Just as a clarinetist greases his corks or a violinist rosins her bow, there are certain steps we vocalists need to take in order to keep our ‘instrument’ in proper working order. But, while you protect your clarinet or violin in a case between practices, our vocal health is always vulnerable to outside elements. Good overall health, diet, proper hydration and rest are especially important for singers.
The following are essential tips to protect our vocal cords before, during and after practicing and performing.
1. Warm Up Right
We all know that lack of stretching and warm-up prior to physical activity can increase the risk of injury, right? Well, the same is true for the ligaments, muscles and tissue that make up our vocal cords.
In order to properly warm up our vocal cords, we need to do more than just sing. Singing alone will not relax the muscles, enrich your tone or exercise your entire vocal range.
‘Stretch’ your singing voice by making sure your breathing is relaxed and focused low in your abdomen, and by releasing any jaw tension you might notice. If your jaw feels tight, lightly massage the facial muscles right below your cheek bones while letting your jaw open and close smoothly.
Start your vocal warm-up with lip and tongue trills. Loosely put your lips together and blow air through them, making a kazoo-like sound. Try simple, comfortable scales and intervals while lip trilling. Also trill your tongue by making a rolling ‘r’ sound. This will relax your mouth and help you control your air pressure.
Next, move on to slightly more difficult-to-reach scales and arpeggios, either still trilling or by singing a mix of vowels and consonants that you’re comfortable with. You shouldn’t strain your voice during a warm-up. Your range should be comfortable and the entire process relaxed. While singing through your scales, you may want to gently place your finger on your larynx to see if it’s moving with your pitch. If so, you’ll want to slow down your scales and try to keep your larynx still. This will help ensure you warm up your entire range prior to your practice or performance, and avoid injury or strain while singing.
2. Hydration is Your Friend
Hydration for vocalists includes just general hydration throughout your body as well as surface hydration to keep the vocal cords themselves wet and slippery.
For general hydration, it’s commonly recommended we try to drink at least 8-12 glasses of water throughout each day. For vocalists, room temperature water is best, as water that’s too cold can numb our mouths and throats. Also avoid sodas and coffee, which can act as diuretics and actually cause dehydration. Even soda without caffeine can have a drying effect on the throat. Similarly, air pollutants can dry out and irritate our throats and vocal cords.
The cords themselves must be lubricated, as well, in order to vibrate correctly. To keep your vocal cords wet, try to turn off air conditioning and use a humidifier or breathe in water vapor from a simmering pot on the stove hours prior to major auditions/performances. Chewing gum or sucking on hard candies can also help keep your salivary glands stimulated and, thus, your throat well-coated.
3. Get Those ZZZs
Sleep is essential to keeping your body functioning during all tasks, but lack of sleep can have especially serious consequences for vocal performances. If you’re fatigued your vocal tone may diminish, loss of control is likely, and a lack of sufficient energy will affect your ability to concentrate.
A full night’s rest the eve before your big performance is the very best way to go. Napping too close to go-time can cause your voice to strain/injure.
4. Eat Smart
You’ll want to eat foods you’re used to before your performance (for obvious reasons), and keep away from anything too spicy or greasy that might cause harmful acid reflux. You may also want to avoid dairy for 2 hours prior to showtime, as it can increase phlegm production and lead to needing to clear your throat.
5. In Case of Vocal Cord Emergency
Even when we eat right, warm up, drink water and sleep soundly, sometimes our vocal cords just don’t feel quite right. Maybe you have a slight cold or allergies that unfortunately happen to pop up at the very worst time.
First, consult your doctor. Singing while sick can cause real damage. He or she will be able to tell you whether they’d advise you go on with the show, or sit one out for the sake of your overall vocal health.
If your doctor says it’s OK to carry on, be sure to avoid any additional vocal trauma. This includes clearing your throat, coughing, speaking loudly or whispering, all of which can strain your vocal cords. You might also want to consider making a gargle of 8 oz. lukewarm water, 1/2 tablespoon of honey and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda (or just 1 teaspoon of salt). Gargle the mixture gently for 20 seconds and spit it out. Slippery elm, a natural supplement derived from a tree, is believed by some to have throat-soothing properties. Lozenges and oils containing slippery elm are used by some vocalists (again, consult with your doctor first).
Now that you’re ready to put your best voice forward, find a great audition/performance piece to sing! Check out our huge selection of officially licensed Singer Pro arrangements, created especially for vocalists to showcase your talents.
Do you have any tips, tricks or warmup rituals that help keep your voice in top shape? Please share with your fellow musicians in the comments below.