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
- 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).
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:
- 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!
- 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.
- At the beginning of a cold you often sing better because the mucus is thinner on your vocal cords.
- Sometimes the congestion in your head is situated just right so that the focus is really obvious.
- 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.
- 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!