You wouldn’t expect a piano to perform top notch melodies after years without tuning, or regular maintenance. Just as instruments need care and maintenance to continue sounding their best, so do human voices. Any good singer or vocal performer knows that the voice is an instrument, and should be treated as such. You’re putting in the time and effort to help your voice reach its full potential, and you want to protect that personal investment long-term.
If you (or your children) plan to make singing a lifelong career or hobby, you need to know how to care for your voice for longevity. A collection of small, useful habits will add up to a healthier, stronger voice that continues to shine well into your later years.
Here are 11 steps to keeping your own vocal instrument in tip-top shape:
1. Warm Up Your Voice
Elite runners never start a race without first warming up their muscles; the same concept is important for singers. You can improve the endurance of your voice with the right warmups – like singing scales (slowly), performing lip trills, and practicing siren sounds. Don’t forget to cool down after your performance, with some humming to relax your vocal chords. The performance is only one piece of a vocalist’s success; what he or she does before and after the actual singing has a big impact.
2. Watch Your Diet
Think about your food choices – because everything you eat has to travel down your throat. Issues like acid reflux and indigestion can damage your vocal health. Every person handles acidic foods differently; but if you tend to experience heartburn or indigestion after eating spicy or acidic foods, avoid them. Any food that makes you burp, or feel a burning sensation in your throat, can wear away at your vocal chords over time.
Allow at least an hour after eating before you go to sleep, to give your food a chance to fully digest. The National Institutes of Health also suggests seeking out foods full of vitamins C, A, and E (like fruits and vegetables) – these vitamins strengthen the mucous membrane of the throat.
Keeping your vocal chords lubricated helps to avoid strain and injury. The basic recommendation of eight glasses of water per day (or 50 ounces) is especially important for vocalists. If you have an especially rigorous singing workout, up your water intake. Another way to keep your voice box hydrated and lubricated is to sleep with a bedside humidifier. Dry vocal chords equal discomfort, and can even lead to injury. So drink up, and sing away!
Fatigue negatively impacts your voice, just like it would affect any muscle. To reference running again – you wouldn’t go out and run a “fun” marathon the day before you were scheduled to run an official marathon. When you know you have a big performance ahead, don’t strain your voice leading up to it. It’s okay to sing a little – in fact, it’s good to keep your vocal chords prepped for performance – but avoid anything too rigorous in the days before your vocal event. If your voice becomes hoarse when singing or speaking, give it a rest for a few days, to let it heal.
Believe it or not, strong muscle tone and overall physical stamina can improve your singing – keeping your body in shape will keep your voice in shape much longer. Exercise not only improves your overall health, but it encourages proper posture and breathing; which will improve your vocal output. Exercise is also a known stress reliever, making it an excellent activity for calming your nerves before performances.
6. Don’t Smoke
This may seem obvious, but it’s still important to note. As we mentioned with your diet, everything that goes down your throat can affect your vocal health. Avoiding cigarette and cigar smoke – as well as secondhand smoke – will keep your vocal chords healthier, longer. Not only is smoke detrimental to your throat, but the long term effect of smoke in your lungs can impair your ability to breathe correctly for optimal vocal performance.
7. Avoid Throat Strain
Clearing your throat can actually wear away at your vocal chords over time, and harsh coughing can have the same result. You can’t always avoid coughing, or the need to clear your throat, but try to pay attention to how often you do it, and minimize when possible.
Yelling has a harsh effect on your vocal box (and isn’t very good for your heart health, either), so speak gently – but not too gently. Whispering also causes vocal strain. Your ideal speaking volume should be soft yet firm; your natural tone of voice, without any strain to make it louder or softer.
If you notice that you do any of these things out of habit, try to consciously stop yourself. Small changes over time can significantly add up, increasing your overall vocal health and longevity.
8. Limit Caffeine
Coffee, soda, and even tea can have a drying effect on your vocal chords. For kids, this means saving soda consumption for special occasions only. For adults, it means cutting back on the caffeinated beverages that may be part of your daily routine. If you must have that morning cup of Joe, follow it up with a nice, big glass of water.
9. Avoid Alcohol
Of course, kids don’t need to worry about this point – but it’s an important one for them to understand as they get closer to legal age. Anyone who wants a long career as a vocalist should avoid alcohol, and drink it very moderately on special occasions.
It’s also important to avoid mouthwash that contains alcohol; this can have a negative effect on your voice prowess, too. Read the ingredients whenever buying mouthwash. You can still get the same cleaning and hygiene results with a brand that’s alcohol-free.
10. Take OTC Medication Carefully
Common over-the-counter medications that we use for allergy and congestion relief can dry out our vocal chords. In some cases, things like decaffeinated herbal tea, or other natural methods, can successfully relieve symptoms of allergies, colds, and sore throats – so give those a try, before you resort to an over-the-counter solution.
When you’re feeling under the weather, weigh your current state of health against your long-term throat health. No one should stay miserable when sick, but giving non-medicated options a go first is worth the effort.
11. Breathe Consciously
Avoid reliance on your throat alone when you speak, or sing. When you talk from the throat, without supporting breath, your voice undergoes a lot of unnecessary strain. Practice breathing from your abdomen and chest. Any voice class will teach you breathing techniques that improve your strength – but it’s up to you keep doing them at home, and tap into those techniques during performances.
Your voice is an instrument you’ll keep for your whole life – if it loses its shine, you can’t buy a new one – so protect it well and practice good voice care, and you’ll be singing your heart out for years to come.