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For Your Vocal Health

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As singers, we have the benefit of carrying our instrument with us everywhere we go. The down-side is… We take our instrument EVERYWHERE we go; we don’t have the luxury of throwing it into a case for a week while we get over the flu. Like athletes, our voices are best utilized and conditioned for endurance when we take care of our bodies and warm-up before every vocal workout. Here are some tools we can have in our belt to assist us in maintaining healthy vocals. Some of these methods can be used in conjunction with methods you currently use, while others are methods that really should replace potentially bad habits.

The Sound of Silence

“If your throat hurts or you feel like you’re losing your voice, whisper!” – is hands-down, the worst advice… EVER! It may seem to make sense, like “If you have an injured ankle, you shouldn’t run.”; thinking that if you could favor the object that is injured by engaging in a less strenuous activity – you would certainly be helping the healing process, right? Actually, this couldn’t be farther from the truth when it comes to the voice. When we whisper, we are forcing air through our vocal chords like wind through the blades of grass between our thumbs (remember being a kid?). The problem is that when we whisper, we ARE creating and shaping sounds. When the air passes rapidly across the vocal folds to create a whisper, what we’re hearing is the sibilant “high pitch” of air whisping through the vocal folds. This method is downright dangerous for vocal health… so don’t do it. Opt to grab a pen & paper, or at the very most talk quietly. Another habit to avoid is clearing your throat (“a-HEM!)… this is considered a traumatic vibration to your vocal chords.

One, Two, Three, Stretch!

You’ve probably been taught in the past to roll your head around your neck like a bobble-head toy to stretch those hyoid muscles. Well, don’t. While that technique may end up stretching some important muscles, you may lose the benefit of ALSO stretching the much needed suprahyoid muscles under the chin and jaw. A more appropriate stretching exercise would be to tilt the head straight back, open your mouth really wide, close your mouth, and swallow once or twice really deeply and slowly. Then, to stretch your trapezius (back of neck), tilt your chin to your sternum, then move slowly to the left and right until you can easily see your shoulders.

Posture-Perfect!

Our posture while we sing plays a much larger role in our delivery, tone, and endurance than we may think. Firstly, extended “slouching” causes the trapezius to cramp up (ever notice how your neck & head behind the eyes hurts sometimes after singing?); so avoid slouching. This next tip is one of the most crucial you will ever get for posture; Don’t “Chicken-neck”. Chicken-necking is a natural tendency for us to extend our necks when we sing those challenging higher registers. We “think” high, and we direct our head and eyes to instinctively “aim” high too. To gauge whether or not you are chicken-necking, make a fist. After you make a fist, place the thumb/forefinger on the sternum where the clavicles connect to it (interclavicular ligament). Your knuckles should now be resting against your throat. If your chin is barely touching your fisted pinky,  your posture for singing is correct. If you notice that your chin is further away from your sternum than the fist-width, then you’re “chicken-necking”. When you attempt to sing with a chicken neck, you’re forcing the muscles in your neck to stretch – while you’re trying to adjust your vocal pitch. If you sing on a vowel with your neck in the appropriate position, then extend your neck while holding the note, you will see (and feel) the result; strained vocals and not-so-easily controllable pitch.

Bottoms Up!

I have to roll my eyes every time someone recommends tea with honey (or lemon) for someone who has throat/voice issues. Next to alcohol, tea should be on the list of drinks to avoid like the plague when vocals are concerned. While they are soothing in some respects (alcohol numbs, and tea is warm), all share one common affect: They either dry out your vocal chords (tea/pop/caffeine), or they numb the vocal chords to mask damage (alcohol). Tea is a natural diuretic – which may be soothing temporarily, but as soon as blood gets flowing to those vocal chords, you’ll find it harder to control your pitch and most certainly lose efficient vocal power. What SHOULD be a mainstay for your healthy voice is simply room temperature water (with real lemon to flavor is ok). NOTHING cold or sugary will do you any good. One paramount elixir you should always have on-hand for a quick rejuvenating cleans is something you should be able to find at your local grocer. “POM”  100% Pomegranate juice is the BOMB when it comes to healing sore vocals. Firstly, pomegranate juice is one of thee best  antioxidants. Secondly, it’s an all-natural stripper for that gunk in your throat (pharynx/epiglottis).

Allergies and Colds?

Allergies mean mucous. Double your intake of water (at least 2 liters per day). Also avoid antihistamines and decongestants, as they will dry your vocal chords and remove the thin mucous layer protecting them. If you must use medication, seek your doctor’s advice to use a steroidal nasal spray like Flonase. Local anesthetics like Chloraseptic will numb your throat, but also numb your vocal chords. This will not only render your control about as useful as playing guitar with gloves, but it will also enable you to damage your voice significantly without feeling it.

BOTTOM LINE

Consuming anything that’s a diuretic or anesthetic is a bad practice, but other than water, not much you consume will affect your voice if the damage is vocal strain (result of excessive coughing or over-singing). If your voice is affected by illness or abuse, drink lots of room-temperature water and consider humidifiers or taking nice, long, hot showers and breathe in deeply to soothe those golden pipes!

 

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2 Responses to “For Your Vocal Health”

  1. Adriana Gibbs May 29, 2015 at 9:38 pm Reply

    Great points! As a fellow vocal coach, I really appreciate the focus on some straightforward tips for the many worship leaders who love to sing, and do so well, but are not as informed on vocal health. Namely, water intake and vocal rest are two of the most important factors that affect the voice, and the simplest (note: not necessarily “easiest” – old habits can be tough to kick!) to increase. And really, I think the first two sentences of this article can’t be stressed enough to vocalists – what a unique responsibility we have!

    To the point about teas, I think it’s important to note that in most cases, any diuretic effect is the result of the caffeine the tea contains. As long as it’s in moderation, caffeine’s effects on the body can be balanced by simply drinking more water (one additional cup of water per cup of caffeinated drink is a good rule of thumb). But there are many varieties of caffeine-free herbal teas available that soothe as well as hydrate. Traditional Medicinals makes a “Throat Coat” tea that is my go-to for soothing – the herbs they use actually have a temporary coating effect on your throat – it’s like a hug for your voice! But couldn’t agree more about the sugar: honey, agave nectar, syrup, etc…. Truly, they are all just sugar, and – while tasty – really only serve to increase inflammation in the body, so it’s a great idea to steer clear of them.

    Now, I knew that antioxidants were important for healing and overall health, but I’d never heard of pomegranate juice specifically with relation to vocal health, so I was intrigued. According to the labels, it looks like there’s more sugar in a cup of “POM” than you’ll find in a cup of Coca-Cola. So I’d be willing to try a swig or two maybe for a quick boost, but I’m not sure I’d reach for it as a regular drink. I wonder if an alternative would be to focus on foods that are high in antioxidants, like berries, dark greens or nuts, to incorporate into an overall diet? Seems like that would provide the healthy boost without quite as much a hit to one’s sugar levels.

  2. Great observations, Adriana! You also encourage me to be more thorough in my articles; specifically, providing more detailed reasoning when providing potentially conflicting information (sugar/POM). So, if I may, I’ll take this opportunity to clarify the validity of using POM as a quick-cleans.

    When we’re suffering with excess mucous while we sing, we use the POM as a naturally healthy stripper. The intended use, however, is not to use it consistently as a “go-to” drink of choice; it’s intended to take a swig or two, let it slide down the throat to strip the mucous, then cap it and save it for a later time. The “go-to” drink should ALWAYS be room temperature water.

    And on that note, I rely on bottled water. Not just any old bottled water, but bottled water that isn’t produced from PWS sources (public water supply). Bottled water like Aquafina are PWS – and therefore can vary widely from state to state or shipping location. I prefer to use FIJI or SmartWater that are from one water source location – and thereby offer more consistency in the actual water content. Choosing tap water can sometimes increase your exposure to lime, fluoride, etc. The affects are unknown to me (maybe you can find out more), but I prefer to keep my water intake consistent.

    I look forward to more of your perspectives, Adriana! Thank you so much for the comment!

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