Vocal Health In A Global Pandemic
Keeping your voice in good health and form can be a challenging and confusing task for singers even during “normal” circumstances, but add on a global pandemic along with the stress that is associated with it and a singer may feel lost or discouraged regarding their voice.
Here are a few tips on caring for your voice and even improving your vocal control:
MENTAL HEALTH FOR VOCAL HEALTH
There is no way to disconnect your vocal health from your mental health. They are very much intertwined thanks to the vagus nerve which runs from the brain, through the larynx and down into the abdomen. The vagus nerve controls depression, anxiety and relays information back to the brain regarding fear and dangers that may be present. You might feel a rapid heart beat, a sick feeling in your gut and all of those responses are because the vagus nerve has alerted the brain that you are in imminent danger. The vagus splits off into branches that influence major bodily functions, including the voice (recurrent laryngeal nerve or RLN). That means your mental health will directly affect your vocal health. So how to take care of your mental health?
First, learn techniques for managing stress. One of my favorites is meditation. If you’re new to meditation there are great phone apps that you can download and will guide you through a meditation based on the amount of time you have available. Incorporate meditation into your daily routine and you’ll begin to notice the calm and peace it provides.
Another wonderful resource is a mental health counselor or therapist. You do not need to be going through a major psychological episode to justify seeing a therapist. A trained counselor can listen to you verbalize your concerns and challenges (which verbalizing alone can offer great relief), provide strategies for working through your stress and offer you a better perspective on life’s challenges.
This next step for better mental health is to limit or remove influences in your life that trigger stress or depression. For many people, social media can be particularly negative, so consider removing the apps from your phone or setting time limits for your use. Take a look at your schedule and see if there are activities or commitments that are extremely demanding or that lead to increased stress. Remember that you sometimes have to say “no” to some activities and commitments, so that you can say “yes” to what really matters to you. This limiting or removing of negative influences, may mean that you need to evaluate relationships in your life that trigger stress, anxiety, depression or negative thoughts. Only you can know if a relationship is supporting your mental health or not, so approach this with honesty and care.
The last suggestion for better mental health is to find ways to give small acts of service or kindness to others who are in difficult situations. This could mean helping an elderly neighbor pull their garbage to the curb for pick up. It could mean volunteering once in awhile at a local soup kitchen or animal shelter. Maybe you can mentor a young artist who doesn’t have the resources or experience to navigate the world of the arts. It can be a small service, but the benefits are enormous. You build a stronger connection with others. You forget about your own stress for a while. You come to understand that you are not alone in facing challenges.
Take good care of your mental health, not only for your vocal health, but also for your general happiness and well-being.
THREE BASICS FOR VOCAL HEALTH
The voice is a complex instrument and is influenced by multiple factors in the body and your environment, but there are three basics for vocal health that every singer should be aware of.
First, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Your vocal folds are covered in a thin, delicate type of skin called an “epithelium”. The epithelium feels similar to the skin on the inside of your cheek. Use your tongue to feel how tender and hydrated that skin is. In order for the vocal folds to vibrate freely, with less chance of injury, the epithelium needs to be hydrated. Drink enough water throughout the day that you urinate frequently and your urine is a pale yellow or clear color. A set number of ounces to drink each day may work for some body types and activity levels, but may not be effective for others, so your best way of judging your hydration level is to monitor your urine output. Also do your best to limit the things that have a tendency to dehydrate your body – caffeine, carbonated drinks, smoking, vaping, alcohol, etc.
Second, get plenty of sleep. For the average adult, it is recommended that you get between 7-8 hours of sleep, going through cycles of non-REM sleep, REM sleep and deep sleep. In deep sleep the glucose metabolism in the brain increases and this supports short-term memory, long-term memory and your ability to organize the information you took in that day. This is also when your energy is restored, your cells regenerate, you receive an increased blood supply to muscles, tissues and bones repair and your immune system is strengthened. All of those benefits have a direct affect on your voice and how well it recovers from previous use, how flexible and healthy the tissues and cartilages of the larynx are, how much you learned from your vocal practice the day before and how well you are able to cope with stress the following day. If you struggle with insomnia, check out this helpful article from Healthline.com.
Last of all, incorporate vocal exercises into your daily routine. Your vocal exercises don’t need to be terribly long (10-20 minutes of practice is a good goal). Make sure that you use exercises that warm up a healthy chest voice coordination, a healthy head voice coordination and then a healthy mixture of chest and head voice (“mixed” voice). Keep your volume at a medium to low level and focus on vocal control, searching for optimum resonance using various vowels. If you want to practice your belt coordination, make sure that you are guided by a voice teacher who understands healthy belt production and that you limit the belt exercises to a short period. You should never belt until you feel vocally tired. Always end your practice session while you are still feeling strong and healthy.
Hydration, quality sleep and daily vocal exercises are three major components to healthy vocal production. Of course, if you are still struggling with your vocal health, you may want to reach out to an ENT/laryngologist who specializes in working with singers. Sharing your vocal health and medical history with an experienced doctor can give you greater insight into your unique instrument.
MY FAVORITE TIPS
Now for some various vocal health tips that don’t necessarily fit into any of the categories above.
If you have allergies, consider adding a Neti Pot or sinus rinse to your nightly routine. This rinse will cleanse your sinuses of the allergens that you’ve breathed in throughout the day, so you go to bed with less irritants in your sinuses and therefore, you wake up feeling less mucous accumulation. Adding a sinus rinse to your regimen may help your regular allergy medication be even more effective. Make sure that you only use sterilized water in your Neti Pot or sinus rinse. Never use water straight from the tap. Always use water from a clean bottle of sterilized water or boil your tap water for five minutes, allow it to cool and then use it.
Learn what foods trigger a mucous response in your body. You may have heard that you should never consume any dairy before singing, but that’s not accurate guidance for every singer. Some singers will have a slight allergy to milk products that causes increased mucous production or even digestion discomfort and those singers should definitely avoid milk products before they sing. However, other singers have no reaction to dairy. Some singers have a slight reaction to citrus, or gluten, or nuts, or shellfish. This is where you need to pay close attention to your body and how it responds to foods. Keeping a food journal can help you pinpoint the foods to which you may have a slight reaction. It doesn’t mean you can never have those foods again. Just make sure that if you have a performance coming up, you eliminate those trigger foods from your diet for two days prior to your performance.
If you struggle with acid reflux, make sure that you talk with a doctor and take the necessary steps to getting the reflux under control. Keep in mind that acid reflux doesn’t always hurt. Sometimes acid reflux presents as an increase in mucous which causes you to clear your throat frequently. If you’re not sure, check with your doctor. You can check out this article from WebMD.com for more information about the symptoms of acid reflux.
Avoid illness by wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently with plenty of soap, avoid touching hard surfaces in public places (i.e. flush a toilet with your foot, open doors with your sleeve or paper towel), get plenty of sleep, stay hydrated, manage stress, talk to your doctor about vitamins or minerals that you may need to supplement in your diet based on your bloodwork, limit refined sugars in your diet, never share cups/utensils/cosmetics with friends, incorporate daily physical exercise into your routine. If you can avoid getting sick, your voice will thank you!
Add a new skill to your vocal tool box. Study Natalie Weiss’s riff and run videos on YouTube. Take a few lessons with a voice distortion specialist to learn how to “scream” in a healthy way. Learn the chords for a new song on your ukulele. If you’re comfortable with your mix/belt voice, try learning a new coordination like legit/classical singing. Record yourself singing some of your favorite songs and see if there is a recording that you would feel comfortable posting on social media. Learn to yodel/rap/growl – anything! Just keep learning and growing. It doesn’t matter if you ever book a job with any of these skills. What matters is that you keep your love and passion for your voice and your music alive through consistent stimulation and growth. Who knows, you may discover new dimensions to your passion and new skills that bring you joy!
You can also visit the National Center for Voice and Speech website at www.ncvs.org for more information and great resources for all things voice.
While we wade through this stressful and confusing global pandemic, you can build better vocal habits, greater strength and new skills so that when opportunities for performance do come up, you are ready to take hold of those opportunities. Although we may feel that we have little control over the world events around us, we do have direct control over the choices we make regarding our voices. The world needs your voice. Make sure your voice is ready for the world.