So you love to sing. You work hard at it, study, coach and practice. You are one dedicated vocalist! So why is it that, despite all your work, you occasionally find yourself just not in good voice? Chances are your vocal troubles have something to do with your health; not your general health, necessarily, but your vocal health.
If only we had a little case to carry around our instrument like the violinist and the flute player! Of course even without carrying cases most instruments aren’t affected much by the weather or the season. And none is affected at all by what the instrumentalist had for lunch, by his/her emotions, speech or exercise habits, or lack of sleep. None, that is, except one; the all-too-vulnerable, all-too-fragile, mysterious, magnificent human voice.
Unlike other musicians, we singers carry our instrument everywhere we go; 24-7. Even when we’re not making music with it, we often are still using it. Even when we’re not using it, there are plenty of other variables that affect its condition. While there are some things we can’t control (like the weather), the good news is that there are a number of things we can control, all of which will help us to have healthier, more dependable voices and greater consistency in our singing.
The variables we can control fall into one of two categories: what we do with our voice itself, and non-vocal habits that affect the voice. This first column on vocal health will address the former. In the next edition, we’ll explore the latter.
Because we do carry our instrument everywhere we go – and use it all the time – as singers we are greatly helped by becoming aware of how we’re using it. If, like most of us, you have a “day job” that involves speaking a lot (such as in a classroom, on the phone, to customers or in meetings), you may be unaware that you are speaking in a way that tires or “spends” your voice in unnecessary ways.
Simply put, the healthiest speaking is as similar to healthy singing as possible. This means the sound should be produced “on the breath” and consciously so. Rarely do most of us breathe as intentionally for speaking as we do for singing. But when we don’t take a proper breath before we speak – or as we continue to speak – we put strain on the vocal cords and make them work harder. The result can be a tired voice. If you find that your speaking voice changes throughout the day (or week), or that it is sometimes lower, breathier or more raspy after you’ve used it for a while, you are probably taxing it unnecessarily. If this is the case, your singing will reflect it.
A few simple changes can help reduce vocal strain due to poor speech habits. First, breathe consciously before you speak. Then use the breath when you speak, and don’t let your thoughts (and words) ramble on without first taking in more air. Secondly, try to avoid the very common habit of letting your voice trail off and lower at the end of your sentence. Most of us do this to the point where our last few syllables become “gravel-y” and, physically speaking, not as easily produced.
Another helpful hint is to think of speaking at a slightly higher pitch than you normally would. You don’t need to completely change your natural pitch to take a little pressure off of the cords. Simply trying to sound more “pleasant” or “polite” as you speak should do the trick and will prevent the kind of digging into the lowest part of your voice (which many of us do as a rule) that is harder on the cords.
In addition to how we speak, where and when we speak. can cause us to misuse or over-use our voices. Time spent in large crowds or anywhere we might be tempted to compete with a lot of noise (the din of the crowd, loud music, ambient noise on an airplane or while outdoors) can all contribute to vocal strain. While you might not recognize a problem in the moment, such “competing” can make a huge impact when you go to sing the next day. For the best vocal health – and especially if you’re having vocal trouble – avoid these situations as much as possible. As a second- best solution, if you find yourself in one of those circumstances, speak directly into the ear of your listener as closely as you can. (You might not only help your voice – you might make a new friend!)
Finally, two other seemingly innocent activities that can take a toll on our voices are excessive laughing and crying. While we rarely plan either, it can really help to avoid indulging in one or the other to the extreme. That means choosing carefully the timing of a trip to a comedy club (or an outing with funny friends!), as well as avoiding difficult, highly emotional conversations shortly before you have to sing.
If either becomes unavoidable, a self-imposed period of silence afterward will be of enormous benefit. No matter the cause, a tired voice is benefited most by giving it a complete break. Ideally that means sleep, or rest when you can’t sleep, and vocal rest (silence!) when you can’t completely rest your body. Contrary to popular belief, whispering can be even harder on the voice than normal speaking. Best to just “stay off it” whenever possible. You wouldn’t walk on a sprained ankle if you could help it; the same policy should be applied to a strained voice.
Occasionally vocal troubles can be of a more serious nature. Nodules, polyps, and cysts on the vocal cords are rare, but they can occur; especially from extreme over-use or abuse of the voice. If your vocal troubles are significant and chronic, it would be wise to have an ENT or Otolaryngologist look at you using videostroboscopy. If diagnosed with these kinds of issues, vocal therapy (or, as a last resort, surgery) may be prescribed.
But before seeking medical care, it is wise to first look at other causes/solutions such as those above and those in the next issue. The voice is a vulnerable thing but it’s not made of glass. Healing is almost always possible. Next time we’ll look at habits other than strictly vocal ones that have a direct effect on the voice, and explore more options for effective care and treatment. ‘Til then, breathe deeply, be good to yourself, and keep singing!
−David H. Edelfelt