Caring For Your Voice
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As I’ve written elsewhere on this site, the voice is a highly delicate instrument. It is important for a singer to care for his or her voice so that fatigue, strain and injury may be avoided, and so that it may function at its optimum.
Maintaining overall good health through healthy habits is critical, as I will explain in the following sections. Insufficient rest, obesity, poor nutrition and hydration, substance abuse and allergies can all lead to sicknesses that can have serious affects on the speaking and singing voice.
A singer must pay close attention to the signals that his or her voice gives so that the necessary steps toward preventing problems can be taken. At times, a change in certain behaviours or unhealthy habits may be necessary in order to protect the voice from developing problems in the first place. (This is where a vocal instructor may be particularly beneficial.)
Just as a serious athlete would never push his or her body to its physical limits without first stretching and loosening the muscles and joints, a singer should never put his or her vocal apparatus to the test without first “stretching” it. A proper warm-up involves gently and systematically preparing the voice for the demands that are about to be placed on it.
A great way to allow the voice to warm up in all parts of the range quickly and without strain is to trill the lips and/or tongue (as in "rolling one's r's") during arpeggios, scales or glides that both climb and descend in pitch. Lip and tongue trills help to loosen the throat, jaw, tongue and lips, spread the vocal folds so that they vibrate mainly at their edges, and encourage relaxation in the student who doesn't need to concentrate on having perfect tone, registration, enunciation and pure vowels at the same time. It is much easier for singers to gently access their full range by trilling the lips and tongue than by singing actual vowels and consonants (as when they sing the sound “la”). Vowels and consonants must be formed (shaped or articulated) with the tongue, pharynx, soft palette, facial muscles and lips, whereas, during trills, the sound coming from the vocal folds faces no resistance or shaping from the articulators until it reaches the tip of the tongue or the lips. The sound can then remain natural and unimpeded - the phonation threshold pressure is lowered by providing an acoustic load that is relatively inert. Since the upward force on the vocal folds is minimized due to positive oral pressure, the throat is able to remain open and relaxed, and airflow faces no obstruction from the articulators. The voice is freed up, and the singer can warm-up in the highest and lowest parts of the range with ease and minimal risk of strain. Trills also help to get the respiratory muscles into full action rapidly.
If the singer is unable to do either lip or tongue trills, as some of my students aren’t, simple five-note scales (ascending then descending in pitch) on any comfortable vowel or combination of vowels and consonants are the next best kind of warm-up exercise. They limit the voice to a short range, allowing it to properly loosen up. Once these shorter scales have been completed, the singer may wish to try full octave scales to continue stretching the vocal instrument. Arpeggios generally contain intervals of thirds, fourths and/or fifths, and I always recommend against singing vowels for arpeggios initially in the lesson (as a warm-up exercise) because many students find the intervallic leaps to be stress and tension inducing. (Arpeggios are, of course, a useful technical exercise, but they probably should not be attempted until the voice has had some time to loosen up first.)
Singing along to the radio in the car on the way to lessons or performances does not generally constitute a sufficient warm-up, as most popular songs are limited in range. Attempting to sing more challenging songs as a warm-up, though, can lead to vocal strain.
After the initial warm-up, it is still prudent to tackle vocal exercises in order of difficulty, which may involve putting off those which are designed to broaden a singer’s range until a little later in the lesson.
The vocal folds vibrate against each other in order to produce sound. In order to vibrate properly and to work effectively, they need to be well lubricated with moisture.
Hydration should be a priority throughout the day. A singer should give the body at least a half hour before a lesson, audition or performance to benefit from fluid intake. (In other words, it isn’t sufficient to wait until the lesson or performance to begin drinking water.) Ideally, a singer should drink enough water during a twenty-four hour period to make his or her urine run clear. Room temperature water is ideal, since cold water can have a numbing effect on the throat and mouth.
Apart from not drinking enough water, the vocal apparatus gets dry for a number of reasons, including environmental dryness, (mainly from heating and air conditioning systems removing much of the humidity in the air), medications (e.g. antihistamines), diuretics (e.g. caffeine, alcohol), illegal drugs, cigarette smoke and other air pollutants. Before singing, it is not only recommended that a vocalist drink an adequate amount of water, but that he or she also avoid these sources of dryness.
Humidifiers are very helpful if the living environment is excessively dry, and are ideal for use in bedrooms during sleeping hours when plummeting outdoor temperatures cause heating systems to start up and when several hours will pass without water being consumed. Invest in a cool mist humidifier, (as opposed to a warm mist humidifier, which is more prone to encouraging the growth of bacteria). It is important to regularly clean the humidifier, drop bacteria-killing drops into the water and change the filter as needed. Also, having the humidifier running continuously during the winter months will not only help to get adequate moisture into the air, but will also help prevent the growth of bacteria by not allowing the water in the humidifier tray to stand still. (Any time that water is standing still, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and mold, which can cause respiratory irritation.)
One of the worst “irritants” for many singers is insufficient rest. When the body is tired, the voice will often show signs of fatigue, such as overall weakness or loss of control, diminished range and poor tone, and the singer may lack the energy and concentration needed in order to be able to perform at his or her best. These symptoms of inadequate rest may be difficult to hide from a listening audience.
Being overly tired can also decrease a singer’s ability to effectively concentrate on his or her technique while singing, which could lead to strain or injury. Therefore, whenever possible, a singer should get a full night’s sleep before performances or lessons.
Smoking and Singing
Smoking and exposure to smoke (second-hand smoke) irritates and dries the tissues of the throat, particularly the vocal folds. As I wrote above, a lack of lubrication leads to improper vocal cord vibration and function. It is often thought that as long as the singer doesn't speak or sing while exhaling smoke, not much direct damage will be done to the vocal folds. However, since the smoke must pass the vocal folds on the way from the lungs to the mouth, that kind of thinking doesn’t make any sense because the folds are still being exposed to the smoke whether they are vibrating at the time or not.
Smoking may promote laryngopharyngeal reflux, or acid reflux, which can also affect the vocal folds and cause irritation in the entire throat.
Additionally, smoking degrades lung function, which affects the voice by decreasing airflow through the vocal folds and lessening lung capacity and stamina while singing. This drastic loss of lung capacity is one of the biggest effects of smoking on the singing voice.
Nicotine is a sedative. It deadens the nerves that control the support musculature, and does not allow the proper use of the lungs. The effects of tar in terms of congesting the lungs are also significant, but this is a complex problem. The primary issue of tar in the lungs is that the nicotine deadens or paralyzes the hair (cilia) in the bronchioles and bronchial passages. When healthy, these tiny, finger-shaped bits of tissue increase the surface area of the bronchioles, allowing more oxygen to pass through to the capillaries behind them. Under normal circumstances, they also sway gently back and forth to move the mucous and phlegm around, regularly flushing mucus from the respiratory system and preventing ‘gunk’ from building up.
When the cilia is paralyzed by nicotine, tar and phlegm begin to coat them. This congestion reduces lung capacity. It also reduces the body's ability to gauge and react to irritation from smoke.
The body also attempts to forcefully remove the excess mucous by coughing. This is what is known as the ‘smoker’s cough’. This coughing also happens after the smoker has had a prolonged absence of nicotine in his or her system (e.g., in the morning, after a full night of sleep) because the cilia begin to function again, moving the mucous around. Coughing can cause irritation in the throat.
Furthermore, smoking causes edema (swelling) of the tissue that coats the vocal folds. "Swelling” means an increase in water content, and this in turn means that the folds are heavier than normal. Heavier vocal folds produce a lower tone than lighter vocal folds, just as thick guitar strings produce a lower note than slender guitar strings. The smoker's voice typically sounds more raspy or gravelly, as well as deeper. Unfortunately, after many years of smoking, this swelling may become permanent.
Many rock and pop singers revel in the fact that their voices sound deeper, more gravelly and raspy when they smoke. It needs to be understood, however, that even though smoking may deepen the overall tone of the voice (due to the extra weight of the folds), it doesn't really significantly affect the lower range, since range is mostly determined by the size and shape of the vocal instrument itself (e.g., the length and thickness of the vocal folds and the length and width of the resonating 'tube'). Singers reach a certain point where the vocal folds become as compact and as slack as they possibly can be, and that is the lowest that they physically will ever be able to sing. The deeper sound of smokers' speaking and singing voices is deceptive. Although smokers may speak in a lower range of pitches than they naturally would if they didn't smoke, this doesn't mean that their vocal instruments are also capable of reaching lower notes.
Furthermore, due to the increased weight and swelling of the folds, the overall range of the singer is diminished. The extra mucous on the folds can actually inhibit their ability to vibrate effectively, preventing the singers from being able to phonate at both lower and higher pitches that they might ordinarily be able to sing if their folds were clear and lighter in weight.
Of course, no discussion about smoking would be complete without mentioning that smoking is the leading cause of both vocal fold and lung cancers, both of which will likely end a singing career.
Carbonation and Caffeine
Avoid consuming carbonated drinks (e.g. soda) before singing. They not only produce excess gas, but the caffeine in most sodas serves as a diuretic, inhibiting the body’s ability to re-absorb fluid, which leads to a retention of water in the urine. Essentially, they increase the excretion of water from the body, which can lead to mild dehydration.
Since caffeine acts as a diuretic, all products containing caffeine such as soda, coffee, teas and chocolate should not be consumed before a lesson, rehearsal or performance. (Note that most “decaffeinated” drinks still contain some caffeine.)
Certain foods, such as spicy dishes, greasy fried foods and fad diets should be avoided prior to a performance because they can create an upset stomach, which can cause gastric reflux. In this situation, the acids in the stomach rise up the esophagus to irritate the tissues of the vocal folds.
Dairy products will not harm the voice, but are known to stimulate mucous (phlegm) production in the throat and sinuses, which may interfere with clear vocal production. They should, therefore, not be consumed in the two hours prior to the start of a singing task (e.g., lesson or performance). Some people are especially sensitive dairy, such as people with asthma.
Allergies are caused by an overly sensitive immune response. The immune system normally protects the body against harmful substances such as bacteria and viruses. Allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to substances (allergens) that are generally harmless and, in most people, do not cause an immune response.
When a person with allergies breathes in an allergen, histamine and other chemicals are released as part of the immune response. This causes itching and swelling, mucous production, wheezing, and in serious cases, hives and rashes, as well as other symptoms. Symptoms vary in severity from person to person. Most environmental allergens contact the skin or eyes, or are inhaled. Therefore, most symptoms affect the skin, eyes or the breathing passages. Post-nasal drip, the irritating trickle of mucous from the nasal passages into the throat caused by allergies or sinusitis, can also result in a cough.
House dust contains tiny particles of pollen, mold, fibers from clothing and fabrics, detergents, dead human skin cells and microscopic insects (mites). Dust mites, including small fragments of dead mites, are the primary cause of dust allergy and are found in the highest numbers in bedding, mattresses, and box springs. They leave droppings everywhere that they go. Their droppings contain left-over enzymes which the mites use to digest the skin dust. It is these enzymes that are the most important part of mite dust in causing asthma and other allergic diseases. In fact, house dust mites and their droppings are the most important cause of asthma worldwide.
Clean frequently to minimize dust. Vacuum frequently, preferably using a small-pore filter to capture dust mites. (Vacuuming the mattress is not nearly as helpful as people might think. It removes very few of the mites, which can cling to the mattress perfectly well to avoid being sucked into the vacuum cleaner. However, vacuuming will remove some of the skin dust on which the mites feed, and a little of their droppings, and may still be worthwhile as part of a proper plan. Also, some vacuum cleaners, like Kirby’s, are better than others.) Avoid using vacuum cleaners wherever damp dusting is possible. Damp-mop and dust often. Eliminate as many "dust catchers" as possible, including rugs, bed ruffles or canopies, cloth-covered furniture and curtains where it is difficult to eliminate the mites effectively. Bedding and mattresses harbour dust mites. Special covers for mattresses, box springs and pillows to reduce dust mite allergens can be purchased. Wash rugs, bedding and furniture coverings weekly, if possible.
Avoid activities that raise dust from reservoirs such as furniture and the floor, where it is otherwise harmless, to the air that you breathe.
The amount of dust in a house depends not only on cleanliness, but also on the amount of moisture in the house. Dry houses in very cold climates or on high mountains have few mites, but houses in temperate climates and normal altitudes have more. Therefore, don't allow humidity to build up, but ventilate. Don't heat more or for longer than necessary. Central heating and air-conditioning systems may be helpful, particularly if they include special filters to capture dust.
Severe nasal allergy symptoms (e.g., acute sinusitis or seasonal rhinitis) can affect your singing tone. Singers rely on the kinesthetic feedback from the ringing quality produced in the face's resonating cavities to know that they are using proper tone. Clogged nasal passages that result in a hyponasal vocal quality can prevent the sound from resonating effectively in the sinus cavities. Hyponasality can hamper a singer's ability to increase his or her volume, potentially leading to overuse of other muscles in the neck for increased loudness demands.
One of my recommendations for dealing with mild congestion due to nasal allergies, if you don’t wish to take allergy medications, is that you take Fisherman’s Friends (extra strength) lozenges just before you sing. They are really effective at temporarily clearing the sinuses and getting rid of post-nasal drip, and can be taken immediately before a performance. Many people don’t appreciate their strong flavour – personally, I don’t mind them at all – and you’ll have a greenish-brown tongue afterwards, but they are pretty effective for many people. What’s especially great about Fisherman’s Friends is that they don’t coat the throat or dry out the sinuses, making it possible to sing after taking one. Fisherman’s Friends may not be quite as helpful for someone with really serious sinus issues, although a couple of my students with bad allergies take them regularly, and they report positive results with them. They’ll even suck on them during lessons when their allergies are acting up. You should be able to buy them at pharmacies like CVS and RiteAid.
Allergy medications (e.g. antihistamines) can dry out your sinuses, but sometimes they are the only things that work quickly enough for serious allergies. If you need to take them, just ensure that you are also drinking extra water to compensate for the additional dryness factor.
Some allergy sufferers swear by products like neti-pots and SinuCleanse that clean out the sinuses with a saline solution and a nasal aspirator/bulb (a.k.a. nasal irrigation). Daily, you would pour the solution into one nostril and allow it to come out the other, then reverse the process, in order to rinse the nose and rid it of pollens, etc. that might make their way down into your throat or lungs or up into your sinuses. Some Ear, Nose and Throat doctors sell similar products out of their offices, and you might be prudent to visit an ENT (otolaryngologist) and ask for his or her advice on dealing with your allergies long-term. (They really are the experts on the subject.) Just make sure that you explain to the doctor that you are a singer in case that information alters how he or she would approach treating you.
You can also try the naturopathic route. It may take longer for you to see the positive effects but it could be more helpful in the long run (by boosting your immune response) than allergy medications that merely address immediate symptoms. Some people claim to have great success with herbal remedies like Echinacea or Fenugreek and Thyme – used most often for sinus headaches. Stinging Nettle helps heal mucus membranes and decreases histamine release, especially in the sinuses. You may wish to visit a local naturopathic store or meet with a naturopathic doctor for assessment and to ask for some advice. Of course, attempt to avoid known allergens, whenever possible.
Also, warming up your voice with exercises that will gradually “loosen” the congestion before you sing would likely be very helpful. A lot of my students with chronic allergies and colds find that they need some extra warm-up time before performing or taking their lessons.
With lessons, you will (hopefully) learn to be able to sing over or past minor sinus congestion from allergies and colds by focusing your resonance in the facial cavities as opposed to the nasal passages, so you might be able to correct any nasally tone that you might be struggling with. Sinus problems will always have some negative effect on singing because they affect the resonating chambers in the head, so you should attempt to find an effective long-term treatment for them, but you can learn to better disguise their effects with some good vocal technique and targeted warm-ups.