Vocal Health, Part 1: My Voice Is Tired!
Raise your hand if you've ever experienced a tired voice after a long stretch of singing.
You're not alone!
When your voice gets tired, it’s important to know how to take care of it, and know when it is and is not safe to sing. While every singer and his/her circumstances are different, this post will offer some general guidelines on how to keep from either temporarily or permanently damaging your voice from overuse.
VOCAL HEALTH = OVERALL BODY HEALTH
First of all, vocal health starts with overall body health. If you aren't taking care of yourself with healthy eating, sufficient sleep and hydration, and appropriate exercise, then your voice won't have a fighting chance. If you've got a performance coming up, you should also take all necessary precautions to avoid getting sick - stay tuned for some of those protocols in the next post!
COMMON SIGNS OF VOCAL FATIGUE
However, even if you are taking care of yourself and singing with good technique, it is still possible to overuse your voice. Your vocal folds are incredibly resilient and incredibly fragile muscles at the same time. Ideally, you want to do something about vocal fatigue before you end up with a real problem, so you need to be able to recognize its common warning signs:
1. Your speaking voice is hoarse, scratchy, or crackly.
2. Your singing voice is hoarse, scratchy, crackly, or is cutting in and out.
3. You have difficulty varying your dynamic level (loud or soft).
4. You have difficulty singing in the extremes of your range (low or high).
5. You feel abnormal tension, swelling, or pain in your throat.
6. It just doesn’t “feel good” to sing, despite your best efforts.
Like any other muscle in your body, your vocal folds need rest when they are fatigued. Singing on a tired voice can cause muscle strain or other damage. The baseball pitcher who throws hundreds of pitches a week can easily hurt himself, even if he is throwing with perfect technique. The same is true for your vocal folds. While a bit of swelling and an isolated case of laryngitis can heal fairly quickly with proper rest, frequent or more severe issues may require other means of correction.
HOW TO RECOVER
When your voice is tired, the best thing you can do is stop using it. Take a day off from singing, if you can. If you absolutely can’t, use your voice as little as possible: avoid talking, idle humming, or whispering. If you absolutely must sing, be extra sure to do so with good posture and breath support. Mark, if at all possible. (Marking is modifying your singing to make it less taxing. I'll cover that in another post!) If you have a voice lesson scheduled, cancel it, or ask your teacher if you can do some non-vocal work that day.
Other things that will help your vocal folds to recover could include:
Hydration. Most of us are chronically under-hydrated, so drink even more than you think you need to.
Throat Coat tea with honey
Staying away from dehydrated beverages like caffeine and alcohol
Stretching and massaging of tight muscles, especially those in your neck, shoulders, and back
HOW DO I PRACTICE WHEN MY VOICE IS TIRED?
There are a number of non-vocal ways to practice, including:
Researching/listening to recordings
Musical and/or textual analysis
When returning to practicing after a hiatus, it is best to proceed with caution. Don't attempt heavy or prolonged singing until you're back in shape. Start with some SOVT, or semi-
occluded vocal tract exercises. This is just a fancy way of describing exercises during which part of your vocal tract is closed or partially closed - for example, the straw phonation exercises linked above, lip trills, humming, or singing on an "ng" sound. These exercises help to equalize your sub-glottal air pressure, another fancy pedagogy term for the amount of breath pressure underneath your vocal folds - which basically means these exercises gently engage your vocal muscles without much risk of over-taxing them.
If you are still experiencing problems after a few days of regular gentle vocalizing, contact your teacher. Perhaps a technical adjustment is all you need. If the problem persists, however, your teacher may recommend seeing an ENT who specializes in working with singers. Do not ask your voice teacher to diagnose your vocal issue - we know our pedagogy, but we are not medical experts and cannot see your vocal folds.
In short, caring for a tired voice is a lot of common sense – listen to your body and your voice, and be cautious if something doesn’t feel right. It is better to take a little time off from singing and recover than to push through and hurt yourself even further.
This post was adapted from an earlier version originally published by the author at rising-stars-productions.com.