Singers are constantly being told to look after their voices.
We’re told: warm-up before practice or a performance, stay hydrated, don’t drink alcohol, and don’t smoke etc.
To find out what you should do, take a look at a post I wrote a few months ago: Ultimate Guide to Vocal Health.
But vocal health doesn’t just apply to singers.
A big part of vocal health is not what you’re doing for your singing voice but what you’re probably doing to your speaking voice on a daily basis and don’t know about it.
The results of a 2014 study by Boltezar & Bahar, found that teachers were more likely to develop vocal problems.
But if your day job has you talking with customers, clients, or colleagues for long periods now’s the time to think whether your voice is being abused.
Hi, I'm Rebecca! And I truly love everything about the art, science, and teaching of singing. If you're looking to build an effective and healthier singing technique so that you can sing with more ease and confidence, then you're in the right place! Here's a few other blog posts you might also like to read:
How to relieve hay fever symptoms and keep singing
My Winter Vocal Health Routine: 5 things I do to keep my voice healthy
4 alternative therapies that will improve your posture for singing
And of course, grab a copy of my ultimate vocal health starter guide where I'll share how to create a vocal health routine and reset your voice in 14-days!
I had been learning to sing and performing for over 10 years when I first read Robert Sataloff (and friends) book 50 Ways to Abuse your Voice: A Singer’s Guide to a Short Career and was shocked to see that despite my best efforts to follow the standard vocal health practices I was misusing my voice in so many ways.
Inspired by Dr Sataloff, here’s 5 surprising ways you might be abusing your voice, and not know about it, together with a few tips to help you make improvements today.
1 | NOISY ENVIRONMENTS
Have you ever been out to dinner in a crowded restaurant or at a party where there’s loud music and you’re trying to have a conversation with a group of friends or a new acquaintance and you find yourself shouting to be heard?
And the next day you wake up hoarse? That’s you abusing your voice.
It sounds kinda harsh when I put it like that but…
Mix this together with a busy day at your day job, a late-night, alcohol, and smoke-filled rooms (although thankfully smoking is now banned in public places in the UK) and you have a deadly cocktail that’s leaving you exposed to vocal injury.
At the risk of becoming anti-social in order to preserve your vocal health, here are 6 things you can do to minimise the impact:
If you’re working on the day of a special occasion, minimise vocal use. This may take some forward-thinking planning. Try not to schedule long meetings or presentations or numerous telephone or online calls.
Warm-up your voice before use (and yes, this applies to non-singers too). 5-10-minutes of scales and arpeggios.
Work on your breath support (see my article How to Breathe for Singing
Find quieter areas to have conversations so that you’re not shouting and straining.
Drink plenty of water. Stay hydrated.
Rest your voice as much as possible the next day.
2 | CLEARING YOUR THROAT
Whilst clearing your throat may seem harmless on the surface, internally the action forces your vocal folds to close, which can lead to vocal fold haemorrhages, tears, and masses, such as nodules. This urge may be the result of:
Laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR)
Upper respiratory infections, such as colds
Laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) and throat clearing is a common habit in midlife women. Boltezar & Bahar’s study found that women between the ages of 40 and 59 were most likely to develop vocal problems during their career.
Staying hydrated and treating any allergies will help reduce the urge to clear your throat.
But if you’re suffering from chronic throat clearing make an appointment to see a Laryngologist (that’s a voice specialist to me and you) who will be able to diagnose and treat the underlying problem.
For more information, you might want to take a look at:
An article I recently wrote about How Menopause may be Affecting your Voice or my research Menopause: The effects on the ageing female classical singer (no email required).
You’ll also find some useful information in a recently published book: Singing through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause, and Beyond.
For tips on how to manage your allergy symptoms, check out my article: Singers: How to Relieve Hay Fever Symptoms.
3 | NOT SEEING YOUR DENTIST
I’ll be honest, when I read this, my first thought was: ‘How strange!’
But then I remembered that a few years back a retired nurse told me that human health and life expectancy only started increasing when dentists became a thing in 1700s.
So, I did a little research (thanks Google!) and found this to be true. Not that I didn’t believe him but you gotta fact check these things!
With oral health being linked to your general health it can be clearly seen as important for vocal health too. Which, makes sense when you really think about it. Seeing a dentist regularly will keep a lookout for:
Halitosis (bad breath to you and me)
Chronic Periodontal Disease
Also, not treating dental problems can affect the temporomandibular joint (A.K.A your jaw), articulation (that’s your tongue and lips), which can lead to head and neck tension, decreased vocal range, vocal fatigue, and changes in the quality or placement of the voice.
Some of these less-than-obvious oral health symptoms may be more of a concern to a singer, but other professions such as teachers, call-centre workers etc. those using their voices for large portions of the work-day, may find that problems with the jaw or articulators are a contributing factor to vocal injury.
So, what can you do about it…see a dentist regularly. Here in the UK, we're advised to see a dentist for a check-up at least every 6-months.
If you develop problems in between check-ups, don’t wait. Get it sorted straight away.
4 | THINKING SURGERY WILL IMPROVE YOUR VOICE
Over the years, I’ve had several students (mostly in their early twenties, with that laid back carefree attitude) who like to party, socialise with friends, and frequently over sing without a care for their vocal health.
It doesn’t take long to notice that their voice is suffering.
But when I’ve tried to offer vocal health advice their answers have simply been ‘well, I’ll just have surgery and it will be alright’ or ‘I’ll worry about it when it happens’.
It’s in that moment that I have to break it to them that no, that’s not how surgery works.
If surgery is necessary even under the most skilled surgeon you will most likely still end up with scar tissue on your vocal folds, which means loss of range, changes in vocal quality…just ask Julie Andrews.
Nowadays laryngeal surgeons are not quick to throw you under the knife. Only a small percentage of patients undergo surgery. Most undergo vocal therapy to rehabilitate the habits that caused the problems in the first place.
I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer from vocal injury, but I was a victim of faulty teaching which lead to poor technique which could have led to vocal injury.
I know first-hand what it’s like to go through rehabilitation and know that in the long term it’s worth it but getting to that point is frustrating and agonising.
The moral of the story here…don’t think that surgery is the answer. And don’t wait to seek medical treatment. This applies whether you’re a singer or not.
If you’re having difficulties with your speaking and/or singing voice. Book an appointment to see your GP and get a referral to a voice specialist.
If you’re a singer, seek out a laryngologist that has experience working with singers.
5 | PLAY A WOODWIND INSTRUMENT (BADLY)
I have been playing the flute since the age of 12, way before I discovered my singing voice. Whilst I confess I’m not very good I did, for many years, belong to a local concert band (that’s a wind band to my American friends).
At the time I didn’t make the connection that when playing a wind instrument, we use our mouths and the associated muscles to create the right tone and pitch (also known as embouchure), which if done badly could affect your singing voice. Poor technique can lead to:
Dental problems (even more reason to see your dentist regularly)
Problems with the temporomandibular joint (the jaw)
Pain and tenderness in the lips, tongue, muscles and joints of the neck and throat
All of which have a knock-on effect on your speaking and singing voice.
This does not mean that you should stop playing your wind instrument in order to prevent injury to your voice.
Instead, you can manage your vocal health if the same principles are applied to both.
The biggest factor being managing excessive tension in your neck, larynx, jaw, and articulators. You can:
Find an expert teacher who can help you develop a technique that does not involve excessive tension in the jaw, neck, and throat.
Take frequent Alexander Technique lessons. An Alexander Technique teacher can help you identify the habits that lead to excessive tension and also help you to replace these habits with better, tension-free habits.
Resting your voice regularly can help keep your voice in good shape. Grab my free guide to vocal reset to walk you through step by step.
And there you have it. 5 ways you may be abusing your voice and not know about it.
For the longest time, I thought I was obeying the laws of vocal health: warming my voice up, staying hydrated, and avoiding alcohol, but it turns out that there’s a whole other side to vocal health that’s rarely talked about.
Thanks to Dr Sataloff (and his friends) for writing 50 Ways to Abuse your Voice: A Singer’s Guide to a Short Career! and bringing attention to those habits that may affect vocal longevity.
I now discuss with my students how their day job may be impacting their voice and helping them understand how to reduce the risk of injury.
Are you surprised by any of those that I’ve mentioned?
And don't forget to grab your freebie:
The Ultimate Vocal Health Guide
- a 14-day plan to help you improve your voice!
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