We all know that a healthy, clear voice is important for everything from communicating with colleagues at work, to ordering a meal in a restaurant. However, for vocalists — from folks who sing in a school or church choir, to professionals who tour the world and perform for packed audiences — vocal health is more than just important: it’s essential to your livelihood.
If you’re an aspiring singer — or if you’re someone who wisely recognizes that a healthy voice is as beneficial and vital as a healthy body — then here are three tips to live (and sing!) by according to renowned singer, conductor and pianist Katherine (Kathy) Bartol:
1. Drink Room Temperature Water
Vocal folds vibrate at high speeds, and water keeps them lubricated — like the role the oil plays in a car engine. For example, if you sing the A above middle C your folds are vibrating 440 times per second to match the A frequency of 440 cycles per second. The A sung an octave higher would vibrate your vocal folds 880 times per second to match the high A frequency of 880 cycles per second. Also keep in mind that cold water can be a shock to the vocal folds, which in turn tightens the surrounding intricate muscles, which could possibly cause restriction in the folds’ ability to vibrate. On the other end of the temperature scale, hot water can increase mucus production and lead to inflammation. Room temperature water is the best option.
Katherine Bartol explains that: “Once vocal folds become dry, there is no way to hydrate them directly, because the larynx is separate from the esophagus. As such, the best thing to do is drink room temperature water throughout the day. If this is inconvenient, eating foods that contain large amounts of water, such as fruits and vegetables, can be enough. Keeping the home and workplace humidified is also helpful.” Dry vocal folds will have trouble vibrating fast enough to achieve the higher notes and possibly sound scratchy and dry on the lower tones. Remember if you want to hydrate your vocal mechanism then you must drink the fluid at least 20 to 30 minutes before you plan to use your voice for a performance. Do not drink dehydrating liquids such as coffee or alcohol or any sports drinks with sodium, etc. The very best thing to drink is always pure water. The old saying goes that when your urine is clear, then you are hydrated enough. Of course one can’t run off the stage to use the restroom, so each singer will have to drink the amount that he or she can tolerate before a performance.
2. Warm Up and Cool Down
Just like athletes, singers need to warm up and cool down to maximize performance and reduce the risk of injury. After the entire body is stretched, relaxed, and balanced, it is critically important to start gently, so the vocal muscles relax and excess mucous is expelled. And while it’s fine to get loud, it’s typically not a good idea to extend to the outer parameters of the voice in the beginning of the warm- up. It’s also best to hum and perform lip and tongue trills for several minutes before moving into singing notes. Starting with a short 5-note descending scale is always best. Extend downward to the low tones first, and then slowly vocalize upward with sliding exercises within a 5-note ascending scale. More intricate, longer, and demanding exercises can follow. Octave slides on an Ee, oo, or Ah vowel sound will help loosen constriction of muscles and extend the range. Starting on Ee vowel and sliding to Ah vowel is always effective in relaxing the muscles and extending the range. Always start with a “Silent H” when starting an exercise with a vowel sound to avoid a glottal attack on the note. Glottal attacks are damaging to the vocal folds as is throat clearing and incessant coughing. The “Silent H” cushions the vocal folds with air before they approximate. All qualities of arpeggios are good for the range. You can use major, minor, augmented or diminished chords on various consonant and vowel mixtures.
Katherine Bartol notes that cooling down is just as important as warming up and should never be skipped. Simple and effective cool down exercises include gentle head and shoulder rolls, sirens that gently drop to the bottom of the voice and open to an AH sound, lip trills, and sliding the voice through a series of descending five-note scales using the Ah or Ee vowel sound. The last thing you want to do is leave a performance with your vocal mechanism muscles and throat feeling tense and tired. Any tenseness or constriction must be avoided at all times because it creates a muscle memory to go there again.
3. Stay Fit with Exercise and Nutrition and Take Breaks Throughout the Day
Many aspiring singers make the mistake of singing too much, which eventually tires the muscles of the vocal mechanism, causing improper support and use of the voice. A voice with no support starts to close in on itself and approximates improperly or too harsh, causing bruising or nodules. These damaged vocal folds could require medical attention. When you scream at a sporting event and become hoarse you have caused bruising to your vocal folds. This usually takes at least three days to heal enough so you can sing with a full range. Taking silence breaks to rest your voice throughout the day can avoid muscle fatigue, pain, performance issues, and perhaps a trip to the doctor’s office followed by a prolonged recovery period. A healthy diet and a body strengthened by over-all exercise with enough sleep will also significantly increase the stamina of your vocal mechanism and the over–all power of your voice.
Katherine Bartol states that it is critically important for singers to stop at the first sign of pain. Singing through the discomfort is a major mistake, the old saying `no pain, no gain’ absolutely does not apply. Yes, singing is challenging and far more difficult than most people believe. And yes, it involves strengthening certain muscles and expanding the range. But it should not be agonizing. Singing should feel free and relaxed. The vibrato should happen naturally, originating from the abdominal support muscles, somewhat like arm muscles shake when they are holding up weights. Vibrato should never be started in the throat. If this happens then the singer is using muscles in the throat that will constrict and harm the vocal folds. Pain is a warning sign that must be heeded. There have been many singers who have suffered a vocal hemorrhage and have had to put their career on a long hold in order to heal. Some famous singers have actually requested cortisone shots to be administered to their vocal folds after their voice became damaged and had already swelled like a big blister on the back of the ankle from a bad shoe. This was a temporary fix to bring down the swelling so their vocal folds could vibrate, but these singers ended up with much more debilitating damage because they kept singing with the bad habits and constriction that caused the damage in the first place. If a singer is experiencing any problems, he or she should work with a good vocal coach as soon as possible in order to correct the habits that are causing damage. The habit could be as simple as incessant throat clearing or as complicated as constricting many of the small muscles in the throat. Any type of surgical procedure should be the last resort. The damaging habits should be changed first to see if the damage will clear up on its own. There is a possibility of permanent damage with surgery.