What do you think the biggest challenge to being a singer is? Is it having the confidence to sing in front of people? Perhaps it’s the challenge of accurately negotiating difficult melodic passages. Maybe the greatest challenge to being a singer is developing the skills required to clearly communicate the message of the lyrics. Truth be told, it’s all of these things (and many more), but there is one challenge that I think most singers are mindful of (or should be) most waking hours; and it’s an ongoing concern regardless of skill level or performance experience. Simply, the biggest challenge to every singer is, “You are your voice!”
Everywhere you go your voice goes too. This humble fact separates singers from other instrumentalists insomuch as regardless of whether the singer is performing or not, the voice (the instrument) is actively engaged in the singer’s life; 24/7. For example, most keyboardists don’t take their instrument to the park, most drummers don’t sleep with their floor-tom or high-hat cymbal, and most guitarists don’t play sport while carrying their favourite guitar. Singers do all of the above! We sleep, eat, and breathe with our instrument. This presents a challenge to every singer to ensure that what they do, both on and off the stage, accounts for their ongoing vocal health. Pamela Harvey and Susan Miller (2006) write, “Vocal longevity will be achieved by attending to vocal health through healthy voice production, following a vocal hygiene program, and avoiding vocal injury – and not losing sight of the importance of general health” (p. 108). Harvey and Miller’s insight can be summarised into three areas: Technique, Hygiene and General Health.
First and foremost we must address the topic of vocal technique. Of course, vocal technique for singing is important, but it must always be remembered that even a professional singer uses their voice predominantly for speaking (at least 90-95% of the time); so developing sustainable technique for speaking should be considered equally important. Meribeth Bunch Dayme (2009) states,
The essence of vocal technique has been realised when all of the physiological, mental, and emotional factors work harmoniously to produce the desired tone in a spontaneous and dynamic manner. This co-ordination and skill are achieved with proper direction, hard work, and patient, disciplined practise. (p. 32)There is no easy way to develop technique. As Dayme notes, it takes diligent practice. Ultimately, you can have a hygienic and healthy voice, but without a solid ‘technical’ foundation, the voice will be functionally susceptible to wear and tear; which can lead to pathological damage. It will come as no surprise to you that I believe vocal technique is best directed by a qualified singing teacher (singing) and speech therapist (speech); but I’m not alone in this view. Noel Ancell (2010) recommends, “Constant correction and reminders from a teacher gradually empower each singer to monitor him or herself, and in due course singers assume responsibility for correcting aspects of their technique” (p. 155). Basically, there is “no substitute for a great singing teacher and their ability to observe, diagnose and correct” (Robinson, 2013, p. 2); but as Ancell intimates: above all, good instruction should be designed to empower the learner with the necessary tools to self-monitor and self-direct. Keeping your voice in prime condition is not only a technical consideration. Otolaryngologist, Matthew Broadhurst (2009), notes that “vocal hygiene cannot be emphasised enough to maximise the efficiency of sound production and vocal longevity” (p. 4). There are a range of factors to be considered when attending to vocal hygiene.
- Physical Environment: Where we spend our time (home, work and recreation) often dictates how our voices present themselves; i.e. the surrounding auditory landscape influences the way we use our voice (Robert T. Sataloff, 2006; Wingate, 2008). Other factors such as air conditioning and air pollutants also have a significant bearing on vocal health.
- Hydration: Most of us know that we should be drinking 2-3litres per day...equally, many of us don’t! Specifically,
To be well hydrated, the average sedentary adult man must consume at least 2,900 mL (12 c) fluid per day, and the average sedentary adult woman at least 2,200 mL (9 c) fluid per day, in the form of noncaffeinated, non- alcoholic beverages, soups, and foods. (Kleiner, 1999, p. 200)
- Steaming: Every singer should own a steam inhaler. Personal steam inhalers deliver moist warm air directly to the larynx and help to remediate a tired voice after heavy use. Speech Pathologist, Christina Shewell (2009) writes, “always use a steam inhaler at the first sign of strain or inflammation; add some drops of antiseptic or tea tree oil only if you feel that you have an infection” (italics added; , p. 245). Additionally, singers might consider the purchase of a room humidifier; which can be operated while the singer sleeps (especially in the dry winter months).
- Vocal Stamina: Your vocal stamina is determined by ‘how much’ and ‘how often’. “Singing is a physical activity and every muscular effort costs something. The wise singer contemplates their ‘vocal budget’ before embarking on the spending spree of a given song or gig” (Robinson, 2012, p. 1). Ensure you match your level of vocal use to equal amounts of vocal rest.
- Don’t Sing Sick: It is all too tempting to sing when we are unwell. The pressures of a touring schedule or the desire to not miss a singing lesson can cause us to ‘soldier on’; throwing caution to the wind. Singing while you are sick is like continuing to run with a sprained ankle – you are likely to further accentuate the injury already present.
Developing vocal skill (technique) and being mindful of vocal health (hygiene) is underpinned by a third consideration: general health.
Lack of physical conditioning undermines the power source of the voice. A person who becomes short of breath while climbing a flight of stairs hardly has the abdominal and respiratory endurance needed to sustain him or her optimally through the rigors of performance. The stress of attempting to perform under such circumstances often results in voice dysfunction. (Rosen, Heuer, Levy, & Sataloff, 2006, p. 170)
The above quote reminds us that the larynx is housed inside a body; a body whose overall fitness determines the condition of the voice. Again, McCoy (2004, p. 159) is helpful here. He writes,
Almost all singers benefit from ongoing cardiovascular exercise:
- Good physical fitness helps stave off illness;
- Good physical appearance aids in winning competitions and getting roles;1
- Good singing requires sustained physical energy
- Singers need aerobic fitness to sustain the energy levels required forperforming.
When considering physical fitness the wise singer does well to also reflect on their general nutrition and diet. Beyond the obvious rules of ‘avoid processed foods’ and limit ‘fast food intake’ the singer needs to monitor the impact of certain food groups on their voice. Shewell (2009) suggests,
If you suspect that a particular food or drink is contributing to a voice, throat, nasal or digestive problem, try to cut it out completely for a month at least. At the end of that time, if there is no improvement, it is unlikely to be a major causative factor in the problem, but consider a consultation with a nutrition specialist. (p. 242)
Specifically, singers should carefully monitor dairy products (milk, cheese, ice cream), as a well as chocolate, due to their tendency to “increase the amount and viscosity of mucosal secretions” (Robert Thayer Sataloff, Hawkshaw, & Anticaglia, 2006). This is not to say that these products should be eliminated from the diet altogether, but simply restricted immediately (2-4 hours) prior to vocal performance. Further reflection on diet contemplates the impact of gastric secretions on the vocal tract. Reflux laryngitis, typically experienced as “morning hoarseness, bad breath, excessive phlegm, a lump in the throat, or heartburn” (Robert Thayer Sataloff, et al., 2006, p. 138), seems to be relatively common among singers due to the increased intra-abdominal pressures formed by correct breath management. “Specific foods that have been associated with reflux include coffee, tea, Coca-Cola and other carbonated beverages, citrus fruits and juice, tomatoes and tomato sauces, spicy foods, peppermint, dry foods such as peanuts, and fatty foods such as ice-cream” (Shewell, 2009, pp. 243–244). Furthermore, singers should be careful to avoid eating directly before going to bed; allowing at least 2 hours between their last meal and their head hitting the pillow. Reflux should not be permitted to continue unchecked. If you suspect you are suffering from reflux (often referred to as ‘silent reflux’ in singers due to the nature of its presentation), then seek medical advice as soon as possible. Another area to be considered when discussing general health in the 21st century is the practice of ‘safe sex’. Certainly, all care should be taken in the attention to genital hygiene due to the obvious health risks associated with unprotected sexual intercourse. The singer must concern themselves with the ramifications of orally transmitted disease also; including “herpes and gonorrhoea [which] are easily transmitted to the mouth, pharynx, and larynx through unprotected oral sex with an infected partner” (McCoy, 2004, p. 159).
These diseases, along with genital warts which can cause lesions to form along the vocal tract, are disfiguring and make singing an uncomfortable and virtual impossibility. Finally, the general health of a singer and their subsequent practice of singing can be impacted by personal indulgences such as caffeine intake, alcohol consumption, tobacco and drug use. Caffeine and alcohol should be ingested with moderation (<2 caffeinated beverages per day; no alcohol 24hrs prior to singing) and tobacco and drug use (non-prescribed2) should be avoided due to the widely known health risks, not to mention their injurious impact on the voice itself. Singers are often accused of being mindless musicians who invest very little into their craft.
Sadly, I have met a few singers who substantiate this claim, but for the most part I have found that many singers are keenly aware of their responsibility to the band and the audience. This keen awareness is heightened by an instrument (the voice) which requires constant care and attention; an instrument that goes everywhere with the singer in work, rest and play.
1 I don’t believe McCoy is stating a bias here towards thin, model-like performers. Moreover, I think he is recognising the reality of show-biz and its ‘visually’ orientated reality. 2 Paracetamol is best for singers (for headaches and general ailments). Ibuprofen and Aspirin have been shown to heighten the risk of vocal fold haemorrhage. Always discuss the side-effects on the voice of prescribed medication with your doctor and/or health professional.