As singers, it is crucial that we take good care of our voice and our body all the time, not just on the days when we need to perform. We are not the same as a guitarist who can replace a string if they play too hard, or a drummer who can buy new sticks. Our instruments are made of delicate tissue, and any damage we cause can be lasting. So, here are my top tips for taking care of your voice.
1. Don't shout
Never shout, yell or scream. This might sound obvious, but often we don't realise when we are straining our voices. Sometimes, this is because we are stressed, upset or anxious. But most often, it is because we are trying to make ourselves heard over background noise. Take care when you are in loud environments such as restaurants, bars and especially at gigs and concerts. I find it helpful to wear earplugs or stuff some tissue in my ears, not only to protect my hearing, but to kill the background noise, thus becoming more aware of the volume at which I am actually speaking. Try not to talk on the phone when you're on public transport, and be conscious of how you are speaking if you feel yourself becoming stressed. Perhaps most importantly, make sure that you don't strain or yell while singing. If you feel any discomfort or tension, then seek vocal tuition to help correct this.
Drink plenty of water everyday. Herbal tea is good, but avoid alcohol, caffeine and sugary drinks. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, which means that they draw water out of your bloodstream and dehydrate you. New research shows that, because the muscles in our larynx are not a top priority for our body in terms of survival, they fall down the priority list when it comes to hydration. This means that hydration levels in the vocal folds may actually correspond with how much water we consumed three days previously - so it's not enough just to gulp a litre of water before a performance! Regular steaming is a great way to give moisture to dried out vocal folds and sinuses. You can buy cheap, portable steamers, but just as effective is placing a towel over your head above a bowl of steaming water. Do not use menthol or eucalyptus oils as these can have a drying effect. If you find your voice is particularly dry when you wake up in the morning, you may wish to purchase a room vaporiser, to reap the benefits while you sleep.
A daily warm-up routine is a must. Warm-up your vocal folds everyday, not just on days when you perform. Think of this as going to the gym: if you try to run a marathon without having done any training, you're going to cause yourself an injury. It's also important to remember that your speaking voice and your singing voice are the same instrument, so warming up each morning is going to reduce the strain placed on your vocal folds by speaking throughout the day.
This said, make sure that you factor plenty of downtime into your schedule. Singers are vocal athletes and we need plenty of sleep as physical fatigue has a detrimental effect on the voice. We also need plenty of vocal rest to allow our laryngeal muscles to recover. This means planned periods where we don't sing and we don't speak. Become mindful of how much you use your voice throughout the day. Try and minimise telephone calls, particularly in noisy environments, and avoid unneccessary talking when you can. If you have a long day in the studio or in rehearsals, make sure to pace yourself, steam regularly and take lots of breaks.
5. Avoid irritants
Smoking is the worst thing you can do for your voice. Cigarettes will dry out your vocal folds, weaken your lungs, decrease your range and limit what you can do with your voice. For help on quitting, contact your GP to find a local support group and information on the variety of aids available to you.
However, smoking is not the only irritant we need guard against. Dusty environments, chemical sprays such as perfumes, deodorants and hairspray, and medications such as antihistamines can all cause dryness. Cold air can fatigue our vocal folds, so take care to keep your throat, chest and ears warm all year round. Our vocal tracts like to be warm and wet, so do what you can to regulate temperature and humidity. The combination of cold and dry air makes air conditioning a singer's worst enemy. Ask for it to be turned off in studios or on car journeys, and make sure to carry a scarf and a portable steamer with you.
6. Listen to yourself
Your speaking voice and your singing voice are the same instrument. You might have great technique as a singer, but if you are not using your voice correctly when speaking, you might be undermining your singing efforts and causing yourself unnecessary vocal fatigue or damage. Is your speaking voice too breathy? Too loud? Too hoarse? These are all issues that can be addressed by your vocal coach.
Pay attention to your speaking voice. If it sounds hoarse or feels painful, then it may be that you are getting sick and need to rest. Painful as it may be to cancel gigs and lose work, it is often the best course of action, as singing on vocal folds that are weak and inflamed is when we are most likely to cause ourselves a serious injury. If your voice sounds different for more than three days, but you are otherwise in good health, then you should seek urgent medical attention. Remember: don't clear your throat and never whisper.
7. Up in the air
The professional singer can accrue an awful lot of air miles, and tour schedules can be gruelling. Just as our hands and feet swell up when we fly, so do our vocal cords, making them puffy and, therefore, less agile. The controlled and recycled air onboard has very low humidity which dehydrates us, and the background noise is high. Travel arrangements are most often out of our control, but talk to your tour manager and ask that, where possible, you don't sing on the same day that you fly. Ask them to contact your hotel in advance to have the air conditioning in your room turned off. On board, make sure you drink plenty of water and don't talk above the noise of the engine. Take a cushion, eye mask and warm clothes with you to help you sleep. Once landed, keep drinking fluids and grab as much sleep whenever and wherever you can to combat the effects of jet lag.
8. Prevention rather than cure
Getting ill is a fact of life, but for singers, this means cancelling work and losing income. Do all you can to keep your immune system healthy in order to fight off bugs and infection. Wash your hands, drink plenty of water, eat a diet rich in fresh vegetables and vitamins, sleep lots and exercise regularly.
9. Acid reflux
If you have a hoarseness in your throat, need to clear your throat a lot or feel discomfort when swallowing, without the presence of a cold or illness, it may be that you suffer from acid reflux (read more here). Unfortunately, singers are particularly prone to this complaint. If you think you may have acid reflux, go and seek specialist help from your doctor, as more severe vocal conditions can arise from this if left untreated, Pay attention to which foods trigger your reflux (common culprits include tomatoes, citrus fruits and coffee) and don't eat late at night or before going to bed.
10. Always use proper monitoring
It is essential that you are able to hear yourself properly whilst singing. Take the time to conduct a proper sound check and don't be afraid to ask your band or sound engineer for what you need. You should be able to hear every part of every sound that comes out of your mouth while you sing, and should be able to hear yourself easily at speaking volume whilst the band or track plays around you. Make sure you have equipment that is appropriate for the size and type of venue and music you are playing.
So those are my top tips for taking good care of your precious instrument! What are your top tips? Please let me know by posting in the comments section below!
If you have any questions about taking care of your voice, or need some specialist advice, then please get in contact with me here. I would love to hear from you!