Don’t hate me, but it seems that the life of a serious vocalist—whatever your genre—is less the Hollywood portrayal of all-night partying (and all that comes with such a scene) and more of self-control and pampering. I mean, the things it takes to really care for the vocal instrument seem, ahem, a little nerdy—or boring, if you like. But, please don’t let a little boring deter you, because this is serious stuff. It’s not like you can pack your vocal chords up in a nice little case and put them away for safekeeping, like most instruments.
So, what are some practical ways in which you can care for your voice box (also known as your larynx, which houses your vocal chords or vocal folds)?
Hydrate. With Water.
This step is something that you can do pretty much anytime, anywhere: drink lots of water. The reason for this? The more water you drink, the thinner the mucous on your vocal chords will be, which means less vocal interruption for you.
Make sure you are well hydrated by drinking the recommended 64 ounces per day. If you have an affinity for dehydrating liquids (such as alcohol or caffeinated beverages), you’ll need to up your water intake even more; a good rule of thumb is to drink at least as many ounces of water as you are the dehydrating beverage in addition to the daily recommended amount. That’s a lot of water! To help get you in the habit, have a water bottle (or two) with you at all times, especially when you’re performing.
Another great way to keep your vocal chords hydrated is to steam. You can do this by using a facial steamer or by boiling a pot of water and breathing in the steam. Do this two to three times a day for about 10 minutes, when possible.
Note: steaming can’t replace drinking water. Nice try.
Though some suggest drinking hot tea or water before a performance, it’s best to avoid boiling hot water as it can cause inflammation, especially on already fatigued vocal muscles. Ice water, which causes muscles to contract, is not your friend either, particularly after you’ve warmed up or during a gig, as it can significantly reduce your vocal range.
So, what do you do? Ideally, stick with lukewarm water. If you do drink tea—I like Throat Coat Tea—try heating the water and removing it from heat right before it boils. This way you get some warmth without doing damage.
Use Your Inside Voice
Like extreme temperatures, extreme vocal volumes can put a real strain on your voice. Over time this strain can lead to vocal nodules (nodes). These nodes are the bane of a singer’s existence, and it’s one of the major things we’re trying to avoid with all this vocal care talk. Nodes do not heal easily, so it’s best to prevent them, if possible.
So what are these extremes of which I speak? You’ve probably guessed that yelling and screaming aren’t good for your precious vocal folds. (Though, you can be trained to scream properly, if that’s the sound you’re going for.) At the other end of the spectrum, whispering can also be too demanding on your vocal folds, especially if they are already overworked and in need of rest.
So, what’s a singer to do? In your everyday socializing, try to be aware of the general decibel level of your surroundings. If you’re in a crowd, you may not realize that you’re speaking at a higher volume because everyone else is too. Sometimes those situations can’t be avoided, but when you can, speak at a normal volume.
It’s the same when you’re rehearsing and performing. Over-singing is not good. You’ll want to communicate with your sound engineer until you get a good monitor mix. You have a part to play in your mix as well. When you’re singing, you’ll want to make sure you’re close enough to the mic to kiss it. When you’re doing your mic test (testing 1, 2, 3), sing at the same volume you would during your performance so that your monitor mix will be accurate. And, speaking of monitors, in-ear monitors are ideal. Yeah, yeah—not everybody likes they way the feel or sound. However, if you have access to them, it’s a great idea to get used to them. Either way, without some kind of well-mixed monitors, the decibel level of the epic music being played around you can cause you to sing louder unnecessarily, resulting in vocal fatigue and strain.
Lastly, resting your voice before gigs is ideal, when possible.
Warm Up & Stay Warm
For all you athletic-types out there, you know that before you start your workout, you need to warm up. You don’t want your hammy to cramp up. It’s the same with your voice. Before you begin rehearsing your set list, it’s a good idea imperative that you warm up your vocal chords. Your muscles need to stretch and warm gradually; you’re not made to suddenly go from inactive to highly active. To prevent injury (i.e. the afore mentioned nodes, swelling, laryngitis, etc.) and increase vocal range, stability, and expression, you’ll want to warm up those vocal muscles and practice correct breathing.
If you’re not sure where to begin, it’s ideal to have a professional vocal coach’s direction with breathing exercises and other warm up techniques. If you’ve had some coaching before and just need something to guide you at home, there are plenty of vocal exercise CDs, videos, and websites out there. I’m a personal fan of Vocal Warm Ups & Exercises by Christina E. Branz. Whatever you choose, you want exercises that will help you breathe correctly and stretch your vocal range with walk ups and downs.
Once you’ve done your vocal exercises, you want to stay nice and limber vocally. If you’re singing in a cold climate (whether outside or in a highly air conditioned venue), it’s not a bad idea to have a scarf handy—a trendy one doubles as a fashion statement, killing two birds with one scarf. Another way to stay warm is to continue your breathing exercises.
And remember, your drink of choice for vocal health and optimal range should be lukewarm water.
Beware of Allergens
Smoke, smog, mountain cedar, milk. Whatever the cause, anything that increases your allergic response—mucus production, people—can impede the quality of your vocals. Sometimes severely.
If you can avoid smoggy and smoky areas, do it. If not, for environmental allergies—as well as seasonal allergies—I like to use a nasal saline rinse (i.e. NeilMed Sinus Rinse, SinuCleanse, etc.) to wash away pollen and pollutants, reduce sinus swelling, and thin out mucus (I know, I know. Snot is gross. But it’s a reality.) There are also slippery elm lozenges, other herbs, and over-the-counter meds that soothe sore throats and help control seasonal allergies, but it’s probably best to consult a doctor before starting a new medication.
If you know your sinuses react to dairy, red wine, or any other food or drink, it’s advisable to avoid those a few days prior to your performance. If you do indulge, never fear. You can always use your sinus rinse and herbs. And, as always, drink lots of water. (Have I mentioned that yet?)
Lastly, and not to be bossy, but… don’t smoke. That’s a completely avoidable nasal, sinus, and lung irritant, among other pesky health issues (i.e. cancers of various kinds). You may be going for that husky vocal timbre, but at what cost? Okay. I’m not your mom. I’ll step down off my soapbox.
These five steps are so easy to implement that you really have no excuses. Go for it. Pamper yourself. Take care of that voice of yours, and it might just keep working for you for years to come.