Author: Aaron Ramey, Instructor, Musical Theatre Department, New York Film Academy
Performers often forget that our bodies are our instruments. On top of that, the voice is not just a sound that comes out of your face. It is a tiny, highly complex muscular system requiring conditioning, exercise and proper care to ensure the ability to perform at the highest possible level even under emotional and physical stress. Here are 7 tips to help get you started on the road to great vocal health – or perhaps to get you back ON the road if you’ve had recent difficulties.
7 – Don’t Be a Hero
Often we find ourselves in a position where we feel the need to save the day. We can’t possibly be sick or the whole show will just go to hell in a handbasket. We need to divorce ourselves from this concept because it can only lead to injury or, just as bad, dependence on emergency steroid treatments that should only ever be used as a last resort. If you’re getting into the run of a show and you’re finding that a particular song or scene is causing you any vocal trauma, i.e. it still hurts the next morning or your tone sounds less clear and connected than usual, see an ENT as soon as possible. More specifically, seek out an otolaryngologist (or vocologist) as they are a subset of ENTs that focus on the singing mechanism and elite levels of function. If you’re in rehearsal for a show and you’re finding that a part of your voice isn’t working as it should (maybe your head voice has disappeared or perhaps just a few notes of your mix refuse to come out) seek the help of a qualified vocal technician/therapist as soon as you can. Addressing these issues as they happen will help you identify bad habits early and hopefully avoid them in the future.
6 – Sleep
The importance of sleep cannot be overstated in regard to its effect on vocal health. Without proper sleep, our vocal mechanism doesn’t have time to recover from the previous day’s exertion – just like after a workout. If you wake up under-rested and have to dive back in to a show, rehearsal or shoot day without proper recovery time, you run the risk of vocal injury. Your voice is just like the rest of your body in that sleep is our recovery time.
5 – Nutrition
Many people underestimate the impact that our diet can have on vocal performance. Personally, I find that if I have even a small amount of dairy, I immediately begin over-producing mucus and my tone becomes phlegmy. Not cute. Also, I’ve noticed that if I eat something spicy and the performance I’m giving is highly physical, I can end up with acid reflux that makes it painful to do my job. Pay attention to how your diet affects your ability to rehearse, warm up, and perform. Is coffee too acidic during a full day’s rehearsal? Does dairy or citrus create excess mucus? If you eat something spicy before bed, is it still with you in the morning, making it difficult to prepare for the vocal demands of the day? Pay attention to these things when you’re about to perform. If you notice some vocal difficulty, take a look at your recent diet (solid AND liquid) and see if any changes might be in order – at least when you have vocal work to do.
4 – Mind the Smokin’ and Drinkin’
Ah, vices. These two, in particular, are worth mentioning here because they can directly affect your vocal capacity. Alcohol dehydrates the body, which means less moisture in and around the vocal mechanism. Obviously everyone will have differing levels of sensitivity here so the key is to be self-aware. As with your diet, do you notice that you simply cannot produce a quality sound at a 10am rehearsal if you had more than 2 drinks the night before? Which is more important to you? As for smoking, there really are no two ways about it. Smoking directly diminishes your lung capacity and thus, your ability to create a vibrant and beautiful sound. In addition, the toxins in smoke GO DIRECTLY OVER YOUR VOCAL FOLDS and literally poison the tissue over time. While stopping smoking can require some recovery time, the dangerous effects of the toxins will diminish as the body heals. So unless you want to sound like Tom Waits, don’t sing and smoke – period.
3 – Warm. Up.
This seems like a no-brainer, right? The fact is that many people don’t warm up at all, warm up too little, or warm up incorrectly. Understand, too, that warming up vocally applies just as much to speech as it does to singing. Think of your warm ups as your vocal conditioning. It’s the training runs you do in preparation for your marathon or your gold medal final heat. Every warm up should take you through your entire range. Start gently at the bottom of your range at an easy volume with tall, open vowels. Then move up through your mid-range maintaining an easy volume level. When starting into your upper register, begin in light falsetto moving upward. Then bring your falsetto as low as you possibly can, maintaining the falsetto placement until you just can’t bring it any lower. Now you can start with the louder, chest-ier sounds into your belt. Always with tall, open, rounded vowels. Find your favorite consonant exercises as well to get the mouth working. This system works equally well for singing and speaking projects.
2 – Know Thy Allergies
Allergies can be hellish on vocal production. If you’re in an area of the world that isn’t familiar to your immune system during allergy season, local flora, grasses, and mold can be especially hateful. Talk to your doctor to find the best medicines for you. Personally, I’m a fan of Xyzal and similar prescription meds because they actually stop the body’s allergic reactions from happening at all rather than damping down the reactions after the fact like many over-the-counter remedies. Local, organic, minimally processed honey can also be very beneficial for helping the body create antibodies to the local flora. Lastly, I’m a HUGE proponent of the neti pot. It literally rinses collected allergens out of your sinuses. If you’re uncertain about the local water supply, definitely use distilled water or boil tap water before using the neti. But I swear to you, it’s God’s gift to allergy sufferers. Some friends of mine prefer the nasal rinse that you squirt up your nose, so look into that if the neti mechanics just don’t work for you. Either way, sinus rinse is the BEST.
1 – Vocal Budget Awareness
Sometimes we forget that your voice is very much like your bank account on payday. You have a limit to the amount of money you can spend until you get paid again. Think of your vocal budget as the amount of vocal energy you have at your disposal for a given project. Depending on the vocal demands before you, you may have to conserve your budget to get through the work. If you’re doing a vocally demanding performance or rehearsal process, you cannot vocally afford to be talking loudly at a live music venue, screaming for your team at a sports event or what have you. If the performance requires it, you may actually have to shut up for a day or two after exertion to allow your vocal mechanism to recover. Your vocal budget may change over time. Investing in solid technique will bolster your vocal savings (see what I did there?) and give you a bit of a cushion in this department. Building stamina leading into demanding jobs will also reap rewards. The more prepared you are for the demands of a role, the easier it will be when they add all the glitz, glamor and audiences.
BONUS TIP – Not All Lozenges Are Created Equal
A lot of people who use their voices professionally have their own favorite treats for maintaining throat lubrication. Some swear by potato chips (something about the fat content), others like a little dark chocolate or candied ginger. But we’re talking about lozenges. In many theaters across the country you’ll find Ricola. However, in my opinion, they really do nothing at all for the voice. They aren’t mentholated enough to clear the sinuses and the sugar actually creates more mucus. The lemon-honey ones are better, but not much. I prefer Thayer’s Lozenges in either the original, tangerine or cherry flavors. They contain slippery elm which is a natural demulcent (an ingredient that thins excess mucus in the throat) and are preservative and gluten free. I also like Grether’s Pastilles as they are not too sweet and contain a high quality glycerin to help keep the throat moist and pliable. The Grether’s are a little hard to come by unless you order them online. Thayer’s can be found in most health food stores. Happy Lozenging!
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