Vocal Hygiene For All Singers
When it comes to maintaining our voice, so that it can operate at peak performance, a major stumbling block for many is poor vocal hygiene. You might ask, “What is vocal hygiene and what does it have to do with my voice? Why do I need it?” Anything from a cold to a diet or inadvertent vocal abuse could represent symptoms, or causes, of poor vocal hygiene. Because your voice is biological, it requires upkeep even more so than a manufactured instrument.
A serious challenge in dealing with vocal hygiene is mucus. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our bodies are producing mucus from the time we awake right on through to the hours when our bodies sleep. Please take note, I am not advising a major change of lifestyle solely for the sake of the voice, but merely trying to bring to light certain issues to monitor and/or steps that can be taken in order to better maintain and develop the vocal instrument.
So it is with a vocal program: we don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do (although it is) or to become more disciplined (although we do), but because the lack of such a program often leads one to consciously or subconsciously worry about what one may, or may not, be doing correctly as a singer – instead of just going about the business of singing.
Respiratory mucus is mostly caused by diet, environment, and activity (which may include poor singing techniques, vocal fatigue, or over-singing). With all this being said, let’s get on with some of the causes, effects, and treatments that can aid you in developing and maintaining a more smoothly operating instrument with confidence.
The voice is an instrument subject to physical, mental and emotional impact. All things that affect you and your body affect it. This is why it is important (and essential, in some cases) to follow a few simple health suggestions to ensure your instrument’s well-being.
Use the following list only as a guideline. Consult with your doctor or throat specialist (E.N.T,/Laryngologist), if anything regarding your health or well-being is in question. The following are a few common sense suggestions and are not intended to replace any doctor’s advice or counsel.
“Vocal do’s” are designed for vocal health maintenance and treatment. Followed with a degree of regularity these suggestions will help you sing better and feel better.
- · Get sufficient sleep.
- · Drink plenty of water (4-8 eight-ounce glasses per day; build up slowly).
- · Drink herbal tea for opening up, warming, and soothing the throat and nasals, but follow with water, as tea may have a tendency to dry you out prior to singing.
- · Gargle morning and evening (more frequently, if needed) with a light, to-the-taste salt-water solution (a teaspoon in a cup of lukewarm water). You may also add a pinch of baking soda to the water, if you desire. Also, occasionally gargle with plain cold tap water (i.e., nothing added) to help cool down an irritated throat.
- · Steam your lungs and vocal cords by taking deep breaths in the shower.
- · Steam whenever the nasals or throat are clogged up from sinus congestion; a cold, smog, smoke, or the like. Use a personal steamer or simply boil a pan of water, place it on a counter or table and inhale the vapor with a towel over your head, like a tent (making sure that you do not get too close to the pan, which could cause a serious burn), When mucus is loosened, gargle it out.
- · To open clogged nasals: use (a) a saline solution nasal spray and (b) an opening nose strip or (c) spread sides of nose apart with thumbs and index finger (by pushing outward on the sides) for a quick opening only.
- · Suck on natural (chemical-free) throat lozenges (sugar-free, if possible) as needed, unless the throat is inflamed, then
- · Suck on slippery elm throat lozenges for an irritated or sore throat or crush and add to tea.
- · Use an antacid when needed to avoid heartburn or acid reflux, which causes repetitive burning of throat tissues and vocal cords (check with your pharmacist or doctor).
- · Buy a saline solution spray (i.e., light, purified salt water) and spray the nasal passages and the throat daily as many times as needed to loosen mucus and soothe irritated tissue (there are no active chemicals in most saline solutions as there are in a decongestant spray).
- · Treat cold sores in your mouth with a liquid or a gel product specifically for cold sores.
- · Use petroleum jelly on the edge of your irritated nasals or on chapped lips, if needed.
- · Use a mucus thinner/decongestant cough suppressant when needed (consult with your doctor or pharmacist).
Remember the last time you started or were in the middle of a note and it cracked or even disappeared completely? This is why it is so important to keep the air stream connected and the air passages uninterrupted.
The air stream carries the vocal sound like a carrier band that delivers a cell phone’s signal to its destination. If the band is interrupted there are dropouts in the transmission of your conversation, just as there are cracking or dropouts in singing when the air stream hits mucus. This is one reason mucus is so important to eliminate. Another issue is that mucus blocks your resonant cavities, such as your nasal passages, and causes your voice to lose its fullness, resulting in a “thin” tone and the loss of pitch control.
Your air-stream sees mucus as resistance because mucus is random and causes the air-stream to become fragmented and uneven as it passes through your instrument producing a broken stream.
Remember whatever you do for or to your body, you do for or to your instrument. And whatever you do for or to your instrument you do for or to your body.
“Vocal don’ts” are designed to aid in your awareness of actions that can be taken to reduce, or eliminate, problems stemming from mucus.
- · Limit coffee intake. Use decaffeinated whenever possible (caffeine is a diuretic and dries you out). Try avoid coffee completely before or during a performance (counteract caffeine consumption by drinking a lot of water).
- · Don’t consume lemon or any citrus before performing as they contain acids, which irritate your throat. Also try cutting down as a general rule, for acids produce mucus.
- · Don’t consume vinegar, hard alcohol or spicy food when your throat is irritated or before performing. In general, it is also advisable to cut down on these as well.
- · Avoid milk chocolate, especially prior to performances or singing, as it produces mucus.
- · Avoid peanuts, popcorn, crackers or other dry foods before performing because they absorb water from your system, dry out your throat, and stick to your mouth, throat and articulators.
- · Avoid gargling with mouthwashes or medicated sprays, since they can dry or burn the throat and cause mucus. Check with a throat specialist (E.N.T.) and/or a pharmacist if you need medical guidance in finding the best medication for your health and voice. Mouthwash is fine when used in the mouth only, but do not gargle with it.
- · Don’t consume sugar or sweets before a performance, as they produce mucus.
- · Do not smoke or inhale smoke. First or second-hand smoke is an irritant and a health hazard, as confirmed by the Surgeon General, and causes mucus, as well as the possibility of an uncontrolled, raspy voice.
- · Don’t eat within two to four hours, depending on the size of the meal (the smaller the better), before performing, due to the interaction between the diaphragm and the digestive system (also, to avoid acid reflux, heartburn, or other stomach reactions).
- · Avoid decongestants, which dry you out. Use only those that thin, not harden mucus when necessary. A good mucus-thinner is appropriate. Check with your doctor or pharmacist.
- · Don’t neglect your medical care – failure to have regular examinations could allow a condition to continue without your awareness (consult with a qualified E.N.T.).
Bob Rose is a prominent vocal coach based in San Francisco, CA. He has worked with members of the Beach Boys, actress Mary Stuart Masterson, and member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, among others. For more info please visit his website: www.bobrosevocal.com.