What a joy it is to sing! Of all the ways there are to make music and all the ways there are to communicate with others, none compare to the sheer joy of singing. We singers are fortunate to “play” the most human of all instruments and, therefore, perhaps the most powerful when it comes to communication. Yet, while the humanness of the voice helps us to connect with and really move our audience, there is, as they say, no “free lunch.” With that humanness comes the liability of reliability.
There are numerous variables that affect the reliability of our voices. Aside from the most obvious (a solid technique), two basic categories of variables can change the condition and dependability of our instrument: the things we do with our voice itself (musical and otherwise); and non-vocal factors that directly affect the voice. Part I of this column addressed the former (see June’s issue of Quarter Note). In this issue, we’ll explore the latter.
Non-vocal factors that affect the voice do so because they directly affect the condition of the pharynx and vocal cords themselves. Some of these factors (dietary and other habits) are within our initial control, while others (allergens and airborne irritants) are not, except for how we prepare for and/or respond to them.
When it comes to the latter, the singer’s only course of action is to know herself, watch what she breathes (hopefully not literally) and and try to eliminate exposure to irritants whenever possible For example, limit your expsore to second-hand smoke and, if you’re sealing your floors or painting a room, spend as little time as possible in the room until the air returns to normal. When it’s impossible (e.g. if you’re doing some heavy duty cleaning and kicking up dust or using chemicals), a breathing mask readily available at any drug store can help a great deal. If you don’t have a mask, breathe through your nose with mouth closed to help naturally filter out some of the pollutants.
One often-overlooked culprit is seasonal allergies. Because allergy symptoms are sometimes mistaken for illness (runny nose, headaches, scratchy throat or difficulty breathing), some singers mistakenly seek unhelpful solutions. If you’re not certain whether or not you suffer from allergies, try keeping a log of your vocal health. If you start to notice a pattern (more throat clearing in the fall, more congestion in the spring), you may have seasonal allergies. When in doubt, see an allergist or ENT. For those who suffer from seasonal allergies, a wide variety of over-the-counter or prescription medications can be of enormously helpful in reducing, if not eliminating, unwanted symptoms. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a few tries before you find the right one for you.
If there seems to be no pattern to your symptoms, you may be allergic to something in your home; a plant, an animal, dust, or even a chemical in something as innocuous as a laundry detergent. Sometimes a bit of detective work combined with simple trial and error can ferret out the cause of a problem, allowing you to return to being symptom-free.
Many of the variables more in our control have to do with what we eat and drink. Because of the pressure we exert with our diaphragms when we sing and because of the many personality traits that singers often share (boisterous, outgoing “mouth people” who like to eat and drink and live large), singers are more likely to be among the 95 million Americans who suffer from heartburn and acid indigestion. Consequently, we are also among the greatest candidates to develop gastro-esophageal reflux disease (also known as GERD). This is bad news, as GERD means that stomach acid returns through the esophagus to the back of the throat (and possibly all the way to the mouth), causing your vocal cords to be, quite literally, fried. Needless to say, this makes singing rather difficult!
So how do you know if you have GERD? If you find yourself periodically hoarse or with a sore throat, if you experience a bitter or acid taste in your mouth or throat, if you often have the urge to clear your throat, have a dry cough, take antacids more than one or two times a week, have trouble swallowing, or find yourself frequently burping, you may have GERD. If you suspect you do, it is important to see your doctor, who can prescribe one of several medications to help your condition. But you can also help immensely by adhering to a few bits of advice regarding what you eat and drink (and when) and by making some important lifestyle changes.
As far as diet, it is recommended you avoid eating anything spicy or acidic, including garlicky and peppery food, onion, citrus, tomatoes, fatty and fried foods, mint and peppermint, and chocolate. On the list of beverages to avoid are coffee, teas and sodas (especially, but not only, caffeinated ones), citrus juices, milk and milk products, and alcohol. It is also best to avoid large meals and eating anything two to three hours before going to bed.
Though it can be tempting to join the crowd for after-performance celebrations, it is this late-night eating, drinking, talking and laughing (not to mention possible exposure to smoke) that is often the hardest on us. If you have no vocal issues to worry about, party on! But if you’re one of those on whom this kind of thing takes a toll, you would do well to adopt some different habits if your vocal health concerns you. Other important steps you can take include stopping smoking (and subjecting yourself to second hand smoke), losing weight, elevating the head of your bed and/ or sleeping on your back or your left side, and reducing as much stress and anxiety as you can.
Should you find yourself in vocal distress and need results in a day or two without the benefit of longer term solutions, a few simple steps may help. Sleep and vocal rest (when not sleeping) alternating with gentle vocalizing (using exercises given by a trusted voice teacher or therapist) will likely help restore your voice. It is also very important to stay hydrated.This means internally (drink more water than you thought humanly possible) and externally (humidify the room where you sleep and/or gently breathe steam from a bowl of hot water or in a steam room). Remember, when working with a voice that is tired or damaged, easy does it. And always, if it hurts, stop!
The last, yet perhaps most important, thing you can do toward achieving vocal health is to keep a positive attitude and avoid people who don’t do the same. Our voices are such an integral part of us and are deeply connected to our emotions. Add to that the enormous precision required of delicate tissue and muscle to come together to produce a good tone, and it becomes easy to see how an attitude that fosters relaxation and ease is far more effective than, say, determination. In other words, while positive thinking usually isn’t enough to reverse a medical condition, it can make a huge difference in the way we sing. Especially when working with an instrument that isn’t in ideal shape, the right mental approach can make or break success.
The best news for singers is that every time we make a healthy choice for our voice, we make a healthy choice for our lives, and vice versa. Likewise, when we make our singing better for us, we make it better for our audience. So pay attention to what your voice is telling you, listen to it and do your best to give it what it wants. It will reward you with years of enjoyment, both for you and your audiences.
−David H. Edelfelt