Whether you sing recreationally with family and friends, as part of a choir or group, or you’re aspiring to join the professional ranks and perform before packed audience around the world, it goes without saying that you want your beautiful singing voice to last for decades. To help make that happen, here are three tips from internationally acclaimed singer, conductor and pianist Katherine Bartol, whose long list of achievements includes performing with Davy Jones of The Monkees and with John Rutter’s choruses at Carnegie Hall in New York City:
1. Cultivate Good Vocal Health
While long-time singers hail from many different backgrounds and career paths, one thing they all have in common is that they take extremely good care of their vocal health. Tips to achieve this essential objective include staying hydrated, getting enough quality sleep, taking frequent vocal breaks throughout the day, and always doing appropriate warm-up and cool-down exercises. A healthy diet and staying physically fit will add to the strength and quality of the voice.
Katherine Bartol says that a major, yet sometimes overlooked aspect of cultivating good vocal health is knowing when to stop singing. Many new singers ignore discomfort and pain, and unfortunately end up causing significant damage that could require medical attention and an extended recovery period. Pain usually signifies improper use of certain muscles of the voice mechanism. Any unnecessary tension can cause too much pressure on the vocal folds and consequently result in bruising.
2. Continuously Strengthen the Vocal Folds
Just like aspiring marathoners need to build up endurance slowly but surely, aspiring singers need to properly, safely, and continuously strengthen their voice. The singing mechanism is complicated and uses three subsystems which contain many muscles from the diaphragm area to the neck and tongue. The air pressure system uses the diaphragm, chest muscles, ribs, abdominal muscles and lungs. This provides and regulates air pressure to cause vocal folds to vibrate. The vibratory system is the voice box (larynx) and vocal folds. The vocal folds vibrate, changing air pressure to sound waves and produce a buzzing sound like the mouthpiece of a trumpet. The resonating system is the vocal tract, which contains the throat (pharynx), oral cavity, nasal cavities and chest cavities. This system changes the buzzing sound into a person’s recognizable voice. The resonating system is somewhat like the inside of the body of an acoustic guitar. Exercises that first stretch, relax, and properly balance the entire body, followed by specific exercises that facilitate breathing from the diaphragm and strengthening the larynx are essential for good singing. Tongue and lip exercises also play a significant role in vocal fold strength and overall capacity and control.
Katherine Bartol believes that working with a qualified vocal coach can be extremely beneficial for increasing singing voice longevity. Those who can’t afford this kind of professional-level support can still find some good resources online. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone who claims to be a vocal coach has really earned that designation. It’s also necessary to remember that exercises, techniques and strategies that work for one singer may not necessarily work as well for another. That is why a vocal coach is so valuable, because everything can be customized to fortify individuals’ weaknesses and augment strengths. Unlike the instruments of the orchestra, every singer has an individual and unique instrument unlike any other person’s. So essentially, a 50 voice choir is made up of 50 unique instruments. Some may be similar in range and quality but they are never alike.
3. Sing Because You Love It!- and Continue to Love It!
Katherine Bartol’s last piece of advice — sing because you love it — may seem less important than staying hydrated or performing breathing exercises. However, it’s arguably even more vital for a fundamental reason that everyone can relate to, regardless of whether they sing in the back row of the choir or under the spotlight at Carnegie Hall: if you love singing and it comes from a place of genuine joy and feeling, then you’ll not only do it better, but you’ll do it for longer. Singing has a dual way to reach an audience. Not only do you have the musical part but you also communicate through the text, which is the poetry of the words. If you choose a song that you personally understand, you will more effectively communicate the feelings and meaning to your audience.
Katherine Bartol explains that when most people watch live performances or see videos on TV or the web, they are amazed at the talent and poise. But what they don’t see is the hours and hours of practice and discipline that goes on behind the scenes, and the days when nothing seems to be working or sounding right — tone, pitch, range, pace, and the list goes on. Unlike an orchestral or band instrumentalist, If you feel under the weather your vocal instrument is adversely affected. Great professional singers have to perform well through all of the rough times and learn how to do this safely and effectively. People who truly love singing for its own sake have a much greater chance of enduring these challenging days, weeks and months. Conversely, people who are technically skilled but don’t deeply love singing, are likely to burn out sooner or later. There is no substitute for passion! This brings Katherine Bartol to the last part of her advice. If you over-use your voice and allow the muscles to become too tired you will burn out. Teachers of vocal music in public schools often struggle with losing their passion for singing. Pacing your music class activities around the use of your voice is critical. Know when to stop modeling your voice and listen to your students’ voices. Drinking water throughout the teaching day is also necessary. If you are careful with your voice you will continue to enjoy its range and beauty throughout your entire life.