Singers & Speakers: Caring for your Vocal Instrument – The 6 Top Tips for Vocal Hygiene – Part 1 of 2

‘Hygiene’ is a term reminiscent of habits and prevention and health. It is not a far stretch then, that vocal hygiene is a term used to refer to habitual behaviors for preventing injury and promoting vocal health! The following practices are especially important to singers and professionals who depend on good vocal health on a daily basis.

1. HYDRATION is very important to overall body function, and makes a significant difference to vocal fold operation. Adequate water intake allows the mucus covering of the vocal folds to act like a lubricant, rather than like glue; this creates more efficient vocalization. Eight cups (two quarts) of water is the recommended daily intake. In additional, herbal teas have also been suggested to soothe the vocal folds, with some additional hydration.

2. WARMUPS and COOL-DOWNS are going to help prevent vocal strain and injury. It’s important to remember that in many ways, vocalists (both singers and speakers) are like athletes; the muscles of the body are being used repeatedly, and can be prone to injury when overused or abused.

Figure 3

Figure 3

  • Vocal warmups get blood flowing to the vocal folds, and gently stretch and contract the vocal folds in preparation for extensive use. Physical warmups also are beneficial to loosen the muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper back.  Examples are: humming, vocal ‘fry,’ shoulder shrugs, and gentle neck stretches.
  • Cool-downs have been suggested so as to ease vocal muscles into cessation, rather than an abrupt stop.  An example of this is gentle vocal slides up and down the vocal range.
  • It may be interesting to note that recent research on Vocal Exercises is showing:
  • –> Vocal exercises may mitigate age-related effects on singing (Tay, 2012). This preliminary study had a group of aging choral singers undergo 5 weeks of daily vocal exercises (warmups, stretching, contracting, strengthening) partially supervised by a Speech-Language Pathologist. Preliminary and post-trial testing showed improvements across several technical measures* as well as perceived improvements in self-evaluation, when compared to the control group.
  • –> Specific muscle training can make it feel easier and more comfortable to sing, as well as produce sounds with more efficiency and superior quality across several variables. Ideally, there should be some muscle action in the back, head and neck while singing, while the chest, abdomen, and throat should be relaxed – a combination that may require specific muscle training to achieve. **

3. AVOID STRESSING YOUR VOCAL FOLDS: 

i) Avoid clearing the throat or coughing (causing extra friction and putting additional stress on the vocal folds). Typically, thick mucus is the culprit behind throat-clearing and coughing. Adequate hydration is key to keeping the mucus at a good consistency, and decreasing throat-clearing and coughing!

Good alternatives to throat-clearing are: 

-> The Sniff- Swallow Technique to clear mucus in the throat: sniff gently… swallow, and repeat as needed. (Clark, SLP)

-> The Gentle Breathy Productive Cough: take a deep breath, hold for a moment, and then produce a sharp, silent H sound as you expel the air and mucus. (Texas Voice Centre)

ii) Avoid speaking at vocal extremes: both shouting and whispering put stress to the vocal folds! Try to avoid noisy, windy and cold environments where you need to strain your voice to be heard, attempt to speak within 3 feet of your conversational partner, use amplification when necessary, and use a lowered quieted tone without whispering.

iii) Avoid polluted air and air with less than 30% humidity, as both can make vocalization more effortful (note that airplanes have especially dry air, and the vocal folds will require even more hydration)

Stay tuned The 6 Top Tips for Vocal Hygiene – Part 2 to find out more tips for vocal use!         

_______________________________________________________________________________Contributor: Tracy Schaan is studying at McGill University in the Masters of  Speech-Language Pathology program.

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*[Perceived roughness, maximum phonation time, jitter, shimmer, and noise-to-harmonic ratios all showed improvements. Perceived breathiness, strain and frequency range did not show significant differences.]

**[Study on “Voicecraft” training has shown that simply telling singers to ‘relax’ while singing is a misdirection; there are correlations between specific muscle use and perceived exertion (some muscles relaxing, while increasing exertion of others). Optimum vocal production is found with muscle action in the back, head and neck, with less muscle exertion in the chest, abdomen, and throat. Results showed that Voicecraft Training:

  1. Made it feel easier and more comfortable to sing: singers rated higher levels of comfort and ease of singing after training of using certain muscles.
  2. Noticeably improves singing quality: 100% of the time judges (Speech-Language Pathologists and Singers) could differentiate between audio recordings before and after training, and 80% of post-training recordings were judged as superior across several variables (roughness, breathiness etc).
  3. Vocal quality was more efficient as measured by the noise-to-harmonic ratio and jitter and shimmer, which had all significantly decreased post-training (Bagnall, 2005)]

—————————————————————————– References

“Advice for Care of the Voice,” Texas Voice Center, (2002). Retrieved from http://www.texasvoicecenter.com/advice.html. Bagnall, A. D., & McCulloch, K. (2005).

“The Impact of Specific Exertion on the Efficiency and Ease of the Voice: A Pilot Study.” Journal of Voice, Volume 19 (3). Clark, E. (CCC-SLP). “Vocal Health Tips,” Speaking of Speech. Retrieved from http://www.speakingofspeech.com/uploads/Vocal_Health_Tips.pdf. Tay, E.Y.A., & Phyland, D. J., & Oates, J. (2012).

“The Effect of Vocal Function Exercises on the Voices of Aging Community Choral Singers.” Journal of Voice, Volume 26 (5). Figure 3. Self portrait by Sebastiaan ter Burg made for his presentations about his business model for Creative Commons photography and video production and his open content/data projects. For more information: www.sebastiaanterburg.nl; from Image Creator Sebastiaan ter Burg; Meezingen/zingen/zang/singing along/sing; flickr; flickr; Aug 31, 2007; Web: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ter-burg/8127279660/in/photostream/; Accessed March 24, 2014.