In my first lesson with a new student, I always ask them “What makes vocalists different from instrumentalists?” There are a few responses I hope for as I see the wheels turn in his or her mind. One of these is that vocalists have lyrics! We are the only musicians who get to combine music and the written word. With this added level of expression, it becomes the vocalist’s job to interpret the lyrics and to understand how they shape the music.
The other response I hope for is this: We are our instruments! If asked to list several instruments, I’d imagine most people would mention piano, violin, guitar, drums, cello, clarinet, horn, etc. Not many would mention the human body. As a vocalist and musician, my body is my instrument. This is a simultaneous blessing and curse. There is obviously no upfront cost and our instrument is easily transported since it goes wherever we go but as musicians we have a slew of other concerns. Our overall health directly affects our ability to perform and we have to be particularly mindful of our physical ailments and environment. Fatigue, diet, physical activity, illness, injury, climate… these are all factors the singer must consider.
Located within the larynx, the vocal folds are layers of muscle positioned side by side. As air is expelled from the lungs, the folds vibrate to create sound. This anatomical system is delicate and one has to be sure they have proper practices in place to ensure the health of our speaking and singing voices.
WARM UP… AND DOWN! When you workout or play a sport, you should stretch before and after any physical exertion. It is no different with our voices. Think of your vocal folds as muscles and it is easier to understand that they need a good stretch before any exertion. Here are a few exercises you can to do loosen all the muscles around your neck and warm-up your vocal folds.
1. Roll your shoulders backward 5-10 times.
2. Roll you shoulders forward 5-10 times.
3. Roll your neck slowly in a circle several times in one direction, and then switch directions and roll the neck several times.
4. Place your legs shoulder width apart and flop forward like a rag doll. Let your head and arms hang with no tension. Swing from side to side and slowly roll up, one vertebra at a time, until you return to standing posture.
4. Get a massage! Truly. This is one perk of being a vocalist! You need the muscles around your instrument to be relaxed so don’t be afraid to treat yourself to a massage every so often.
5. On an “ah” vowel, sing scales. Start in your middle voice, descend by half step, and then work your way back up by half step.
6. Do some “sirens.” Pretend you are throwing a baseball and have your voice follow the motion of your arm, from as low as you can sing to as high as you can sing and back down.
7. Be intentional with your practice. While some instrumentalists practice for hours a day, our voices simply cannot endure that same rigor.
You can do these exercises everyday. If you have a speaking engagement or performance, you will want to vocalize significantly more.
MOISTURE. Moisture is the key to keeping your vocal folds happy.
1. Drink plain water as much as you can. Room temperature is preferable since very cold water can inhibit muscles function and very hot water can cause the vocal folds to swell.
2. Tea with lemon and honey is a singer’s go-to. Caffeine is a diuretic that can dehydrate you so stay with herbal teas. The lemon will help cut through mucous and the honey coats the throat.
3. Steam. Whether you have a humidifier or put your head over some hot water with a towel, your voice will thank you for the moisture.
4. I always have some non-mentholated lozenges on hand. Menthol will dry out the vocal folds. Good examples of natural lozenges are Grether’s Black Currant Pastilles and Thayer’s Slippery Elm Lozenges.
VOCAL REST. Only you know when your voice needs rest. It is important to remember that our speaking voice needs to be taken care of just as much as our singing voices.
1. Try to avoid loud environments where you will be yelling or screaming over loud music or talking.
2. If your throat feels uncomfortable or you have laryngitis (a hoarse voice or loss of the voice), go on complete vocal rest. This means no talking, no singing, no humming, no phonating of any kind! It is difficult to do, especially at work, but permanent vocal damage is no laughing matter. If you must talk, just inform colleagues or friends of your situation and limit your involvement in any conversation as much as possible.
NO, NO, NO. Try to stay away from these as much as possible. If you simply cannot, try to limit yourself before a speaking engagement or performance.
1. No coffee. Like black teas, coffee is a diuretic that will hinder your hydration.
2. No smoking. Duh!
3. Alcohol. Save this for after your performance. For the same reason you do not want to have mentholated lozenges… it dries you out!
4. No coughing. When you cough or clear your throat, your vocal cords are rubbing one another the wrong way, literally. They get angry and then create a mucous which makes you feel like you have to cough or clear your throat again. Either resist the urge or lightly hum to break up the mucous.
Our bodies are amazing instruments and if we are mindful of our overall health and well-being they help us create amazing music!
“Where words fail, music speaks.”