Protecting Your Voice

By Bill Conger

Most musicians fret about the condition of their guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass or banjo. After all, each is instrumental to the act's performance. But there is one other device that is sometimes taken for granted: the voice.

As entertainers in the country genre like Larry Gatlin and Kathy Mattea found out the hard way, the voice can be one performance away from becoming silenced. Luckily, surgical procedures salvaged the talents of Gatlin and Mattea, but they were problems that may have been avoided with some preventative maintenance.

Whether you are literally singing for your supper or just for the joy of it, there are a couple of problems that Ralph Hillman, speech consultant and professor of Speech and Theater at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, recommends you be aware of in order to stay healthy.

"What I find that's amazing is that a lot of singers speak in a very breathy voice, but they sing in a very clear voice. Sometimes their speaking voices hurt their performing voice," Hillman said.

"Most singers and performers tend to utilize too much muscle tension in their neck and shoulders and that pulls their heads forward; and when they do that, it also tips the larynx a little bit forward just because of the position of the neck."

Combine this tension in the vocal folds with a breathy voice quality and the end result is vocal abuse.

One performer with whom Hillman has worked occasionally develops a sore throat and begins to lose his voice only a third of the way into a music set.

"If he had a news conference in which he's sitting there talking in a relatively smoke-filled room with that breathy voice coming out, he had done the damage to his voice an hour or two before the concert ever started. It was his speaking patter that was hurting him."

"If you get the leading edge of the vocal folds irritated, it doesn't matter what you do. You've hurt them. And then if you go ahead and sing, you're adding to the irritation."

"We've got others out there that are breathy all the time even when they sing, and they're hurting themselves big time!"

A second problem that occurs is a lack of moisture in the vocal process. "A lot of them (singers) know to drink water, but they drink other junk or not enough liquid in their (daily) lives, and that makes a big difference. Sometimes if they've got drainage, post-nasal stuff, it does amazing things to thicken the stuff."

Hillman suggests using Entertainer's Secret or a squeeze of a lemon to cut the excess phlegm that builds up.

How can you tell the severity of the problem? Hillman says the condition is probably minor if you find yourself clearing your throat when you finish a concert, or after you've been talking for a while. "If it feels like your throat is swollen and it's a big lump down there; if you have a physical sensation of discomfort, or if your vocal folds simply say, 'We're done,' and all you can do is whisper, you can not phonate any more – that ought to tell you that you need to do something in terms of how you're functioning, and using your voice on a regular basis," Hillman said.

The professor adds that those are habits and patterns that you can change, and he offers these suggestions to give the vocal process a resounding victory.

1 . Cut out breathiness. Speak as clearly and strongly as you can all the time. "If you're making any money at all with your voice, never allow yourself that luxury."

2. Stay away from smoke and tobacco products.

3. Avoid chocolate or excessive sweets.

4. Be aware that some people's bodies can not tolerate carbonated beverages, dairy products or fried food. "Anything that's going to affect the chemicals in your mouth over time is going to get you."

5. Reduce muscle tension in your neck and shoulders. For many people it just takes awareness of that kinesthetic feeling.

6. Reduce how you react to stress. It affects the tension of the neck and shoulders which in turn impacts the sound of the voice. "Most of the time stuff that happens around us doesn't need to be reacted to at all. Some of us do it because it's out of habit. If things are getting to you, then you're in charge of stopping that."