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Vocal Health

Many singers believe if they do not perform regularly they do not need to worry
about vocal health and singing “properly.” Unfortunately, just like an unexpected fall
out of a tree can cause a broken bone that aches when it rains the rest of your life,
one impromptu karaoke performance and improper vocal belt on that high note can
cause irreparable vocal damage. A more common condition and resultant situation,
however, is Vocal Hyperfunction and Muscle Tension Dysphonia, or hoarseness.

Vocal tone is created when air bursts through the cleft created by our vocal cords and
vibration occurs. To create a clear sounding tone, the vocal cords need to come
together solidly and completely. If the membranes or surrounding tissues are swollen
(or contain lumps or tears), hoarseness will occur. While the damaging effects of
infrequent hoarseness are not usually permanent, hoarseness is a sign of significant
vocal abuse or fatigue and should not be ignored.

This week I will discuss some basic techniques to prepare your vocal cords for singing
and prevent vocal damage.

Pre-tip: What's the proper way to clear my throat? Some say that you should never
clear your throat, but excess mucous inhibits free vocal cord coordination. The trick
is to find a way to clear your throat without irritating it. Do a gentle "whispered
cough" (without tone) and then swallow. Repeat. If this doesn't work, you need to
deal with the excess mucous production. Squeeze a 1/4 of a lemon in a tall glass of
water and sip over about 20 minutes. This should cut through a lot of the excess
mucous. Furthermore, watch your dairy intake... especially cheese. You should never
eat it on the day of a performance!
Tip #1: Warm-up your voice before you sing. Just like you wouldn’t jump into running
a ten-mile race without first stretching and warming your muscles, give your voice
the same courtesy. It is a good idea to develop a regular routine. Repeating your
effective warm-up routine before each singing event will help prepare your voice.
Here are some specific tips to get you started: relax your body, do some proper
breathing exercises to wake up your airflow and diaphragm, hum your favorite song
and do some vocal sirens (slide up and down your singing range on the syllable “ee”
imitating the sound of a siren).

Tip #2: Vocal hydration is extremely important, so drink lots of water. Be sure to drink
room temperature water before, during and after singing. Drinking anything but room
temperature water shocks the vocal cords: cold water tenses the muscles (like
jumping in a cold swimming pool does to your whole body) and drinking warm water
or substance relaxes the muscles.

It is also important to note that water must be absorbed by the body before being
redistributed to your voice organ, so drink water all day long. You might also consider
a quality vocal hydration substance, like Entertainer’s Secret Throat Relief to help.

Tip #3: Know your limits. Don’t try to sing too high or too low, especially not right off
the bat. Allow your voice to prepare for this type of action. Kind of like the high-jump
in a track meet --- start at a comfortable range and extend from there.

Tip #4: Avoid abusing your voice throughout the day: (a) Don’t talk for extended
periods of time; (b) Don’t “talk over” loud noises, such as machinery in the workplace
or loud music; and (c) Avoid whispering. All of these actions are stressful to your
voice and will cause vocal fatigue.
Tip #5 Moisture and time zones are two very important keys. For me, the worst is
flying from Nashville to the dry air of Phoenix and trying to sing the same day I
arrive. I need at least twenty-four hours to adjust. Eventually, your body will become
more adept to rapid changes in climate, but in the beginning of your career I wouldn't
recommend booking yourself in Maine on Monday, Tulsa on Tuesday, and then
Orlando on Thursday. This would be vocal suicide. The more extreme the climate
change the more taxing to the body. You are a human instrument with good days
and bad days. The longer you travel, the quicker your body should adjust to travel
and change of climate. In the mean time, get plenty of fluids (about twice as much
as you probably think you need) and some Entertainer's Secret.

Tip #6 Is it OK for me to sing when I have a sore throat? Depending on what's


causing it, singing with a sore throat can be catastrophic. I tell my clients, "if it hurts
to swallow, don't sing!" Conversely, if it's a mildly soar throat, consult your doctor
(it's a good idea to find a good ear, nose, throat specialist in your area and build a
relationship with him) and then use your best judgment. Dry air, singing abusively,
and viral/bacterial infection are some of the more common causes of a sore throat.
Some people just wake up with a sore throat every day of their life. I've found that
the majority of those people have acid-reflux, which means they are burping up
stomach acids while they are sleeping or sometimes even while they are awake. For
most, however, this happens in the night, so they may be completely unaware of the
problem. They then wake up with a scratchy, raspy voice and a sore throat. There
are numerous web sites directed to the problem of reflux. Let me recommend a
couple:

www.texasvoicecenter.com
www1.wfubmc.edu/voice/reflux/

Because a dry throat is often a sore throat, consume two to three quarts of water
every day. I actually drink up to a gallon or more a day. If you live in an arid climate,
sleep with a humidifier next to your bed and try to warm up your voice in the shower.
The moisture is an incredible help for your voice. Also, learn to breathe in through
your nose as much as possible. This will help moisten the air before it reaches your
cords.

The next concern is vocal abuse. Some of the causes are singing too high and too
loud for too long, screaming, yelling at a football game or concert, talking at the top
of your voice in a noisy crowd, breathing cigarette smoke (first- for second-hand),
doing voice impersonations that are extreme or that cause strain and talking or
singing with a raspy, manufactured sound. Whenever my throat is sore from vocal
abuse I try to get some vocal rest, drink plenty of liquids, and then rehabilitate my
voice with gentle exercises like humming, lip bubbles, and tongue trills. If you get
laryngitis and your tone starts to 'skip' or 'cut out' in the middle of a sustained note,
you really want to get serious vocal rest. Most of all, ALWAYS consult your physician
if things don't clear up rapidly. By this, I mean, if you get a sore throat in the morning
and it clears up by noon and doesn't come back (this occasionally happens to me)
then there's usually nothing to worry about. Otherwise, call the doctor, because if
this condition is medical and you don't get help, no amount of vocal rest will help. I
personally prefer herbal immune system remedies, but do what works best for you.

Tip #7 Should I eat before I sing or perform? If you are hungry, eat. Don't stuff yourself with a 7-
course meal. Just eat until you are satisfied. Always eat at least an hour before your
performance to avoid what singers call a "gunky" throat. You will have the strongest temptation to
clear your throat (which can be harmful) immediately after eating, but waiting an hour is usually
enough time for your meal to settle.

Tip #8 I'm working on my R&B/Gospel styling, but my trills are slow and sloppy. Is
there any thing I can do to speed up my trills? The first thing we need to do is
understand what trills are (also called licks, runs and turns). A trill is a scale sung
dynamically with crisp delineation, fast vibrato and a clean attack or onset. In other
words, going from one note to another without slurring or sliding, because slurring
notes together gives the impression of poor vocal control. On the other hand, you
don't want to add an 'H' sound, a staccato or glottal stroke (clucking noise) to your
vocal line to achieve separation between notes. This will create an artificial and
artistically unpleasant sound. So how is note delineation organically achieved? First,
start on an F below middle C for the men or F above middle C for the women. Now
sing up to a G and then back down. Learn to go back and forth as rapidly as possible
without sliding or losing note distinction until you feel a 'bounce' between notes. Use
a metronome and start at sixty beats per minute and speed up one or two bpm at a
time while singing eighth notes. Speed up only as fast as you can while remaining
clean in your note delineation. If you can get to 200 bpm, then you're up to speed
with Mariah Carey and Brian McKnight. Now you just have to learn to put together
longer patterns of notes within the scales used for the style you are singing in. These
scales are cataloged in the Singing Success Program. It's important to understand
that learning is incremental with this. If you only speed up one beat a day, which is
so gradual that it can hardly be felt, then in less than four months, you can be at 200
bpm.

Tip #9 Warm-up time varies from singer to singer and depends on four factors:

1. The thickness and length of the vocal cords


2. The health of the singer, i.e. allergies, physical condition, dietary and exercise
habits, sleep and stress levels
3. Veisel dilation - how fast the vasculature expands to receive blood flow.
4. Warm-up habits

If you have thick cords, you have a stronger, fuller sounding voice (James
Ingram/Elvis Presley). Thinner cords will producer a lighter, thinner tone (Michael
Jackson/Paul McCartney). Think of the voice as a train. The bigger the train, the
longer it takes to get moving. Keep this in mind while warming up. Warming up
should be incremental and never forced. Find your vocal co-ordinations through the
right exercises and then slowly build volume, speed and range. Too high, too loud,
too soon is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, most singers don't know the recipe
for vocal health and longevity. This is why so many singers lose their voices. I work
with hundreds of singers every year who have never properly warmed up their
voices.

Veisal dilation is another important factor in warming up. Without adequate blood
flow to the musculature, the cords have great difficulty warming up. Things that
affect veisal dilation are fatigue, poor circulation and lack of exercise. Sometimes
these are simply genetic and you deal with it by being diligent and patient with your
vocal study and your warm-up time. Other times it's just laziness, lack of discipline
or a bad diet. Allergies can also affect your warm-up time because circulation and
health are inhibited. Seek either a medical or natural (diet, herbs and vitamins) route
to dealing with your allergies. I have found great relief taking 'Prime Again' and
'Conco' to nourish my body in a way that deals with these weaknesses.

Tip #10 I lose my voice when I sing live. I guess I'm pushing harder than when I
practice. What should I do about this?
The first thing that I usually ask a singer is "how well do you hear yourself in the
monitors?" Often, they are not hearing themselves sing on stage, so they figure that
the audience can't hear them sing and push their voice harder than what is natural.
The result is that the tone becomes dull or strident and often intonation problems
occur. Talk to your sound man and make sure that you have enough of your voice in
the monitors. If you've got the funds, invest in a headset microphone.
Performing these basic exercises and remembering these basic facts will reduce the
risk of vocal damage, help you enjoy a better singing performance and keep you from
sounding like a frog afterwards! Using a professional vocal warm-up and training
program is recommended as a fun and easy way to ensure that your voice will be
ready to perform day in and day out.