By Sarah Seo
Vocal health is extremely important for singers of all ages and musical styles. As a vocalist, I carry my instrument with me at all times. And as a teacher, a huge part of my job becomes teaching my students how they can keep their voices healthy. After all, if we break our instrument, we can’t just go out and buy another one!
My students are constantly getting sick. It never fails that at least one of my kids will have the sniffles each week. Since I’m in contact with these little ones every day, I’m consistently subjected to their germs, not to mention the germs of their friends that they have been in contact with all day at school. It is part of my job to encourage my students to keep their voices safe. Children’s vocal chords are still developing and fragile, so they are very susceptible to damage. As their voice teacher, I take this responsibility personally.
It is just as important to keep my vocal chords safe as it is to help my students protect theirs. Without my voice, doing my job is extremely difficult. I experienced this first-hand recently when I caught the flu. Within only a couple days of trying to carry on with my normal schedule, my voice decided it was time to quit! Naturally, I wanted to keep working. So, I had to think about how to take care of my voice while continuing to teach. Obviously, I felt incredibly silly being a voice teacher who lost her voice, so hopefully my experience and tips can benefit you. Because colds, viruses, and allergies are part of life, I feel compelled to share some tips on how to proactively keep you and your vocal chords healthy. I created this list mostly as a reminder since these aren’t all revolutionary concepts, but I also included some suggestions on how to apply them that may prove useful.
Staying hydrated is one of the most important parts of keeping vocal chords healthy. When you sing, your vocal chords are vibrating against each other to create sound. Amazing, right? But if they are dry, you can strain and/or lose your voice since there is not enough lubrication to allow easy and even vibration.
Obviously, the easiest way to stay hydrated is to drink plenty of fluids! Carrying a water bottle is an easy way to help you stay hydrated. Throughout the day, I find that I am often thirsty, but if I do not have a drink with me, I will not drink anything. Conversely, on the days that I have a water bottle with me, (or any drink for that matter) it does not take long for me to finish it.
It is important to note that not all drinks are created equal. Just because it is a liquid does not mean that it will help keep your body hydrated. Carbonated, caffeinated, and alcoholic beverages will dehydrate you. Drink these in moderation, and definitely stay away from them if you are sick. I must admit that I drink at least one cup of coffee a day, but I follow it with a glass of water to help replenish myself. If you do not like drinking a lot of water because you like flavored drinks, having packets of low calorie drink mixes on hand is an easy fix!
Don’t Clear Your Throat
The first thing I want to do when I get a cold is clear my throat. I hate the feeling of “gunk” on my vocal chords! Having mucus on your vocal chords can cause problems like dehydration, slight swelling, irritation, and difficulty speaking or singing, but clearing your throat is the worst way to handle it. It causes more irritation and can cause enough swelling to lose your voice. Instead of clearing your throat, try drinking hot tea, swallowing hard, or some healthy vocal warm-ups – sometimes the vibrating of your vocal chords from singing is enough force to shake loose the yuckiness!
One of my favorite warm-ups to shake loose mucus is sliding up and down from do-sol-do on the consonants V or Z. Sliding between notes is helpful, but adding the consonant makes it even better for helping to clear your voice. Singing on a voiced consonant puts a little extra pressure (good pressure) on your chords. You can experience this by singing the same exercise on “Ah” and then repeat it on a voiced consonant (z, v, m…). Can you feel the difference? V and Z are also great because there is even more pressure added from having to force air through either your lips and teeth, or tongue and teeth.
I am sure that I am “preaching to the choir,” but if it hurts to sing, do not sing! This means that your vocal chords are experiencing more than just a little mucus. In the case that it is uncomfortable to sing, your body is telling you that it is time to stop. At this point, resting your voice is the best option.
Use your inside voice
Your normal speaking voice is, for the most part, the healthiest volume for your voice. Whispering and yelling, alike, are both stressful on your vocal chords. Yes, even whispering puts stress on your voice. I often hear people whispering when they begin to lose or have lost their voice because they assume the softer volume is better. This is a big misconception. Whispering will not help. Whispering and yelling once in a while will, obviously, not damage your vocal chords. Consistent strain, though, can result in damage; so it is beneficial to think of strategies that minimize the number of times your voice is strained.
As a teacher, it is important to remember not to attempt to talk over the students. Raising your voice will leave you and your vocal chords tired. Your students will also become accustomed to hearing your voice at that volume and you will probably find yourself shouting a lot. Teaching them to respond to a clapped rhythmic pattern, like a call and response, is one of the most affective techniques I have learned. This way, you are able to grab the attention of the class without straining your voice, and you can then say what you need to say at a reasonable volume. Speaking at a normal volume is helpful for preventing vocal strain, but if your voice is about to go, the best thing to do is stop talking altogether – which brings me to my next point…
If you are losing or have already lost your voice, staying on vocal rest is the most important part of recovery. Especially if you have already lost your voice, whispering and talking in general will only prolong your laryngitis. Like I stated above, when it is painful to sing, it is a good time to give your voice a break. Staying on vocal rest gives your vocal chords a chance to heal and reduce the swelling.
This information is important for us as teachers to remember and apply. It is incredibly difficult to teach on vocal rest, but not impossible. On the days you feel like your voice needs some TLC, use more gestures and less vocal prompts. Planning lessons that involve more written exercises and less vocal instruction or demonstration can be used to your advantage. Also, the days when you want to rest your voice can be great days to practice rhythm. Clapping rhythms does not involve using your voice at all. Be diligent with staying on vocal rest. It is definitely difficult, but not only is it the best for your voice, your diligence models good vocal habits to your students.
Another concept to teach your students is the importance of singing with each other, not over each other. Sometimes students have difficulty hearing themselves while singing with others. The natural reaction is to sing louder until they can hear their own voice. Usually, they do this without even realizing it, but they leave with a tired and sore throat. Choosing warm-ups that address blending and listening to each other can help keep them from straining. Even closing their eyes while singing can help the students become more aware of the volume of their own voices and of the voices of the people around them.
The best way to help your students with vocal health is not only educating them, but modeling the behavior as well. If you teach them about staying hydrated and they see you with a water bottle, they will be more likely to apply it to their own lives because they see you doing it. Take a day to talk specifically about vocal health. Then, reinforce those concepts periodically.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I speak from personal experience. I am finally gaining the high register of my voice back, even after months of my speaking voice returning to “normal.” I was afraid that my singing voice would never return to normal. This is why I am adamant about maintaining vocal health. To my students, losing their voices might seem trivial, but it is my job to teach them that prolonged unhealthy vocal habits can cause serious issues. Hopefully these tips will be helpful and useful to you as well.
Sarah Seo grew up, and currently resides, in the metro-Atlanta area. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga., where she graduated Summa Cum Laude and became a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor’s Society. She completed her internship in Columbia, S.C., at Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital. Sarah is a member of the American Music Therapy Association, the Music Therapy Association of Georgia, and is board certified. Her main instrument is voice and she has performed as a soloist at a variety of venues, but she is proficient on guitar and piano. She now teaches voice, piano, and guitar lessons. She also practices music therapy at various facilities.