Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Voice
A performing career is sporadic. One month you may have it easy, and the next you’ll be in incredible demand. Rock, pop, or opera, your voice needs special handling. A guitar can be tucked away in a hard shell case after a brutal workout; but you wear your vocal cords everywhere. Protect your career by protecting your gift.
The environments you spend daily time in have a tremendous impact on your vocal health and your ability to perform at peak. Lifestyle excesses (smoke, drink, medications, extensive travel, or lack of rest) can gradually cause vocal deterioration. A simple rule is, the harder you perform, the less foolhardy you can afford to be in your off time.
How to Stay Great Under Pressure
Living in the real world of long sessions, late nights, commuting in a dry urban environment, I often feel less than vocally optimum. I get vocal fatigue, jet lag, dehydration, and a bout of the flu each October. I practice smart and eat right, and take just a small exception to the “no alcohol” rule after a gig. I schedule my month with days off blocked out in advance, just for the health of it. But with my best intentions for vocal rest, this is a plan rarely realized.
In the Record Biz we’re jamming for 9 months, 24/7, and dragging 3 months a year. The first big punch in the gut hits us on Monday of Thanksgiving week, lasting through New Year week. This is because fiscal year budgets have been spent and new album projects are on hold until the suits get back from Holiday. Then, 6 months of madness ensues until August when the entire Globe collapses for power cocktails at the beach.
Do the artists and musicians take advantage and rest? Rarely. We can’t afford to. We write a new batch of original songs, record a new CD, launch a mini tour or sing a seasonal project. And wait for A&R to start answering their phones again.
If you think the big timers have it easier, think again. Major label concert artists may have more control over their performance schedule than a studio singer on call, but their vocal days off are sacrificed to press interviews, 12- hour bus trips and overseas flights.
Simply put, we get fried. Still want to be a pro? OK, let’s get you organized.
If you’re working a 9-5 day job now and singing, make every day count. WARM UP!!
1. Stay Hydrated
When in the recording studio for long days or weeks on end, you need extra pampering to keep the voice supple and the tone consistent. Studios are very dry and extra cold due to air conditioners and dehumidifiers running all seasons to protect the electronic equipment.
Steam every morning and evening, without fail, PLUS before and after performing. It keeps your sinus membranes moist. This is important for your voice, because the sinus is responsible for moisturizing the air you breathe on its way down to your lungs.
Buy a tiny portable steamer with a face mask and take it to the studio. Use for twenty minutes before performing, and frequently throughout the day. They run about $40 US.
Take a 10-minute break over the steamer per every 1.5 hours singing. These tiny steamers hold 20-30 minutes of vapor so they are perfect because you don’t want to bring excessive dampness near equipment. NEVER place steamers or vaporizers near a microphone.
During busy months, cold spells, or dry spells, take a 20 – minute steam shower (or use portable steamer) before and after rehearsal & performances, and also upon waking and before bed. That night mean as many as 4 steams per day!
In addition to the tiny face size steamer, buy a cheap, small room vaporizer you can afford to lose when traveling! I’ve found them for under $15, and small enough to fit in a “carry on.” Remember when traveling abroad, you’ll need an electrical voltage adapter.
If you live in a musty, damp climate like the American South & Pacific Northwest, or England & other parts of the UK, you may need a home dehumidifier to control the growth of molds and mildews inherent to those regions. Allergies by molds and mildews commonly annoy singers, and the sinus sound can be picked up on recording mikes.
If you reside in a humid climate but travel to dry climates to record, (like New Orleans to LA) you’ll find the moisture change affects your singing. Coming to a dry climate you’ll have to be extra vigilant about drinking water and steaming. On the reverse, a resident of Arizona recording in Nashville might find the new climate stifling, and possibly allergic. Consider booking hotels equipped with dehumidifiers. Use steam to keep sinuses clear in case you react to the plant life.
2. Keep Your Neck and Chest Warm
Pamper your throat, back of neck, ears, and chest. Science knows a virus causes the common cold in a test tube, but singers real world experience with exposure to drafts and chill can weaken a tired throat falling vulnerable to vocal injury or infection. In Chinese medicine this is called coming down with “The Winds.”
Wear a scarf even when you think you don’t need one, even in doors! Even in California and places where it doesn’t snow! Something I learned from Jeffrey Osborne is this: wear a scarf in the recording studio in all seasons. Have a silk scarf for summer, so that the air conditioning doesn’t hit the throat, and have a soft acrylic or cotton scarf for indoors in the winter. Always wear a scarf and protect your ears walking outdoors in the cold.
Always have a sweatshirt in your gig bag for drafty studios or late rainy nights driving in the car. I like a hood, because it makes my ears feel toasty. Think like an athlete: the scarf and sweatshirt is to a singer as leg warmers and sweat pants are to dancers. You are working hard in some very tender small muscle groups and they need to be kept stable re: temperature and dampness. Take care how you sleep. Avoid drafts from windows, particularly if you get night sweats.
3. Practice Calmness Under Pressure
Perform better and reduce vocal fatigue with 30 minutes of relaxing like yoga or meditation before singing.
If you area coffee freak, it’s tough. Coffee is horrible for cottonmouth, shortness of breath and jitters. I switched to black tea with honey, occasionally with cream, if I feel my throat needs something warm and creamy. When having a mid-day double latte, order Half Decaf.
Green tea or ginseng teas make a great substitute for people who need a boost. Have as much as you like of either. Green tea has friendly caffeine, and Ginseng is non-caffeine energizer.
4. Limit Your Alcohol Intake
Alcohol has a negative impact on your musicality. It affects your hearing sensitivity and thereby throws off your sense of pitch timing and rhythm.
Observe the legal drinking age and blood alcohol limit in each state you play in. Jail time kills a tour.
Don’t drink on stage, or in the studio. Have it after the gig but no more than 2 drinks if you want to sound decent the next day. When you consume excessive alcohol, you’ll be dehydrated.
If you find that you’ve consumed to excess within 24 hours before a gig, drink 2-3 liters of water, eat extra protein, and workout to burn the stiffness out of your muscles and brain.
5. Avoid Recreational Drugs
Unfortunately, many artists find solace in substance abuse, notably pot, coke and junk. Bad news. Those substances are very destructive to the voice, not to mention human life. Don’t start. If you’re using, get straight.
If drugs don’t kill you or drop you in jail, you’ll earn the knife in voice surgery.
For extremists who insist on living fast, get over it or you’re going nowhere.
6. Schedule Days of Complete Vocal Rest
If you’re style is to sing aggressively, understood. But you have to take days off to avoid vocal damage. Successful touring artists book time off as a key component to career longevity. those that don’t might wind up in surgery.
7. Practice Smart
- For 3 days of performing, take 1 day off.
- For 5 days of performing, take 2 days off.
- Take a complete day of monk-like silence every week.
- Learn to meditate, practice Tai Chi or Yoga.
- In rehearsals longer than 1.5 hours, pace your vocals. Click on my segment, Rehearse Smart.
8. Don’t Smoke…Anything!
But if you do, or you are around smokers you must take extra precautions with rest and hydration. Smoke packs a gummy tar into your lungs, causing a loss of vocal power, range, flexibility, breath control, pitch control and it WILL change your tone significantly.
I don’t endorse smoking. But I do have a few hardcore smoking pro-clients who can get away with up to 5 cigarettes a day when they do everything else right, like steaming and warm up exercises. If you’ve got to smoke, don’t hide your butts and pretend your sore throat will go away. Counteract it with my Vocal Recovery Series designed for comebacks from illness, injury, travel, and smoking.
Smokers need a portable steamer at rehearsals, in the studio, and backstage before gig. A home use vaporizer is a must. However, it’s personal choice whether you like warm or cool mist. Some find that warm mist makes them cough when tar in the lungs gets gummy from the steam. If so, try cool mist.
During recording dates, don’t smoke more than 2 a day. When performing, never smoke on stage or during set breaks. Oh, and completely avoid those horrendous clove type imported dark cigarettes!
Cut down and think of a few cigarettes per day as dessert rather than your lifeline. That’s how I think about Oreo Cookies. Can’t live without ’em, Look awful with ’em.
I’ve come to the conclusion that people smoke because they hold their breath from anxiety, and the only release is to suck oxygen through a cigarette. Use my Breathing Exercises or Yoga when you get that craving to inhale. Oxygen is really what you’re after.
Don’t smoke anything at all if you are underage because your lungs can’t handle it. You’ll have a lousy voice and a short career since your lungs did not develop to maturity.