle pressure to the "jaw-joint" on either side of her head. This seems
to effectively dampen some of the internal bone conduction of sound. Over
time the student learns to distinguish more readily between the sound of
their voice resonating internally, and the sound of their voice that is
actually resonating in the room.

****

It could be the way her ear canal is actually structured and that when she
releases the jaw or opens it too far or tenses her facial muscle by opening
her mouth too wide, that she is pushing on the canal itself. Of course I am
no doctor but I have seen it happen. Then again, maybe she's just singing
too loud?

****

Does she have any nasal problems? Allergies, etc? I know when I have a
cold my voice rings in my head and I sound much louder than I am actually
singing. What kind of tone does she produce? Is it too nasal? It's
possible that she is putting a bit of tension in her nasal passages, if
there are no allergies or sickness. So many times when we tell students to
place the sound in their heads and raise their eyebrows, etc., they take it
to the extreme. I would listen to the tone she is producing and try to get
her to open up and relax her jaw/throat area.

****

I think your student only NOTICES her stuffy ears while singing but probably
really has the problem all the time. You don't have to "listen" as hard for
everyday speech and the variety of pitch and overtones for speech are much
less than for music. I'm a frequent sufferer of stuffy ears myself, and I'd
guess she has a chronic ear infection. A trip to any MD and a prescription
for antibiotics will probably clear it up. Sometimes it takes a couple of
courses of antibiotics if the infection is particularly stubborn. She may
also have allergies that are causing congestion she is unaware of this
happened to me too the Dr. commented on my blocked nasal passages but I
was so used to the chronic congestion that I didn't even notice it.

****

I'm certainly no expert on this, but I've noticed that sometime happen when
people get nervous - one explanation is that their eustacean tubes close up
because of excess tension. (It happened to me right before my undergrad
voice recital!) You might ask an ENT.

****

I must admit that I have never heard of anyone else with this problem,
but I have a variation of it myself. The feeling of stuffed or plugged
ears happens to me (not always, but often enough), when I am conducting
a concert. It definitely makes it hard for me to hear and is very
disconcerting at times. It will usually go away during the course of
the concert. It only happens when I am performing - not during
rehearsals at all. I haven't given it much thought because, as I said,
it does eventually go away, but for me it must have to do with the
"stress" of conducting, although I very rarely feel nerves as a
conductor.
on October 16, 2004 10:00pm
In answer to the young person with stuffy ears, it would be vital to have a specialist to see whether she is developing swimmer's ear. If she is often showering and/or swimming, she could be producing an abundance of ear wax which may become plugged in the ear canal. If the wax does not drain properly from the ears, it can and does form a plug which can block drainage from the outer ear. Sometimes , an infection will develop underneath this plug of wax and could be very serious. A warm water syringe flush administered by a physician can soften and remove this obstruction. It is best NOT to administer this flush yourself because of the possibility of infection or damage inside the ear canal. A little warm mineral oil can soften the wax before the syringing is applied(a few days before) Depending on the shape of the ear canal, some people do suffer with a chronic buildup of wax. I sing with a Philharmonic chorus and I am one of those people! It can be a very painful situation. And yes, food allergies, air and water pollution can heighten the condition.
As a preventetive measure, you could try wax ear plugs when showering or swimming.
on November 21, 2005 10:00pm
You might have the student checked for meniers desease which has the body retain water in the inner ear. Simply reducing your salt intake can fix this right away.

Michael Conran