Safe singing

The subject of vocal and singing health is always around and worthy of discussion! I was invited to sit in at the voice clinic at our local hospital and it was fascinating to hear and watch the patient’s vocal folds on the video and hear their vocal history. We saw clients who had paralysis of the vocal folds and quite severe loss of voice in others, with croaking and loss of tone. So, what can we, as singers, do to help ourselves? We have only one beautiful instrument – it isn’t as indestructible as people seem to think! You only have to listen to singers who have had drug/alcohol/constriction issues to hear the before and after affects.
We need to give our vocal folds a bit of TLC and consideration, especially when we are asking it to produce beautiful, flexible singing.
So with an aim of NOT meeting any of you at a voice clinic, here are my stay safe singing tips and how to look after your voice!

What is safe singing? It is really about learning to sing from the muscles in your body, not the muscles in your throat. In singing lessons, we often talk about giving ‘support’ to the voice, and that means we want to redistribute any effort AWAY from the voice box. If your throat closes and feels tight when you sing, then your vocal folds are more likely to be rubbing together and can cause nodules (calluses) on the folds. The vocal folds can also kink (distort) through the pressure exerted on them. If your singing resembles hard shouting, sounds husky, is overly nasal with a pressure on the throat, tires easily or feels red or tight after singing, these could be signs of strain. Please do get it checked out!

Air flows through the vocal folds quite naturally and the vibration that makes the sound, doesn’t need any effort from us. Often singers with constriction and sore throats think that they have to grip the throat in order to control the sound. This doesn’t work! If you grip, you actually stop the mechanism working and therefore have less flexibility. Singers grip when they feel that their voice is unstable or unpredictable, or perhaps, to disguise a ‘fault’ – again this makes singing much more difficult.

A singer can perhaps ‘get by’ with faulty technique when they are only gigging once a month. However, when you start to gig weekly, plus rehearsals, you will really feel if your voice isn’t able to cope and unfortunately, this is when many singers fall by the wayside. Simply because they aren’t consistent in their quality or being ‘fit to work’

When you get to touring – you know it! Touring is exhausting, vocally, mentally and physically. If you want to go pro, it is a great asset to have a good vocal practice in place, before you hit this stage.

  •  Learn how to train your breathing to support the voice. By understanding how effective breathing works, the voice develops more tone, consistency, agility and clarity. You can do SO much more with your voice! A singing teacher’s aim is to give all our singers the means to develop a practice that will help throughout their lives, not just when singing.
  • Learn how to let your throat go! You’ll be amazed at how much sound is in there! You can make most of the sounds you want, healthily, without any strain. It’s easier for you and better for your listener.
  • Fight or Flight. I teach how to recognise the ‘fight or flight’ reflex that can affect performance, auditions, interviews and coping with difficult situations on and off stage. For us performers, the fight/flight is an occupational hazard and it bodes well for us to learn to be able to switch it off when we don’t need it. Learning how this affects our breathing and tiredness levels will help us maintain a long career.
  • Don’t get over tired It’s worth remembering that when you first tour or indeed, for most amateur singers, hit the Xmas concert schedule, you will probably still have the day job too, so learn to look after yourself by eating well and getting enough sleep well. This will help you maintain your consistency in performance. If you get run down, you are more likely to catch the dreaded bugs! Be safe and think ahead! Good technique is what we run to when we are tired – it’s what saves our voices!
  • After show parties! For theatre singers, as well as band and choir singers, post show pub or party sessions are the most common place to lose your voice. Why? You are talking over music and background noise, you are probably dehydrated already and drinking dehydrating alcohol. Basically for 2 hours or more, after singing, you are shouting. Become a listener instead!.
  • Alcohol. Spirits particularly, irritate and dehydrate the vocal folds. Beer is the least problematic! Top up on a lot of water before you go out, post show!
  • Keep your voice well hydrated, especially on stage. Central heating etc will dry you out too, so drink whilst in the office and at home. Travelling by coach can dry you out, too. If on a tour bus – keep hydrated and away from the air con! If you catch a cold – keep drinking hot water. Never whisper when you have loss of voice.
  • Don’t yell! Save your voice and walk to the other person rather than shouting up the stairs! Also, talking over the engine and motorway noise on the way to a gig, can wreck and tire your voice before you sing. Quiet journeys help maintain great gigs!
  • Laugh a lot! Everytime you laugh, you are opening your throat and relaxing, so have a great ribtickling giggle!

First published 2015 – updated April 2020

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Sandra Smith is the director of The Lost Sound Dartmoor Folk Choir, visit their dedicated website to find out more.

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