Vocal Health

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

By Lis Lewis

Keeping your voice healthy through thick and thin is an ongoing task. At a music conference last weekend I was asked ‘what are the two most important things for singers to do to take care of themselves’ and the answer was easy: sleep and water.

All singers know what happens if you don’t get enough sleep. Forget it! All the muscles that aren’t supposed to work when you sing jump in to help you compensate for your lack of energy. You will find your voice gets tired sooner and won’t be as flexible. Also you will tend to overdrive the air pressure to correct any sound problems. Slamming extra air into your vocal cords will make them tense which can cause you to sing flat. If you have to sing after not getting enough sleep, try to relax and not overdrive. Warm up carefully and fully, which may take longer then usual. Please don’t drink coffee! It will only succeed in depriving you of the next most important thing: water.

Singers must be hydrated. (Double that if you have asthma.) Your vocal cords are surrounded by a mucous membrane (don’t be disgusted – it’s important). This mucous membrane must stay very wet and fluid for your vocal cords to operate properly. When you feel like you have phlegm in your throat or you have to clear your throat all the time, it’s not because you have mucous; it’s because the mucous is too thick. You need more water in your body to thin the mucous membrane out.

Remember that you have two tubes going from the back of your throat: one that sends food to your stomach and one that sends air to your lungs. Your vocal cords are in the tube that sends air to your lungs. Therefore, just drinking water doesn’t immediately solve the problem. The water has to go through your digestive system before it hydrates your vocal cords. You should be drinking an enormous amount of water every day to keep your cords in the best possible shape.

There are lots of ways to get dehydrated. Here are some of them: not enough water, smoke (yours or anyone else’s), salt, caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, etc.), alcohol, recreational drugs, diuretics, over the counter anti-histamines and decongestants (the newer prescription ones seem to be less drying), air travel over 35,000 feet and PMS. Lovely, eh? About the last two: part of jet lag is your body’s reaction to high cabin pressure and very dry cabin air causing swelling and dehydration. That’s why you shouldn’t take off your shoes on a long flight (your feet will swell up and you won’t be able to put them back on) and you shouldn’t drink alcohol or eat salty food while flying. When your feet or hands swell, so do your vocal cords, making them harder to move. The same happens with PMS. You swell because you retain water which is your body’s response to not having enough. Water, water, water.

Another big no-no is dairy which doesn’t exactly dry you out but it does make your mucous thicker. That means milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter. This is the end of the cheese pizza or the late night quart of Haagen Daz. I’m sure you remember how excited Celine Dionne was when she took a break from her singing career to have a baby and said in an interview “finally, I can have dairy again!”.

An overheated house, for instance when you turn the heat on in winter, can dry your vocal cords out especially while you’re sleeping. The same is true if you live in a dry climate or even more so if you fly into a dry climate (hence the expression “Vegas throat”). One of the great solutions to this and other dehydration issues is to run a humidifier at night while sleeping (these are available at drug stores and bed and bath stores everywhere). This is not a vaporizer which is noisy and puts enough water in the air to drench the sheets. It is a larger floor model which puts small droplets of water in the air quietly. It will save your life. It even helps your immune system fight off colds. There are also small personal steamers available at drug stores that are easily packed. They look like the product used for giving yourself a facial steam but they only cover your mouth. You put water in them and plug them in and they produce steam in a few minutes. Steam is great for getting the water more directly to your cords (remember the two tubes) because you can inhale it without drowning.

Finally (I’m sure I’m forgetting something; forgive me in advance) there’s good old fashioned vocal abuse. Bad. If you ever shout again, you will be punished. Of course, vocal abuse will make you hoarse, eventually give you a good case of nodes (vocal calluses) and limit your range, flexibility and tone. Think of your vocal cords like a pianist thinks of his/her hands. They are precious. Maybe you should even insure them. (I’m kidding.) But treat them with respect – they are your livelihood. Don’t scream when you’re mad or excited, even when the Yankees lose the Pennant. Don’t shout to be heard over the drummer. Get a decent monitor system so you can hear yourself. Teach the band dynamics. Warm up your voice before you sing to remind yourself of the healthy way to make sound. You have a physical instrument and it needs stretching out before you use it just like an athlete.

Since your body is your instrument, you have to keep it healthy, so diet and exercise play an important part in the daily regimen.There are also lots of wonderful sprays, lozenges and herbs that will help you maintain your voice and your health. Don’t be overwhelmed by all these restrictions. Just do what you can little by little and you’ll see the improvement. You’ll be able to sing longer, with more ease and flexibility. And one day. far in the future, when you retire, you’ll be able to crack open a quart of Haagen Daz again.