How to Have a Healthy Voice When Your Voice Is Your Livelihood
I’ve been a singer and actress since I was about 4 years old. My voice is really important to me and I do whatever I can to keep it healthy. Over a lifetime, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t and I’d like to pass on the wisdom. So if your voice is as important to you as mine is to me, read on for some tips to vocal health!
1. DON’T smoke. I can’t say this one enough. And stay away from second-hand smoke. I know this is hard for some of you who may have a fair amount of gigs in nightclubs and bars, but it’s to your advantage to avoid it when you can. Any type of smoking can be bad, whether it’s cigarettes, pipes, cigars, vape, hookah, joints, or anything else you might want to puff on. Think about it. Anything you breathe passes through your vocal cords, and the heat from smoke can irritate your cords even if you are breathing it in second-hand. Not to mention the chemicals that you are breathing in. They can cause your vocal cords to swell and damage your lungs so that you are not able to sufficiently support your sound. And that hoarse vocal sound you might think is sexy? Beware. A hoarse voice that is not caused by an upper respiratory infection can be the first sign of throat cancer. If you are serious about being a singer and you are already caught in the smoking habit, try a smoking cessation product.
2. DON’T get sick, particularly with a cold virus or other respiratory illness. This one is hard to avoid during certain times of the year, so the best thing to do is to wash your hands often and keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you. I really like the sanitizer gels from Bath & Body Works. They have a fresh scent and fit in your pocket easily. Don’t forget to use them after handling things like grocery carts, money, doorknobs in public places, and other such things. And if you can’t get your hands clean right away, make sure you don’t touch your face until you can.
3. DO gargle. This is a good tip if you get a sore throat and you have an audition or performance coming up. I used to live in fear of the sore throat. In college, at the mere hint of a throat tickle, I would mix up a big glass of salt water to gargle. Later, as an adult, I discovered that vodka does the trick. Yes, vodka. It’s a dirty little secret, but it’s very important to note that you should NOT swallow the vodka or the salt water. Swish, gargle, and spit. Swish, gargle, and spit. Nobody wants to find you passed out on the floor in a drunken haze or severely dehydrated from salt water. And, obviously, you should be a responsible adult with no philosophical or religious objections to alcohol if you are going to try the vodka method. The main objective is to provide a hostile environment for those nasty little bacteria that have decided to set up camp in your throat.
4. DO take your vitamin C. A supplement is a good idea, but also be sure to eat foods that are rich in vitamin C, especially during the cold season. Fruits also give your throat a pleasant soothing sensation. Oranges and orange juice are great, but for a vitamin C super-food, try kiwi fruit or strawberries (I grow my own for the best health benefits!). I often dehydrate my super-fruits so I always have them to snack on. This is the dehydrator I use.
5. DO exercise. Your voice is dependent on the health of the rest of your body. Your lungs, your abdominal muscles, and the muscles that hold your posture all work together to support the air that travels through your vocal cords to produce your sound. Cardio exercises increase the strength of your breath. Swimming is a particularly good exercise as it also involves practice in controlling your breathing. One word of caution, though: Don’t get too hung up on having six-pack abs. Too much tightness in the abdomen could actually be a hindrance to breath control.
6. DO take care of your teeth. Poor oral hygiene can lead to lots of nasty diseases, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory infections, and mouth cancer, all of which will affect your voice. My dentist insists emphatically that the Sonicare toothbrush is the best tool for oral health. Besides the health risks, if you don’t take care of your teeth, your breath will be stinky. Who wants to deal with that onstage? Your fellow actors will be proclaiming, “A mint! A mint! My kingdom for a mint!”
7. DON’T push yourself. If you feel yourself going hoarse, stop talking, stop singing, stop using your voice at all and rest. If this is not possible, refer to #3, DO gargle. But be aware that consistently pushing yourself to perform on a weakened voice can permanently damage your vocal cords and cause you to develop vocal nodules (hard rough noncancerous growths). Ever hear of Julie Andrews? The famous star of the Sound of Music lost her voice after a surgery to remove her nodules. Yeah. Lost her singing voice PERMANENTLY.
8. DO support your sound. If you don’t know how to support your voice with your breath, read my blog post, How to Sing Like You Know What You’re Doing, Part 1 - Breathe. This method applies to speaking also. If you don’t have a sufficient amount of air to support the sound you want to make, you will be straining, and well, you know what that causes. See #7.
9. DO open your throat. I explain how to do this in my blog post, How to Sing Like You Know What You’re Doing, Part 2 - Voice Placement and Projection. Again, this works for speech as well. It’s very simple. If you take a nice strong breath, but you’re pushing it through a closed throat, it’s like a hurricane gust trying to get inside a house. There are going to be some busted windows. And in this metaphor, the windows are your vocal cords. Again, see #7.
10. DON’T scream. Do you know what you are doing when you’re screaming? You are banging your vocal cords violently against each other like a jackhammer. Don’t do that. Seriously. Support your sound and open your throat. #8 & #9
11. DON’T eat or drink things that will cause acid reflux. Anything that causes reflux goes on my “no” list. Think about it. We are talking about stomach acid in your throat. No explanation should be necessary.
12. DON’T eat or drink things that will cause phlegm in your throat before a performance. For me, that’s dairy and citrus. You’ll know you’ve got phlegm when you have a thick mucousy feeling in the back of your throat and a cough that seems to be hacking up parts of your lung. Yuck.
13. DO drink water. You want your vocal cords to stay nice and hydrated. You can hydrate with other liquids as well. I prefer peppermint tea for my voice. My favorites are Celestial Seasonings and Bigelow. I also love coconut water. But go easy on caffeinated drinks as they will make your vocal folds and larynx dry.
14. DO get adequate rest. When your body is tired, your voice is tired. And you don’t want to strain it. See #7. Studies have shown that you get your best sleep in total darkness, so try a sleep mask.
I hope these tips help you keep your voice healthy. If you can think of anything I might have missed or if you have a tip for vocal health, sign in and leave a comment to let me know!