Advice on Vocal Health from a Singing Teacher:
How to look after your voice is one of the most common questions I get asked. Everyone wants to know the key to not losing their voice, to being able to sing while sick, to not getting sick at all, and to keeping their voice in shape…vocal health is a hot topic.
I would like to note that most of this advice is from my own experience, or is passed on from advice I have received from other singers. I hope that it will help you look after your voice better, and enhance your singing. Finally, please remember that I am not a doctor, and I will always advise my students to consult a doctor if they are having persistent vocal trouble.
So, how do you look after your voice? Let’s divide the topic in two:
- How to look after your voice when you’re healthy, and
- How to look after your voice when you’re sick.
Let’s start with healthy voices. Remember these words: preventative care!
Part One: Preventative Care – What To Do When You’re Healthy
Actually, all of the following tips are also useful when you’re sick. Treat them as a general go-to for looking after things.
Ok, this is the big one. If there is one thing you will take away from this post, please let it be to hydrate more. Your body is your instrument, and your body works best when it is well hydrated. There is lots of research on the direct effect of hydration on your vocal folds, and how dehydration can be detrimental to your voice.
The best way to stay hydrated is to drink water regularly throughout the day. If you have a performance coming up, make a real effort to be very well hydrated the day before, so you don’t feel the need to drink excessively before you go on stage – and risk the very uncomfortable and distracting feeling of needing to pee in the middle of a song!
Some practical hydration tips:
Drink Bottle – ALWAYS carry a drink bottle with you, so you can stay hydrated throughout your day, wherever you are and whatever you are doing. Bonus points if you get a reusable one to help save the planet! #ecosinger #vocalhealth
Coffee – if you like to drink coffee, that’s fine! Drink in moderation and be sure to drink extra water to compensate the dehydrating effect of the caffeine.
Tea – herbal is best, with no théine as the French like to call it. If you want the kick from the caffeine, go for white or green tea, or choose weak black tea. And same as for coffee, drink extra water to compensate the dehydrating effect! My favourite herbal teas are verbena (verveine) and thyme, I also love lime leaf (tilleul), mint and rooibos.
Alcohol – you know that feeling when you wake up after a big night out and your throat is like sandpaper? That’s from the dehydrating effects of the wine, beer or spirits. This is also why one of the best cures for a hangover is rehydration. Smoothie, anyone? My top tips for drinking alcohol while still looking after your voice are:
- Hydrate before you start drinking alcohol. If you are ahead on the hydration front, any negative effects will be lessened.
- Avoid sugary cocktails and mixers, as the sugar will speed up the dehydration.
- Have a break with a glass of water every few drinks. My mum always told me one glass of water for one glass of wine, and I’ve never had a hangover with that method. No hangover = no dehydration. Win!
- Before you go to sleep, drink a bottle of water. Your vocal folds of tomorrow will thank you.
Changing seasons: remember to change your hydration habits to match the conditions around you. If it’s really hot outside, you’ll need to increase your intake. If you’ve got central heating in the winter that leads to dry air in your home, you’ll need to increase your intake. Having a humidifier or regularly doing steam inhalations can help combat the effects of the dry air.
This might seem obvious, but if you don’t rest your voice, it won’t get time to heal and recover, just like the rest of your body. While it’s important to practice, it’s also important to listen to your body and stop to rest when you need to. There are lots of ways to practice that don’t include singing that same top note over and over again, ultimately tiring out your voice and potentially causing damage. Equally, if you have a busy social or work day that involves a lot of talking, pay attention to the affect this has on your voice. If your voice feels tired, rest it. Don’t talk, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
It’s also important to get enough sleep. Have you noticed that if you have a short night, your voice is inevitably tired the next day? Work out how much sleep you need – everyone is different, but the recommended amount is 7-9 hours a night for adults (see the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations here).
3. Warm up
Just like when you exercise or play sports, it is really important to warm up your voice before you sing. I think maybe this requires a whole other post to do it justice, but suffice to say, this is crucial to your vocal health. Have you ever been for a run without warming up or stretching, come home without warming down or stretching, and then been in agony from all your sore muscles (or worse – pulled or injured muscles) the next day? Well, singing is the same. You can’t just launch into a power ballad or an aria without a warm up and expect to come out unharmed.
Your singing teacher should be able to teach you some appropriate warm ups. Remember to warm up your whole body, not just your voice, and when you get to the end of your practice or performance, don’t forget to warm down. You can warm down by gently humming from the top of your range to the bottom in some gentle slides.
4. Eat WelL & Exercise
We all hate hearing that the solution to everything is living a healthy lifestyle with good food and plenty of exercise. If only we could eat treat food every day, avoid the gym completely, and still come out in good shape! But the truth is that your body is your instrument, and to have good vocal health, your body needs to be healthy too. Add some more fruit and vegetables to your diet, cut down the salt & fat & sugar (no need to cut it out entirely, just eat in moderation) and exercise regularly in a way that you enjoy. Personally I can’t stand gyms, so I get most of my exercise from walking, cycling, pilates, and recently an online fitness programme that I can do in my own living room. Whatever works best for you is the best choice, as we are much better at sticking to things we enjoy.
4. Good Hygiene
One of the keys to vocal health is doing everything you can to avoid respiratory infections – colds, flus, sinus infections, tonsillitis, pharyngitis, laryngitis, bronchitis – as they are most likely to get in the way of your singing. And while there is no fail-safe way to avoid infections, there are lots of things you can do to decrease the risk.
My personal tips are:
- Look after your immune system. If you look after your body by staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising enough, you’ll be a step ahead when flu season comes around.
- Don’t share your drink bottle or glass. You don’t know what germs other people might have!
- Wash your hands when you get home, and especially after taking public transport. Carry hand sanitiser with you for when you’re out and about.
- Wash your hands before you touch your face, and especially before eating.
- Keep a distance from anyone who is visibly sick (coughing, sneezing).
- Set a good example by being responsible about hygiene if you yourself are sick. Keep your distance from others (it’s ok to not greet someone with la bise or a hug if you are unwell), or better yet, stay home. Cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze, and turn away from people around you. Wash your hands after blowing your nose, and throw away the tissue. Cough into a tissue or your sleeve rather than your hands.
- Get the flu vaccine every year. It will significantly reduce the risk of you getting sick from the flu if you catch it. You can read more about the flu vaccine on the ECDC Website.
5. Say No
Finally, it’s no secret that there are few things that are just generally bad for your voice. Say no to smoke. Tobacco and other drugs taken through inhalation can cause both day-to-day harm and irreparable damage to your vocal folds over time. If you’d like to know more about this, perhaps start with this article.
In summary, there are lots of everyday things you can do to look after your vocal health. Keep these in mind when you want to make sure your voice is in good shape, and refer back to them if ever you start having trouble. Let me know in the comments if there are any other tips you have for fellow singers, or if you have any questions regarding vocal health. I’d be happy to help!
Otherwise, I’ll be back soon with Part Two: How to look after your voice when you’re sick.
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