Category Archives: The Vocal Instrument

Don’t Damage Your Hearing!

Good hearing is very important to a singer, but we don’t often think about it. Unfortunately, you may not realize your hearing is compromised until the damage is irreversible. Prevention is the best and perhaps only tool to keep your ears in good shape.

Exposure to very loud noises, even briefly, can be very dangerous, but even moderately loud noise or music over a period of time can spell trouble. If you play in a rock band (or even a concert band) you may be at risk. Hearing protection is called for if you use machinery like a power saw, lawnmower, motorcycle or air compressor. Working in a noisy environment such as a bar or factory can cause damage that adds up over time. Do you play piccolo? How about hearing protection on you right side, at least when you practice. And headphones are a common source of hearing damage. It’s entirely too easy to crank up the volume to a dangerous level. (Don’t trust the manufacturer to limit the upper end for you.) Warning signs are when you need to turn the volume up to get the same thrill as previously and when the people around you can hear what you are listening to.

You may not be aware of any signs that your hearing is failing, but you’ve gotten into a dangerous zone if things sound muffled after a rock concert or party. If you value your hearing you will not stand close to the speakers. If you have to shout to the person next to you, you should probably move farther away from the sound source.

And lastly, you probably know that you shouldn’t put anything into your ears. You could harm the eardrum. But even something as innocent as tissue can easily leave bits behind that end up causing a blockage. If your ear itches or gives you other problems, you should see a doctor. Your family physician may be able to help, or your may be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist.


Voice-Related Links

Some good information on the physiology of the voice and voice disorders can be found at:

The Voice Foundation.

Vocal fry is very common these days. Is it hurting your voice?

What about those kids on America’s Got Talent?

What things cause wear and tear on your voice, and what happens as you get older?

Alexander Technique

This is Dr. Larry Hensel’s website. Alexander practitioners are rare in this part of the country. He’s in Laramie.

Would you like to see what the vocal folds look like? – Explanation and diagrams  – Quartet scoped – Scope and no scope

I’ll bet there are some things you’ve got wrong about the Copyright law.

What can you do with a music degree?

Interesting talk about what your speaking voice conveys to the listener, regardless what you say.

Your thinking can have a lot to do with your success as a performer, perhaps especially so for singers.

Too Much Water?

Once again I’m seeing headlines that warn against drinking too much water, and they’re making me uncomfortable. These articles rarely tell you how much water they’re talking about, and it would be unwise for many of us to cut back.

The usual daily recommendation for water is eight to ten 8 ounce glasses. Some say  1/2 ounce (or more) per pound of your body weight. Or 8 ounces for every hour you are awake. For a 150 pound individual those recommendations would translate into 64-80 ounces, 75+ ounces and 128 ounces. I figure that means at least 2 liters or 67 ounces per day.

Yes, it’s possible to over-do it, but most of us are still short of these healthy levels and nowhere near the amount it takes to harm yourself, which is something like one liter within an hour. The body can’t process that much.

How do you know if you’re taking in enough water? The easiest way is to look at your urine. If you are dehydrated it will probably be dark. The rule is “Pee pale!”

You may need more water than average if:

  • You have diarrhea or vomiting
  • You are at a high altitude
  • You exercise hard or sweat a lot
  • You live in a dry climate
  • You consume a lot of caffeine, alcohol or salt
  • You’re a singer!

So aim for 2 liters of water throughout the day, and keep your voice healthy!

Keeping Your Voice Healthy

Most musicians don’t have to depend on their personal health the way a singer does. In that regard, we’re rather like athletes. All kinds of things going on in your body, mind and emotions will affect your singing. Many of those things cannot be controlled directly, but by staying in the best possible condition we can function as performers through quite a few of the ups and downs. Here are some of the basics:

  • You should maintain a healthy weight and stick to good eating habits.Overall health is your foundation.
  • Exercise goes a long way to keep your body strong and resilient. Aerobic (“cardio”) in particular will help with your breath support. If you do weight-lifting try to avoid the grunting and a glottal lock.
  • Singing should never hurt. If you are doing something that feels bad, you are hurting your voice.
  • Smoking is terrible for a singer. But you guessed that, didn’t you? Of course it’s harmful to your lungs, but it also hurts the vocal cords themselves. And pot burns hotter, so it is even worse.
  • Hydration is essential. There are various guidelines out there for how much you should drink (I’m talking about water!), but a good general one is about 2 liters per day. If you drink a lot of caffeine or live in a dry climate then you should plan on a bit more. Alcohol and many prescriptions medications also dehydrate you. Remember to pee pale! It’s the best way to know that you’re well-hydrated. (If you take B vitamins or even a multi-vitamin, your urine may be bright yellow. Not a problem!)
  • Many allergens affect the vocal tract. Do what you can to deal with them by avoidance, as depending on antihistamines and steroids can have deleterious results.
  • Excessive use of your speaking voice can be very taxing. Loud talking and comical voices can quickly tire your voice. Cheerleading is a stressor, as is talking over background noise (like in a vehicle).
  • Do not use your voice if you have laryngitis. Whispering is not a good idea. Instead, carry a pencil and paper around for a few days. If you keep trying to speak when you have laryngitis you will prolong the healing and you may cause permanent damage.
  • But not all sore throats are laryngitis. When in doubt, see the doctor. A laryngologist is a doctor who specialized in the voice. They’re sometimes called “Ear, Nose and Throat” doctors.
  • Learn about reflux and take action if necessary.
  • Remember to protect you hearing. Machine noise, rock concerts and band practice can all add up to damage your hearing. If you sing in a band you should have some kind of monitor that lets you hear yourself, because you may over-sing if you can’t.
  • Practice regularly, but not always loud and long. Get used to how your voice feels when you are singing easily. Your practice should be less about “building up singing muscles” and more about making a habit of your best/easiest sound.
  • Other things that can have repercussions on the voice include hormones, surgery, prescription drugs and mental or emotional state.
  • You can’t truly hear your own singing, so you need to trust your teacher’s ear. Eventually you’ll learn to sing well by the feel of it.

You only have one voice. You can’t abuse it and then expect a doctor to make it right again, because it may never be the same. Another thing that people forget is that when the voice doesn’t feel right we tend to compensate with habits that are not ideal. These new (or old) bad habits may stick with us after the voice should be healthy again. Here are some things that are harmful to your voice or just plain taxing. How many are affecting your voice?

  • Screaming, talking forcefully all the time, talking in the car, lots of laughing
  • Doing funny voices
  • Dry air, not enough water intake
  • Glottal attacks and throat effort in your speech
  • Coughing, clearing the throat
  • Breathing very cold air
  • Poor diet, lack of sleep, stress
  • Cheerleading
  • Allergies
  • Allergy medications
  • Aspirin, ibuprofen
  • Caffeine, alcohol
  • Smoking, especially marijuana
  • Talking, singing or whispering when you have laryngitis

Sure, some of these are hard to avoid. The singer must spend a lifetime working to minimize the stresses on the voice, though. If you have allergies, for example, do everything you can to be good to your voice in other ways, like drinking lots of water and eating properly.

Eating just before bed is a favorite ritual for some of us, but this can lead to acid reflux when you lie down, which is very hard on the voice. Eating spicy foods for dinner or eating too much of anything within a few hours of bed are best left to the non-singers. If you tend to have heartburn and stomach problems and if your voice is rough in the morning and
improves through the day, you should ask a doctor about reflux. (For more about
reflux, see What is GERD?)

Please remember that alcohol, caffeine, pseudoephedrine and even water are very dangerous if you ingest too much within a short period of time (1 or 2 hours).

Wintertime Immunity

Singers have to stay on top of their health at all times. A little cold can leave you with a cough, irritated vocal cords, or a sinus infection for weeks, making singing an unpleasant activity and perhaps leading to more serious damage to the voice.

In order to avoid illness as much as possible, be sure to eat well, get regular sleep, and be a bit fanatical about washing your hands, disinfecting doorknobs, and steering clear of sick people. Vitamins might help keep you strong, and water has a beneficial effect, too. Some people like to take herbs like echinacea and garlic. These work best if taken when you’ve been exposed to a bug but haven’t gotten sick yet. They may not help at all after the sore throat has begun. At that point you might try breathing steam to clear out your respiratory system and help the entire respiratory system heal.

And if you do come down with something, consider the following.

The Advantages of Being Sick

No, it’s not crazy . Think about this:

  1. When you’re sick you don’t expect so much of yourself. You tend to expect the singing to not sound good, so you relax and let it go without employing your usual extra effort. The result is free singing that you normally wouldn’t allow yourself. And if you can’t stand what you hear, put your fingers in your ears!
  2. If your throat hurts, you’ll work extra hard to get the sensations (effort) away from it, which is always good. This is a good time to go for forward placement.
  3. At the beginning of a cold you often sing better because the mucus is thinner on your vocal cords.
  4. Sometimes the congestion in your head is situated just right so that the focus is really obvious.
  5. You can learn a lot by working when the voice is just a little under the weather, since you have vocalize easily and really pay attention to the sensations.
  6. This is a great time to concentrate on memorization, expression and character.

Don’t push too hard for high notes, perfect clarity or long rehearsals, and you should
be okay. But remember to do no singing (or speaking, whispering or even whistling) when you have laryngitis.

What Should I Eat?

You will need to observe what happens to your body and voice when you eat particular foods. It’s very individual. That said, there are certain things that singers usually try to avoid. Observe your reaction to things like milk (any dairy products) and sugar. They might make a lot of phlegm. Nuts and popcorn can easily cause you to cough, which irritates the vocal folds quite a bit, so you don’t want to take that chance within a few hours of singing. Spicy or heavy foods late in the day can make for reflux, resulting in a scratchy voice in the morning. Caffeine may not leave your body as well hydrated as you might think. You’re taking in the fluid of that cup of coffee, but the caffeine content keeps you from benefiting from it like you would from plain water. Chances are that you’re wasting your money if you always have to have the fancy bottled water. Aspirin puts your vocal folds in a fragile state, so that they are vulnerable to damage if you sing. Many (most?) prescriptions drugs have a side effect of drying.

Some singers are very attached to hot lemon water with honey and cough drops. Both can easily be over-done and cause drying of the throat. And anything you feel psychologically dependent on in order to perform should be suspect. You’re in a much better state emotionally if you can be a normal person and go into your performance relaxed, rather than in a panic because you couldn’t find the right brand of herbal tea.

Helping Your Voice Heal

The voice can be damaged, but, on the other hand, it can be remarkably resilient. It needs moisture, rest and time.

  • Hydration with fluids is doubly important when on the mend, but you may also want to inhale some steam. Don’t burn yourself!
  • If your sinuses are dry or irritated you could try using a neti pot. It looks like a tiny tea pot. Put salt water in it and flush your nasal passages by putting the spout to your nose and leaning over a sink. (Breathe through your mouth, or you’ll drown!) If the water is lukewarm you won’t even feel it. Look up instructions online and you’ll see pictures to help you figure it out.
  • When you have laryngitis the time element is crucial. If you speak very little for 3 to 4 days you will get your voice back sooner. But don’t whisper! That’s harder on the vocal folds. So speak gently and minimally.
  • Sleep is necessary for your body to heal. Make it a priority.

Water and sleep are essential for a healthy voice!

What is GERD?

GERD is the acronym for gastroesophageal reflux disorder, sometimes called reflux. It is essentially a chronic heartburn problem. There is a valve at the top of the stomach that prevents stomach acids from going into the esophagus. This is especially important when lying down, as gravity can not help to contain the acids in the stomach. If the valve is weak, acid will creep up, particularly at night when lying in bed. This is what causes the feeling of burning at the level of the heart and higher. Symptoms of GERD include heartburn, cough, interrupted sleep and vocal problems that are worse in the morning.

The acid rising through the esophagus will eventually reach the region of the voice box, which can result in irritation of the vocal cords. Left untreated, reflux can cause long-term or permanent damage to the voice.There are a variety of treatments for the condition, some of which are simple enough to try at home if you suspect you have reflux.

  • Raise the head of your bed so you are not lying perfectly flat. You could prop yourself up with pillows, but since this will cause you to bend at the waist, it may not be the best solution.
  • Avoid food and alcohol for several hours before bedtime. (Spicy foods are the worst offenders.)
  • Over-the-counter antacids may help, but it’s best not to take them regularly. There are other (prescription) drugs used for difficult cases.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about your symptoms, especially if these measures do not alleviate them.

What is Belting?

Have you heard someone refer to belting? Perhaps you’ve been told that it’s bad for you, but you don’t know why. And what’s the difference between just singing and belting?

Belt is something you hear all the time in popular styles of music. It’s the sound in a voice that tells you it’s not classical. Think of the loud Barbra Streisand sound or Ethel Merman. Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters are a few more. It’s not what you would sing in the soprano section of a choir performing church music.

I would define belt as a high percentage of chest voice and a lot of umph, which is exactly why it can be dangerous, if not done correctly. Plain old chest voice or anything that hurts would be incorrect. (Taking chest voice higher and higher will likely cause pain.)  Singing should never hurt.

Correct belting has a strong bright resonance sensation in the mask, much like classical does, but not so much floaty or “up”. It could even feel kind of brassy, nasal and nasty. It’s more like talking or shouting than what you might think of as beautiful singing. The sensation in the throat is more engaged than in classical singing, feeling rather like it leans forward in the throat. This is where people can get into trouble, because the throat shouldn’t push or grab. You should have a teacher helping you discover the right way. (Some people are natural belters, though, and have little trouble with this.)


Is belt only for females? No, but the difference between belt and classical isn’t clearly heard in a man’s voice until he gets pretty high in his range, so we often tend to think of a belter as female. In musical theater “belter” is a female voice/character type.

Is belt always loud? No, but again, the difference between the classical sound and the belt sound may be more easily identified when it’s loud.

Is belting bad for your voice? No. When done correctly belting is not bad for the voice. That said, it’s a highly energized sound, and if you try to do it without getting it quite right, you will wear out your vocal instrument. (See above, concerning chest voice and pain.) Voice teachers used to be afraid of teaching belt because their training was classical and they didn’t understand it. Then they’d hear an untrained belter with vocal damage and say, “See! It’s damaging for the voice! I won’t let my students do it.”

Remember the golden rules: (1.) Belting is not the same as chest voice. (2.) Singing should never hurt.

What’s the difference between my normal singing and belting? Maybe none, especially if you listen to popular or theater music. When you are still pretty new to singing it may be hard to tell, because beginners do not energize the sound enough.

If it is not clearly indicated in the student’s singing or preference, I start singers with non-belt singing because it is probably a safer place to start learning about the voice.

What are some belt exercises? I’d hate to prescribe specific belt exercises without guiding an individual through them. It’s kind of like the doctor diagnosing and prescribing medicine without examining you.

If you think belting is what you are aiming for, then check out Lisa Popeil’s website:

She uses the term “lean” instead of belt, referring to the sensation of the larynx leaning forward. There are videotapes available and information on singing.

TMJ Syndrome and the Singer

How many of these sound familiar: Your jaw is clicking, popping and getting stuck again. It hurts to open your mouth. Headaches. Neck and shoulder stiffness or pain. Ringing in your ears. Back pain. Vertigo. Tingling in your fingers.All of these symptoms can be related to a problem in the TMJ, or temporomandibular joint, the hinge between your cheekbone and your lower jaw. Headaches are probably the most common complaint, but you may not think of your clicking jaw as a related problem. It may not even bother most people, although they might notice it from time to time. Singers are probably aware of more degrees of jaw difficulty than most people, just  because of the demands of the singing process.

What’s going on? Normally the upper and lower teeth fit together like meshed gears, but sometimes the gearing gets off, causing the muscles around the mandible (jaw) joint to tense and spasm. Many people report their first symptoms after receiving a blow to the head, such as might occur in a car accident, because the jaw becomes misaligned, which makes the teeth line up incorrectly, which begins the cycle of excess tension at the joint.
Good old-fashioned stress also makes for spasms in the chewing muscles.

Things that make it worse: Any activity that causes you to “grit” your teeth. For example, some people bite down while running or weightlifting, as well as when under stress. Biting down on the mouth appliances used in some sports, including football and scuba diving, can be problematic, and grinding your teeth at night is both an indicator and an  aggravator of TMJ Syndrome. (You may also see the terms TMJ Disorder or TMJ Disease. They all refer to the same set of problems.)

What can I do? Try keeping your teeth separated whenever possible, especially when stressed. Also be aware of opening the mouth too far, something we as singers have to learn to work around. Many sufferers open their mouths crookedly. Moist heat may also help relieve the tension.

Medical options: If you think you may have a problem with your jaw joint, the person to see is your dentist. TMJ treatment usually starts out with a particular kind of mouth appliance that helps realign the upper and lower jaws. Your dentist can probably
determine if this is right for you.

Clearly, a singer needs the jaw to be working freely and easily, with as little tension as possible. In addition to relief from constant headaches, getting help could mean the difference between making no progress in your lessons and having the beautiful, easy tone you’ve always wanted.

See also:


Resonator refers to the part of an instrument that amplifies the tone and gives it its own unique characteristics. Resonators make a French horn sound like other French horns and unlike a trumpet, because all French horns are pretty much the same shape, while the trumpet is a little different. The shape of each individual singer’s resonators cause my voice to differ from yours, and your voice to sound different when you change the shape inside your mouth.The sound created by the vocal cords is very small and unimpressive. The pharynx (the area above the larynx, where you usually feel a sore throat) and mouth are used to amplify it and make it beautiful. (There may be other resonators, too, but larynx to lips includes most of the resonating space.) The vibration of the air in that space is initiated by the buzzing of vocal folds. By altering the shape of the mouth and throat, you alter the resulting sound, or timbre. (Pronounced tam-ber.)
You also enunciate using these same changes of tongue, palate, jaw, etc., which means that diction is a function of resonance. You are limited in how much you can change the shape inside your mouth and throat, which is why you will always sound like you, but hopefully always improving, and finding more and more beautiful ways to use your own unique voice. 

Lungs and Diaphragm

The lungs are the source of the air that moves through the glottis, creating the pitch. If the muscles in the throat are to avoid over-tensing, the airflow must be just right – neither too much nor too little. Then the vocal folds and the entire mechanism above the shoulders can relax andwork efficiently.Singing means sustaining the sound much longer than the average speaker is accustomed to. The sound must also be intense and cover a wide range of pitches. To do this the breath for singing must fill more of the lungs than we generally make use of. The area that doesn’t get filled in everyday breathing is the lowest region of the lungs. That’s the reason
teachers talk about the diaphragm. It is a large muscle that makes a horizontal dome underneath the lungs, at about the level of the lowest ribs on the outside of the body, curving upward in the center. The dome flattens out when you take a deep breath. Deep breaths are not the “suck in the tummy” type, but expanding low in the body. Release the muscles that pull in against the stomach so that it can squish outward and the diaphragm can descend. A rigid abdomen will not allow the diaphragm to descend and the lungs will only fill partway. Remember the lungs fill downward, and filled halfway means the air is in the top half. That will cause a lot of tension in the shoulder region, which affects the voice
adversely.In addition, the lowest ribs on both sides can expand outward. This may be hard to feel, at first. What’s even harder is getting the ribs to stay in that outward position to avoid pulling in as you sing.

When asked to take a deep breath, many people lift their shoulders and clavicle. This type of breathing will get the runner a little more air, but involves a lot of work from the muscles of the neck and shoulders, which a singer cannot afford. It’s also not a breath that can be controlled very well.

When it comes to breathing, there are many different schools of thought, and each one seems to work for certain people. Also, the sensations may differ from one person to another, so my explanation may not work for you. However, the majority of voice teachers seem to agree that the general feeling on inhalation ought to be fullness just above the waist. Then sing with a slight pressure inward at a point just above the belly but above the belly button, without collapsing. The ribs want to pull back to their old lazy position, but should be kept wide, while the abdomen area resists squeezing too much toward the
backbone. It should feel like you’re keeping the expansion that you achieved when you took the air in.

To see an animated picture of the breathing process,
click here.


The larynx, or voice box, is the cartilage “box” in your throat that houses the vocal cords, which in turn cause a sound. Picture the windpipe as the hose on a vacuum cleaner – rings of somewhat flexible composition stacked on top of each other to form a tube. At the top of this tube is a compartment a little wider and harder, which you can feel if you touch the outside of your throat at the Adam’s apple. That’s the larynx. (“Lă-rinks”) Inside are the vocal cords, which are a pair of small muscles which stick out from the inner wall of the larynx like shelves. “Vocal folds” is actually the preferred term anymore, because they look nothing like strings.
When the vocal folds come together they close off the windpipe. When you are breathing quietly they relax to the sides and leave an opening for the air to pass through. During speech or singing, the cords tense and flutter in the breeze, so that the airstream comes through in little puffs as the cords open and close. Like the onion skin fluttering in a kazoo, this creates the basic sound, a sort of buzz that vibrates the air above. The speed of the flutter determines the pitch.The vocal cords cross the windpipe in the throat (opening horizontally) just as the lips cut across it at the front of the mouth. When you make a lip buzz (“raspberries”), your lips are doing the exact same thing that the vocal cords do in creating a pitch. There’s a little tension from the lips – not too much – and a lot of air to force them apart repeatedly.

An important thing to keep in mind when you are singing, however, is that any feeling of effort in the throat is coming from the outer muscles surrounding and supporting the larynx. This kind of muscle tension only interferes with the efficient functioning of the
vocal folds. When the folds are working freely, the most you should feel from the throat is vibration.