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Vocal health

If you’ve found this blog, then the likelihood is that you’re a frustrated or panicking singer. If it’s the latter, you’ve a gig today and you’re in a “what can I do” meltdown (argh!), I’ll address the issue at hand first and recommend the following 10 tips to save you reading further.

No magic bullet I’m afraid but…

  • Rest as much as possible. Resting is doing something, I promise!
  • Don’t practise aloud. (Singing in your head is just as good at this stage.)
  • Drink lots and then some more.
  • Think positive: keep telling yourself you sound rubbish and you’re hardly setting yourself up to sound great now, are you?
  • Think about or do something else: the more you obsess, the more uptight you’ll be.
  • Make sure that you are well-supported on stage: inform your accompanist/ orchestra/ band/ backing track/ dancing monkey, so that they know to adjust their performance accordingly. If you’re going to be amplified, make sure that the person on sound knows to provide you with the higher foldback you need to avoid oversinging.
  • Warm up well but gently before the performance.
  • Pace yourself during your set – even on your favourite songs.
  • Remember: adrenaline will quite likely get you through. It might not be your best performance, but you CAN do it!
  • If you have time to pop to the shops, these little guys are also a help, physically and psychologically www.vocalzone.com. (They taste gross so must do something, right?)

GOOD LUCK AND ENJOY!

Right, now that I’m left with the calmer readers, I’ll start again…

If you think about it, singing is hard work, unnatural even. It’s a constant struggle to encourage long exhalations of breath when all the body wants is for you to take in another breath full of yummy oxygen. Apart from the occasional you-who! to a neighbour, your speaking voice is the one that you use most of the time, not your singing voice. And, because it is the same mechanism that creates speaking and singing, there’s a misconception that singing is easy and a born gift: you either “have it” or you don’t. With the X Factor/ Voice/ Britain’s Got Talent attitude sweeping the nation, where “success” and fame are about a TV programme and being in the right place at the right time, we lose sight that the voice is wonderful and delicate instrument in need of the same gentle care that a Stradivarius might.

Believe me, I’m writing this article as much as a reminder for myself, as for anyone else out there. As far as I understand my own voice, vocal health comes down to three things: physical health, psychological and emotional strength, and well disciplined practice.

Physical health

Talk to any singer, actor or voice professional, and they all have their own voice habits: negative and positive influences on their own vocal health. When training, I knew some singers who avoided alcohol for a week before a performance and dairy was up there with other unmentionable words. I also know singers (generally of the non-classical variety) who swear by a glass of wine before or during a performance. They are all amazing vocalists and deliver great performances, their way.

Everyone knows their own voice’s limits and grows to understand what helps and hinders a healthy larynx. Here’s what works for me:

  • Drinks lots: Pee clear, sing clear. A good cuppa chills me out before recording far more than worrying about a tiny bit of milk. Alcohol before singing is a no-no for me, as is fruit juice and milkshake. I often get to lunchtime on just one drink however, then wonder why my voice is so tired. Lubricate, people!
  • A good night’s sleep: This is unfortunately getting more and more important the older I get! (Should I admit to 9:30pm last week?)
  • A strong speaking voice. I have a naturally light and breathy tone. I’m told it’s a south-eastern English, introvert thing. I also teach a lot of young children and have an excitable puppy. Both naturally respond better to a higher larynx position with less vocal fold closure. By the end of the day I sometimes find my voice has got “stuck” up where it’s an effort to be and is tired from so much air flow. If I worked with adults in a more serious environment, I’m sure that my voice would settle lower and have better closure. Being aware of this and readjusting regularly has really helped sustain my voice throughout a busy teaching day.
  • Go for a massage: I get a lot of tension along my trapezius from violin playing (www.kentviolinist.co.uk) and bad posture habits. A trip to the osteopath frees me up and helps me reconnect.

Psychological and emotional strength

The larynx sits within and is surrounded by a crazy amount of muscles. The tongue is the strongest muscle in the body and the root of it is attached to the top of the larynx via the hyoid bone. Muscular tension through stress is ultimately going to affect your voice, not to mention stage fright and general attitude towards the voice and your ability.

  • Take time out before you practise and perform to give yourself some space. Whether it be mindfulness meditation techniques or just a quick cuppa and a pause, this can work wonders.
  • Be kind to yourself: celebrate your achievements and correct your mistakes.
  • Jot down positive feedback from people and review it when you’re having a wobble.
  • I thoroughly recommend Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. Alter your attitude to singing, music and yourself and rid yourself of anxiety. (It’s a process not a quick fix!)

Disciplined practice

As a professional or performing musician, it’s easy to get caught up in practising for the next gig. Gone are the days you want to or have time to perfect a certain technique, note, tone or piece. This is completely natural. It doesn’t mean that you can’t still structure your practice the way you know you should. Learning to practise in a methodical way came to me later than I would have liked. Unlike other instruments, because you can’t see what went wrong, it’s very easy to brush over substandard singing and hope it will be better next time. Don’t waste your practice!

  • Always get your breathing sorted before you begin. Connect and get the air flowing.
  • Warm up well and incorporate a technique linked to the song you will be working on.
  • Practise songs without the words. For classical singing especially, use a fricative v, z or f to sing the melody on.
  • Record yourself, listen back and make notes.
  • Approach improvements methodically.
  • Set yourself goals and celebrate achieving them! Look for inspiration and push yourself. In the last year, I’ve forced myself to learn more song from memory. Don’t settle for what you can do but what you want to be able to do!
  • Review your technique with a singing teacher or review your own professional development with a booster course.

After all this, I’d better stop procrastinating and put some of the above into action. Hope this helps any singers out there!

Keep singing and I’d love to hear from you: How do you keep your voice healthy?

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