An Introduction to Vocal Self Care and Best Practice
If you are someone who makes a living via your voice, and I was to ask you "what do you do to look after your voice?" what would your answer be? Is it something you have already incorporated into your self care plan, and can reel off at a moment's notice? Or would you have to maybe Google something like “vocal self care,” “vocal health or “vocal hygiene” to find some answers on what that consists of?
Like any other muscles in the body that you would need to build up the strength of through repeated exercise, and the use of an appropriately tailored regime of activities, vocal chords are no different. Once you start using them more often professionally, or using them again after periods of not using them, the vocal chords need time to be trained back into shape, for optimum performance. If you don’t keep using your voice as much (as may have been the case for some of us in 2020), you will lose some vocal 'fitness'. AND like any other part of your body, your vocal chords and folds can be fatigued by repeated use, without allowing time for them to recover. Plus they can potentially be injured by either incorrect use or over use, over time.
For many occupational users of the voice, the first time many will realise how important it is to make vocal care a priority in our self care plans, is when we start to notice some form of dysfunction relating to the voice. Which we might call vocal fatigue. According to the University of Florida Upper Airways Dysfunction Lab, they define vocal fatigue as:
“Vocal fatigue can be characterized as the feeling of having to utilize more effort to sustain communication and/or a perceived weakness in vocal quality. Reports have indicated that this phenomenon occurs as a result of increased laryngeal muscle tension from overuse and/or misuse of the voice, poor vocal techniques, and high stress (Milbrath & Solomon, 2003). This can be evidenced by vocal changes, such as an increased breathy vocal quality and/or a dysphonic voice. Physically, a speaker may feel discomfort, increased neck tension and/or soreness around the neck and throat (Milbrath & Solomon, 2003).”
So how do we avoid damaging our voice? And what then can we do to better support our vocal wellness, quality and longevity?
“Misuse” Might refer to raising your voice trying to outcompete other noise in a loud space, where you don’t have the benefit of voice amplification technology; a bit like when you’re trying to talk to a friend in a busy cafe or bar. Or for Teachers or Trainers, raise your voice over a room of very excited people talking. The remedy to that being, to use amplification technology, any and every time you can.
Compensating for Tech difficulties online: As it relates to being on speaker phone for work, and or the new realm of video, teleconferences or webinar, and speaking to laptops or microphones, strain can happen when we push to be louder to ensure the audience will hear and we'll be loud enough to get a good recording. Or when the connection is bad, and the other party can’t hear you well, or you know that your equipment isn’t doing the job and you end up raising your voice trying to compensate. This can also potentially add up to more vocal strain.
To help eliminate this, it pays to fix your tech and or learn how to best utilise it so that you don't find yourself amplifying your own volume to compensate.
Vocal HealthIt can also be trying to still use your voice as usual when we have some form of upper respiratory illness that you can feel (and hear) is already impacting your voice and your breathing. Trying to push through and still use your voice anyway, instead of giving yourself time to heal, can potentially do further damage and hence extend your recovery time needed to heal from the infection. Remedy: creating a work routine and or a business and financial plan that allows room for you to take vocal downtime where you need to.
Or, it can also involve what we have or haven't ingested. Drinking enough water to keep your body and your vocal chords hydrated, is essential to being able to produce the kind of sound you want and preventing doing harm to your vocal folds, as the membranes dry out through use and exhaling sound through the mouth. (Mouth breathing results in more moisture loss, than nose breathing, which is cleverly designed to retain some of that moisture during the journey of the air from the lungs, back up through the nose.)
But also, what you eat or drink, or medications that you take can also either irritate or further dry out your vocal membranes. Anything containing alcohol, diuretics like caffeine, or nasal decongestants or hay fever medication for example, can all further dry out your vocal folds, at a time when you need them to stay well lubricated.
But not necessarily lubricated with foods containing a lot of oil or that make you produce a lot of thick mucus with their fat or high sugar content. They can lead to not only that heavy, "I just ate fish and chips" greasy throat feeling, but also can lead to extra throat clearingwhile you're speaking. One clear = ok and effective. 20 clears a minute = vocal fatigue from mechanical "misuse."
Roaring like a Spartan for warmups a little too often too, could spell extra membrane damage and vocal fatigue too, sorry Warriors! Kind of works if you're going off just that one time to sacrifice yourself on the battle field. Not so much the 50th time you're trying to give the rev up speech, but only have a raspy whisper left. Moderation and Sustainability is key. Which brings us to technique.
Good Breathing, Posture and Vocal TechniqueThe quality and longevity of our voices also largely rests upon how we breathe and how we position ourselves while trying to speak or sing. Just like our health, our vocal quality is dependent upon and massively improved by practicing diaphragmatic breathing. (e.g., that's the kind of breathing you're being encouraged to do in a meditation or yoga class, or with a Respiratory or Physical Therapist, when the Practitioner asks you to put your hands on your lower belly and attempt to make your hand rise and fall each time you breath in and out. This style of breathing switches you out of the shallow, upper chest breathing style that many of us have got into the habit of doing much of the day, and back into the style we were born doing, that recruits your abdominal muscles and diaphragm into the breathing process. And the voice production process.
I'm going to leave whether you breath in and out through your nose or mouth alone, as I think it really depends on the function you're trying to achieve. Nose breathing tends to rate better now for health and exercise endurance/performance in much of the research. But we need an open mouth to sing or speak sound. Thats not to say you can't also use nose breathing during speaking or singing. But there are several factors that might impact whether you recruit more mouth or nose breathing. Like how fast do you need to speak or sing and how much breath do you need to speak or sing that sentence. Also a little bit what kind of sound you want to produce and where you need to shift air and focus to, within your mouth, rear nasal, front of face, throat, or your 'head voice' or 'chest voice' to achieve that kind of sound.
Or as it may be, to stop producing a certain type of sound, if we want to sound less nasal or less crackly in our throat, for example. Think the Episode of the Nanny where Niles tried to teach Fran to master rounding her HOW NOW BROWN COWS in the top of her mouth, to help her sound "less nasal." You may not want to be Ceci, but if we maybe want to sound more 'like a professional speaker or singer sounds', we may want to play with bringing our authentic voice, forward into our soft pallet and mouth space. And mouth breathing might help with making that shift.
How we position ourselves while standing to speak or sing, from the feet, all the way up to the head, is also key. Being in upright alignment, but flexible and relaxed through your knees, hips, lower abdomen, ribcage, shoulders, throat and face, allows you to continue diaphragmatic breathing on your feet. Plus the recruitment of your lower abdominals supports you to sustain and control your breath for sound production.
Conversely, when we're predominantly shallow (costal) chest breathing and trying to project sound out into a big room or into webinar tech to be heard, and or when we're getting stressed in the process, there is a tendency to tense up our shoulders and work harder from here and our neck, throat, tongue, jaw and facial muscles, trying to get the sound out. Also, when we're not using our abs and diaphragm to help control and guide the flow of air back out in the creation of sound, there is a tendency to use the throat muscles to try and stop too much air escaping at once instead (especially for singing.) Both of which can lead to that feeling of excessive tightness in your throat.
It's normal for your voice to take a little while to warm up when you first get up. But during the day, after speaking for prolonged periods, when we suddenly notice that we now have to work much harder to still produce a sound, at the lower end of our usual vocal range, at normal speaking volume, plus when we find ourselves producing a more breathy, raspy sound, or our voice starts cracking/breaking on certain notes, these are the indicators that your vocal folds and chords have been overworked and need a rest. And more often than not, we overwork them when we're trying to push sound out only from our throat and our voice has become "stuck" in the back of our throat; in other words, coming from only one part of the overall vocal machine.
When your voice sounds and feels like its coming ONLY from the back of your throat, speaking and singing from that place, can fatigue your vocal chords and can damage the membranes of the vocal folds, much faster.
I've come to find that the more sustainable method of sound production instead, involves diaphragmatic breathing air up through our vocal chords and then using the whole of our open mouth space and area in the front of the face (not just the throat, or nasal space) ALSO to create that fuller, more 'resonant', less breathy sound that you hear in Professional Speakers and Singers voices. That quite frankly, sounds super sexy, like honey for your ears, doesn't it?
They're also speaking from a place of strength in their vocal range, rather than trying to excessively lower their voice to the very bottom of their range, trying to force their way to getting that low voice that someone once said makes male leaders sound more credible and charismatic. Or as female leaders, trying to imitate male leaders low voices. That's all very well, until you tire out your throat muscles and your vocal chords, and crack into that crackly 'vocal fry' sound, trying to force a sound from the weakest point in your lower vocal range, without training to build your low range. Which also, can contribute to vocal fatigue. The remedy is to find out what your vocal range is, so that you can tailor a unique plan for you to condition and strengthen that and get a better understanding of what is your ideal vocal range to be speaking (or singing) within, sustainably.
All hence, why it's important if you're a Speaker (meaning someone reliant on your voice for a job) and you occasionally struggle with vocal fatigue, to do some work on the mechanics of your vocal and breathing technique too. To check that you're trying to produce sound sustainably, in a way that will ensure that you'll be able to use your voice for a living, full time, for a lifetime.
If you are an occupational user of the voice, I imagine that should now give you a bit of food for thought as to what you might want to consider adding into or adjusting with your overall self care routine, to help better breathe life, authenticity, power and longevity into your Speaking voice and work this year. A Special thanks to Hayley Milano, my awesome Vocal Coach, for answering some questions to help ME better understand some aspects of this while I was doing my research. If you have any further questions, or would like to hear more about aspects of this blog, please don't hesitate to reach out.
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Until next time, thank you, as always for reading. Appreciate you! And here's hoping you have a wonderful weekend.
Have fun, take care.
Nat talks about Self Expression, Heart Centred Communication and Lifestyle for Leaders.