Secrets for a Healthy Voice

Secrets for a Healthy Singing (and Speaking) Voice

How healthy is your voice on a day to day basis?  Do you find your speaking or singing voice tires easily?  Do you feel dry or scratchy in your throat and voice before you even begin singing?  There are a number of key guidelines for maintaining a healthy voice that are vitally important for putting your best voice forward.  Regardless of the strength and coordination of your tone or technique, a keen and practiced awareness of the following ideas can be invaluable in providing a solid foundation to the health of your instrument, ensuring the singing house you build on top of it weathers both your sunny and stormy singing days.

1. Water—there’s a good reason this source of life is listed first.  Water is your most important nutrient friend as a singer.  When you are well hydrated, your vocal cords have a better ability to coordinate your singing and an easier time handling the increased use practicing and performing demand.  The water you drink while singing is not as critical as the water you drink prior to singing hours earlier in your day.  Water you drink while singing may provide some needed comfort for a mouth and throat dry from anxiety or a psychological boost to your own belief in your singing ability, but the water you drink beforehand is the hydration that has been assimilated by your body (including tissues of the body like your vocal cords).  Some key thoughts:

  • Room temperature or warm water is ideal (especially while singing or speaking) since ice water can have a constricting effect on the ease and freedom of your throat and voice (of course, the water does not pass over the vocal cords, which are located in the trachea or windpipe, but nearby in the adjacent esophagus).
  • Shoot for three liters (approximately 100 ounces) each day as a baseline.  Perhaps the most significant habit to develop as a singer is to carry a water bottle and sip regularly from it throughout each day (stainless steel is generally better for the long term health of your body than the various plastic options on the market).
  • Add more water for any favorite vices that take water from the body.  For example, alcohol, black tea, espresso/coffee, soda and equivalent candy/sugar take water away from your body in one form or another (as a dehydrating agent, a diuretic, etc.).  As a general rule, if I indulge in a pint of beer (or glass of wine or ounce of liquor), I add a pint of water to my daily intake.  I add more water for exercise or sun exposure (e.g. at least a liter for a half hour run or hour of sun exposure—if you run for an hour in the sun, that’s three  more liters to your daily intake).

2.  Speaking—how do you use your voice through the day?  As you learn the diaphragmatic breathing practices of singing, one of the healthiest steps you can take for your voice is to apply those breaths to your speaking voice.

  • Speaking with engaged support in your core muscles, using the diaphragm to enunciate and to project when needed, is not only the healthiest use of your vocal cords but also the best way to improve your speeches and speaking ability.
  • Incorporate varying the intonation of your voice (using some higher as well as lower tones) in the course of speaking—these varied tones stretch and contract the vocal cords, promoting more ease and freedom in your voice and, as a nice ancillary benefit, making your speaking voice more interesting for your audience.
  • And limit or avoid speaking in loud places like noisy clubs or parties (if you do speak, use higher sounds in your voice for selected moments of speech; speaking in a higher register does not require as much effort to be heard because the use of more treble frequencies in the higher part of your speaking voice is more easily heard by those around you).

3. Stressful Uses of the Voice—some vocal habits, even when rooted in natural sounds, are an undue stress on the voice and should be used sparingly.

  • Clearing the throat is natural.  But save it for those times when something is actually caught on the vocal cords (e.g. excess phlegm or a piece of dust) rather than developing a habit of continually clearing the throat.  Use it when necessary but remember that clearing the throat is friction for the vocal cords and will wear out your voice more quickly, the more you use it.  If possible, try gentle glottal ‘pops’ (like soft coughing) before resorting to the guttural clearing of the throat.
  • Whispering is unusually stressful for the voice and I mention it here because of a common misconception that, if the voice is hoarse or under the weather, whispering saves the voice.  In fact, whispering is one of the harshest uses of your voice.  If you are feeling hoarse or under the weather, rest your voice, feed it lots of water, and, if you use your voice, an engaged core with deep, diaphragmatic breaths is always the healthiest use of your voice.
  • Falsetto is a technique with some aspects in common with whispering—it is produced when the vocal cords ‘flip’ apart and air is then bounced off the ventricular folds (also referenced as the ‘false’ vocal cords)—as it also can be harsh on the voice if overused, it is best used sparingly for moments of yodel (e.g in country and other genres) or higher breathy stylings (like those of Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Chris Martin of Coldplay, or Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries).

4. Exercise and Energy—regular aerobic exercise, yoga, and the like are excellent complements for creating ease and depth in breathing, stability and relaxation in posture, and energy and stamina for singing.

  • Aerobic exercise on days of rehearsal and performance allows the body to find its singing posture and breathing more readily.  Warm-up time can be cut dramatically as your singing instrument finds the relaxed ebb and flow of the breath and the cathartic ease and freedom of the voice.  In general, it is a good idea to separate the time of aerobic exercise from the time of singing (e.g. running, swimming, biking, etc. in the morning or afternoon if singing in the evening).
  • Eating is important if you want to have the energy to breathe diaphragmatically and physically perform on stage.  But try to plan the time of eating to end a couple of hours before you sing—a full stomach impedes deep breathing and a stomach still working on digestion has an enervating rather than energizing effect on the body.  And be aware of any food sensitivities that may impact your singing (e.g. some singers experience excess phlegm from dairy products and avoid them, others are susceptible to acid reflux from certain foods, and everyone is impacted by the items noted above that deprive the body of a hydrated state).
  • Consider supplementation—good supplements are expensive but the energy, stamina, and vitality I receive from them is invaluable not only to my singing career but my enjoyment of life (e.g. as a teacher, I spend time around all sorts of sickness and am rarely sick for longer than a 24 hour period once or twice each year; I don’t take flu vaccines or need analgesics like aspirin or use cold and cough medicines from pharmacies).  A good supplement can be hard to find though—items at the grocery store and even some products at specialty stores have been shown to pass through the body without ever dissolving or being bioavailable to the body (when excess passes through the urine, that is not necessarily bad—in fact, it can mean that your body received all it needed of certain nutrients and is eliminating the extra amount—but if it never becomes available to your body in the first place, you’re flushing money down the toilet).  For me, investing in supplements is my active form of health insurance to protect against our polluted environment and degraded food supply (by the way, supplements are not a substitute for eating healthfully—though they can provide therapeutic levels of nutrients that food cannot provide or insurance if even the organic food we hope we’re benefiting from is grown in nutrient depleted soils, it is still vital to eat organic fruits, vegetables, etc.).  Click here to learn more about the supplements I use.

5. Rest and Sleep—your body and your voice needs rest.  Always rest your voice after singing or speaking for extended periods and insure good sleep habits (especially before performances and rehearsals).

  • When we practice, we are not working out the voice and strengthening in the traditional sense.  We are improving the coordination of the vocal cords and the breathing to create stronger and more sonorous tones.  If I work out my bicep and it aches afterward, that is arguably good for my bicep as the muscles are broken down and built back up.  The vocal cords are not a muscle, though—they are a tissue fold.  If my voice aches or is tired, then it is inflamed and needs rest, water, and the recovery benefits of sleep.
  • Be aware of any pain or strain as it’s developing and stop any vocal activity that seems to be causing it.  If you push your voice too hard over an extended period of time, fatigue induced vocal ailments such as nodes can eventually require surgery and put your voice at risk.  Remember also that the recordings you tend to hear and even live performances are a dual art created by the artist and the engineers and/or producers—they are not generally possible with the unaided natural voice (we can learn useful methods from accomplished singers but remember that what makes them sound like a god or a goddess is the production team).
  • Sleep well—your body and your voice have a certain amount of use available each day before their functionality begins to weaken.  For example, if you are used to seven hours of sleep and you only get five, it can be more difficult to maintain your technique during a performance, your tone may suffer, and your voice may have less use available to it because it didn’t have as much recovery time as it needed.

Adherence to these secrets for a healthy singing voice can provide the foundational potential to truly shine in your songs.  One final note:  I have not discussed smoking and/or drugs because they are lifestyle choices that may require more professional help than advice from your singing guru to change—but they are definitely not healthy for your singing voice.  To learn more about your singing instrument, check out other articles, videos, and Q&A on this site regarding posture, breathing, and more.  Also visit www.musiclessonguru.com for further information on me as a teacher and my approach to coaching singing, guitar, bass, piano, songwriting, and performance.

 

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