There are some occupations that require the extensive use of one’s voice, sometimes for extended periods of time at a significant volume, such as singers, actors, teachers and stockbrokers. For these professionals, keeping their voices healthy and their vocal folds working properly is an absolute necessity. Many people, though, do not know what they can do to protect and preserve their voices.
In order to find out more about how to keep one’s voice healthy and strong, we spoke to Katherine Bartol. Bartol is a well-known singer and music educator. Bartol studied music at West Chester University. Then, she went on to study the human voice at the University of Minnesota and conducting at the Westminster Choir College and The University of the Arts.
In addition to five Carnegie Hall performances with composer John Rutter, singing with Davy Jones and at NBA games, Bartol is known as a proponent of the Kodaly method of music education. In the Kodaly method, young children are taught about music using high-quality compositions while they actively engage in a sequential and systematic curriculum in which they are singing, moving, engaging in musical games and performing musical exercises.
How to Avoid Damage to the Voice-
The first step in maintaining a healthy voice is to understand the function of the voice mechanism and its three subsystems: the air pressure, vibratory, and the resonance systems. If you know how the voice actually produces sound and the possible long term complications from damage, you would think twice before engaging in any of the various behaviors that are harmful. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can damage your vocal folds in the following ways:
Chronic screaming: Screaming slaps the vocal folds together with severe force which causes bruising and swelling. Most people will be somewhat hoarse for two to three days after a damaging night of screaming at a sporting event.
Chronic whispering: According to Athletes and the Arts, our voices do not like extremes, so both chronic yelling and chronic whispering strain the voice and neither are natural. Whispering causes tension in the muscles of the throat, which will constrict the proper vibration of the vocal folds.
Smoking: Smoking can give you lung cancer or cancer of the throat. Either will harm your vocal production. Toxic residue from the smoke collects on the vocal cords (or vocal folds) which are the gateway to the lungs. This causes the folds to be heavier than normal and, consequently, they will not vibrate fast enough to produce the higher tones a singer needs to achieve. Forcing he issue causes more irritation or possible bruising of the vocal cords, which have become dry and less flexible due to being exposed to smoke and its resins.
Drinking alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine dehydrate the tissues in the body, including our vocal cords. They are an enemy of a healthy, hydrated vocal production. Dry vocal folds do not vibrate to their capacity and may cause the singer to force the higher tones, therefor causing more irritation and consequent damage.
Drugs and medications: Many drugs and other medications tend to dehydrate people’s bodies and vocal folds as well, so they are an anathema to powerful and vibrant singing and vocalizations.
Singing with bad physical form: If you are singing loudly without engaging your lungs and the muscles of the rest of your body, and are simply trying to use the power of your vocal cords, you will definitely cause damage. Katherine Bartol explains that you need to get your whole body engaged to support your voice production and free the throat form muscle constriction and tension. Improper muscle tension squeezes the larynx inappropriately and makes it difficult for the vocal folds to vibrate properly.
Acid reflux: When you eat foods that cause acid reflux, you can damage the membranes of your vocal folds. The reason for this is that the acid can come up to your windpipe and larynx and cause severe irritation. This is especially true if you are a chronic victim of acid reflux. Such foods that tend to cause acid reflux include spicy foods, milk products, fried foods, carbonated beverages, citrus fruits and meats with a high fat content. Apple juice has a very soothing effect on one’s stomach after eating because of the pectin in apples, so it can help alleviate acid reflux.
Trying to powerfully use your voice when you have laryngitis or bronchitis: Give your body a chance to heal when you are ill. Forcing the vocal folds to vibrate when they are swollen because of mucus could cause short or long term hoarseness. The remedy is to drink plenty of water to flush the voice of the irritating mucus and to postpone serious singing, if possible, until you are well.
Good Vocal Hygiene –
Some tips for good vocal hygiene from the New Orleans Musicians Clinic & Assistance Foundation include:
Overall physical health and wellbeing: This includes adequate sleep each night as well as aerobic exercise. The latter helps our body’s ability to pump a powerful amount of air through our lungs and support our vocal production.
Proper rest during long periods of rehearsing: If you are rehearsing, the musician’s clinic recommends 10 minutes of break time for every 50 minutes of rehearsal time. It is interesting that secondary school classes tend to average about 50 minutes, with a 10-minute break that allows students to move to their next class. Also, musicians who regularly play gigs play a 45 minute set with a 15 minute break before the next set.
Posture: Your body needs the proper alignment in order to function vocally. For example, if you are talking on a phone and have your neck crimped, you will be limiting your vocal production. Your sound needs to be produced from your lungs and chest, through your windpipe, throat and mouth, without constriction of space or tension of muscles. Every part of your body must be open and in alignment, not restrained, limited or cramped.
Hydration: Drinking adequate water each day keeps our vocal cords and other tissues involved in vocal production well hydrated. Also, one has to be aware of the dangers of dry environments, such as cold alpine environments, deserts, rooms heated with wood stoves, air-conditioned rooms, and the dry climate of airplanes. All of these can dehydrate our bodies. Cures for dry environments include drinking even more water, using a humidifier in a room, placing a damp towel on one’s face, mildly inhaling steam from a hot pot of water, or taking a hot steamy shower.
Nutrition: Eat a healthy diet every day with food from a variety of food groups.
According to research conducted at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, a holistic, or whole body health, approach to healthy vocal folds and a healthy voice is best. Katherine Bartol teaches her students that it makes perfect sense that healthy bodies produce healthy and strong vocalizations.