As singers, we have to look after our instrument – our voice, but what does ‘vocal hygiene’ actually mean? Essentially, this term tries to explain how we should use and care for the human voice, enabling it to always be healthy and in prime, working order. Of course there are many ways in which we can keep the entire mechanism of our voices working well, but I thought it would be useful to discuss a few of the main ways in which I try and keep vocally healthy during the rigorous touring schedule in The King’s Singers. However, before this, it really is impossible to talk about ‘vocal hygiene’ without first touching upon the simple physiology of the human voice. I will try and keep it brief, don’t worry!
Vocal Folds or Vocal Cords
The vocal folds, also commonly known as the vocal cords, are folds of mucous membrane. They are roughly the same size as our eyelids and are located in the larynx.
The larynx is the protective hard casing in which the vocal cords sit. The larynx is often referred to as the Adam’s Apple (in men), the Eve’s Apple (in women) or simply, the voice box.
How do we actually sing?
We make sound when the air expelled from our lungs passes through the larynx, causing the vocal cords to vibrate. It is this vibration that produces sound, enabling us to sing. Please bear in mind that this is a very basic guide on the physiology of how we sing, but I hope it helps in your understanding of the main principles. So, back to ‘vocal hygiene’. Here are my top three topics regarding looking after your instrument and keeping vocally healthy.
This has to be top of the list, but why is drinking plenty of water so important in maintaining good vocal health? Hydration allows the vocal cords to stay limber and flexible, allowing the cords to vibrate in the way that they should. Secondly, drinking water helps us to maintain the protective lining of mucous which surround the cords. This layer of lubrication protects the vocal cords from the natural friction that occurs whilst they vibrate together. Without this layer of moisture the cords cannot be as flexible as they need to be during singing. As a result of singing without this added moisture, the vocal cords can get swollen, resulting in the singer’s voice lacking in power. If this issue is not addressed, dehydration can cause serious, sometimes permanent damage to the vocal cords.
Drink at least eight large glasses of water per day. Also, I firmly believe in steam inhalation, which really helps to rehydrate the cords.
2. You are a vocal athlete!
Your larynx is like any other muscle in the body – it gets stronger with use but it also gets tired too. Treat your voice like a long-distance runner treats his/her legs. You would not expect an athlete to train for a marathon all day and then go to the gym for a leg workout in the evening, would you? The same applies to the voice. Continually overusing your voice during the following activities can cause long-term damage:
• Throat clearing
• Screaming and shouting
• Extended periods of loud talking
• Extended periods of singing at extreme pitch or volume
All the above behaviours cause a high impact upon the vocal cords, resulting in them being forced together – vibrating very aggressively, for potentially a long period of time. Once again, the result can be a swelling of the cords, leading to a much weaker singing voice.
Vocal rest before and after performances is key to good vocal hygiene and it takes a lot of discipline. I try and have at least an hour of very little or ideally no talking, at least 30 minutes to an hour before each concert. After the show I try to get to bed as soon as possible to rest my voice for the performance the following day! Also, as is often the case, you will individually have a good idea of how your voice is feeling so listen carefully to what your body is telling you. Look out for any warning signs such as croakiness or pain in the throat.
Here are the main benefits of warming up the voice:
• Helping to avoid any damage to the vocal cords
• Keeping your voice fit and strong
• Helping to develop your vocal range
Well, I hope this article has been of interest to you. There are of course many other issues that surround the concept of ‘vocal hygiene’ but the three topics above are the ones that I get asked about most regularly. It is clear that using your voice for a hobby or for a profession is not easy, and there are many stumbling blocks along the way, but over time, looking after your instrument simply becomes a way of life.
3. The importance of warming up
Is warming up before you sing in a rehearsal or concert important? In my opinion, most certainly, yes. Yet why should you actually warm up? Well, warming up your vocal cords before you sing can be likened to the athlete once again. Just as you stretch and warm up your legs before you go for a run, we warm up our voices to avoid injuring or straining the delicate vocal muscles. If we put too much strain on the vocal cords whilst they are still ‘cold’ then we could easily cause damage to them.