How to Take Care of Your Voice as a Singer
As a singer, your voice is your instrument. You must take care of your voice just as a professional violinist takes particular care of his violin. It’s all you have, really. Here’s what to do to keep your voice healthy.
What to Do
Let’s start with those things you should do on a regular basis to keep your voice in tip-top condition. Think of these tips as preventive maintenance for your instrument.
First, you need to drink plenty of water. Warm herbal teas are also good. It’s also a good idea to always eat a balanced diet, low in sugar and low in dairy products.
Many singers find that practicing Yoga or doing similar exercises helps to keep them calm and balanced. For that matter, cardiovascular exercise should be a regular part of your daily routine, to keep your body in shape for singing.
Of course, you should try to get plenty of rest, especially the night before a performance. You might want to buy a portable steamer with a face mask and use it for 20 minutes or so before you appear onstage or in the studio. Many singers like to gargle with warm water containing ½ teaspoon each of salt and baking soda.
Make sure you rest your voice regularly, especially if you sing aggressively. As a general rule, take one day off for every three days of performing, or two days off for every five days of performing. After a performance, place a warm wet towel around your neck and don’t speak for 10 minutes.
Don’t forget to keep your head warm in cold weather. Consider wearing ear muffs or putting cotton in your ears when you go out in extremely windy or cold conditions.
What Not to Do
Those are all good things you can do proactively to protect your voice. You also need to know what not to do—those activities than can damage your sensitive instrument.
When it comes to the act of singing itself, don’t try to sing higher or lower than is comfortable. Don’t belt, unless you really know what you’re doing. And don’t sing if it hurts, or if it hurts to swallow.
Talking can also be an issue—especially talking too much, which can wear down your vocal cords. The same goes for talking too loud—or screaming at sporting events. For that matter, any singer who tries to scream his way over all the amplified instruments in a rock band is in for a world of hurt. You can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time, so try to be cautious and use some common sense in any loud situation. This goes for sporting events, rock concerts, nightclubs, and even loud parties and restaurants. Don’t let a moment of wild abandon cause a lifetime of vocal damage!
How you talk can also affect your singing voice. People who speak in a pinched or high-pitched voice—or in an exaggerated breathy speaking voice—place a lot of unnecessary tension on the vocal cords and the larynx. This is more common than you’d think, and can actually do harm to the singing voice. The healthiest speaking voice is one in the mid-range (neither too high or low pitched) and one that allows a natural, comfortable flow of air over the vocal cords.
It should go without saying that smoking and drinking can harm your health and, particularly, your voice. While most singers realize the harmful effects of smoking, there are still a lot of singers who think drinking won’t hurt them. Drinking in moderation, perhaps, causes little harm, but excessive use of alcohol not only impairs your judgment and motor skills, it also dehydrates your mouth, your voice, and your entire system. Drugs can cause even more problems. Even prescription drugs can have unwanted side effects, voice-wise. Illegal drugs, more so.
How to Tell If There’s a Problem
How do you know if your voice is going south? It isn’t always that easy to tell.
While you might think otherwise, a tired, overused voice isn’t always hoarse. A hoarse voice is a definite warning sign that something is wrong, but you can be doing plenty of damage to your voice without inducing the onset of hoarseness—which means that there are other signs you want to be aware of.
One sign of pending problems is if your vocal range narrows; notes that were once easy for you become difficult. If this happens to you, you must give your voice the rest and attention it needs to recover its former range.
If you find your voice seeming to “cut out” on you when speaking or singing, you could be experiencing the warning signs of vocal nodes. The presence of vocal nodes requires immediate medical attention—and rest.
The onset of vocal fatigue is often signaled by a slight, dull ache around the area of the larynx. It’s as if your voice is saying, “Enough—I need a rest!” If and when this happens, don’t ignore the message; avoid all unnecessary speaking or singing and rethink your practice sessions for a while. You can study a piece of music or work on memorization without ever singing a note. You can also listen to recordings or watch concert tapes while your voice is getting its much needed rest.
For any of these symptoms, rest and hydration are necessary. If this doesn’t do the trick, you should seek medical help.
Bottom line, keep your body in good shape and your voice will benefit. Your voice is the only instrument you have, so you have to take care of it.
Learn more about singing in my companion book, Idiot’s Guides: Singing, 2nd Edition.