Vocal Health, Part II: Marking

Maybe the following situation is familiar to you: you’re in rehearsals almost every day for your upcoming production, summer musical theater campand your voice is tired.  Or you’re sick.  Or you’re trying to save your voice for another performance that evening.  You think about all the singing you’ll have to do in rehearsal, and wonder how your voice will ever hold up.

Fortunately, there is a strategy for saving your voice.  It’s called marking, and it means to modify your singing in order not to over-tax your vocal folds.

Even if you’ve never heard the term “marking” before, it’s likely that you’ve seen some version of it.  Maybe you’ve been in a rehearsal where another singer is singing in what we call “half voice” – lightly/quietly/at half of her normal volume.  Maybe you’ve witnessed another singer take his high notes an octave down.  These are both examples of marking.

How Do I Mark?

Like anything else with singing, marking takes practice, as well as knowing your own voice.  In order to mark effectively, you must already have solid vocal technique.  If you are still working out issues of dynamic range and breath support in your full voice, you should speak with your voice teacher before attempting to mark.

There are two main ways to mark:

  1. Singing in half voice.  This means to sing at a softer, less intense dynamic level.  In the musical theater world, it may also mean using your head voice instead of your belt register.  The idea is to lessen the amount and/or intensity of the work your vocal folds have to do, in an effort to prevent vocal fatigue.  Bear in mind, however, that no matter what volume you sing at, you should still sing with support.  Singing quietly does not mean singing off the breath!
  2. Singing high notes down an octave.  Especially if there are a ton of them, or you are in a rehearsal situation where you will have to sing them over and over.

When Should I Mark?

You can, and in some cases should, mark in the following situations:

  1. If you are in long staging/choreography rehearsals where the music/singing is a secondary concern
  2. If you are sick
  3. Working on elements such as text or rhythm which do not require full-out singing to learn

You should not mark:

  1. If the music/singing is the primary focus of the rehearsal (unless you are sick)
  2. If you are working on vocal technique
  3. In a final dress rehearsal or performance

Other Considerations

  • If you are unsure how to mark or what would be the best way to mark for your voice, talk to your voice teacher.  He or she will be able to show you how to do it safely and effectively.
  • If you plan to mark in a rehearsal, be sure to tell your director and any fellow actors who will be on stage singing with you.  Trust me, it is easy to be caught off-guard and miss your cue when you expect a big high note from the soprano and what you get is a lower, half-voice version of it.

Stay tuned for the next post in our vocal health series, which will talk about singing while sick!

Vocal Health, Part 1: Vocal Fatigue

Fall is here, and so are endless hours of rehearsals for choirs, shows, recitals, and the like.  It can be a tough time for the voice: even if you can manage to remain healthy (a feat in and of itself), all that singing can cause vocal fatigue.

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.  Healthy eating (which means not only what you eat but also the appropriate quantities of food and how often), a consistent sleep schedule of 7-8 hours a night, sufficient hydration, and regular exercise are all necessary for keeping your voice and body healthy.  There are also many precautions you can take against getting sick – stay tuned for more details on that 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 overuse before you end up with a real problem, so you need to be able to recognize the common warning signs of vocal fatigue:

1. Your speaking voice is hoarse, scratchy, or crackly.

2. Your singing voice is hoarse, scratchy, or crackly, or inconsistent (think “cutting in and out”).

3. You have difficulty singing something that is normally easy for you.

4. You feel abnormal physical tension in your throat or neck.

5. It doesn’t “feel good” to sing, despite your best efforts to sing well.

Like any other muscle in your body, your vocal folds need rest when they are fatigued.  Singing with vocal fatigue 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, more serious problems like nodes (i.e., vocal fold callouses) often require extended vocal rest, speech therapy, and/or even surgery to correct.

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, do so with good posture and breath support.  Mark, if at all possible.  (Marking is modifying your singing to make it less taxing.  We’ll have a post on that soon!)  If you have a voice lesson scheduled, ask your teacher if you can do some non-vocal work that day.

Other things that will help your voice to recover could include:

  1. Drinking plenty of water
  2. Tea with honey (don’t go overboard, though – caffeinated tea can dehydrate you)
  3. Staying away from caffeinated/dehydrating beverages like coffee, soda, and alcohol
  4. Stretching and massaging tight muscles
  5. Doing some breathing exercises
  6. Straw phonation

How Do I Practice When My Voice is Tired?

There are a number of non-vocal ways to practice, including:

  1. Memorizing
  2. Character work
  3. Presentation
  4. Researching/listening to recordings
  5. Musical and/or textual analysis

When returning to regular practicing after a hiatus, it is best to proceed with caution.  Don’t attempt heavy or prolonged singing until you’re back in shape.  Instead, do some light warm-ups that will connect breath to sound right away without tension or pushing – lip trills or straw phonation is a good place to start.

If problems persist, alert your voice teacher.  Perhaps a technical adjustment is all you need.  If, however, your teacher feels that your issues are cause for concern, you should see an ENT who specializes in treating singers.  Do not ask your voice teacher to diagnose your problem – we know our pedagogy, but we cannot see your vocal folds.

Listen To Your Body

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.

Stay tuned for the next two posts in this series: marking, and singing while sick!

Back-to-School, Back-to-Practicing!

Whether you’ve been looking forward to September for a while or are still in denial that it’s here, there’s no denying that back-to-school season means a big change of pace for many people.  Our lives are suddenly more routine-ful and our schedules busier; we have more commitments, more homework, and perhaps longer work hours; and, it often feels, less time.

If you haven’t already, now is a good time to give some thought to your back-to-school routine so you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the additional things that are suddenly in your schedule.  At the very least, establishing a sustainable schedule for basic things like sleeping, eating, and homework will help you to fall into a comfortable rhythm much more quickly.

It’s also a good time to think about your back-to-school practicing routine!  Maybe you kept a good practice routine over the summer, or maybe you took a break from singing; no matter what, your practice routine is probably going to look different now than it has over the past two months.

My practice routine! you think.  That’s pretty much the last thing on my mind with everything else I’ve got going on right  now.

Maybe so.  However, it would behoove you to think about it now, rather than wait until all the other aspects of your life settle down.  Why?

The longer you wait to establish a practice routine, the harder it is going to be.  Think about it – you make a schedule for everything else in your life, and the hours fill up.  Two or three weeks go by, and when you try to add something else in, there’s all of a sudden no time for it.  You try a few times, but you’re so busy that practicing always feels like an afterthought, that thing you don’t really have time for.  Oh well, you think.  I guess I don’t have time for practicing after all.  Maybe I should put my voice lessons on hold.

Noooo!  Don’t do that!

Okay, fair enough, you say.  But I don’t know where to start!

Back-to-School Basics

First, start incorporating practicing into your weekly routine as soon as possible.  Even if you don’t have any lessons scheduled yet.  If you’re really busy these first couple weeks and can only swing 3-4 short practice sessions a week, that’s definitely better than nothing, and is enough to brush up on your skills before your lessons begin.

If you’re struggling to feel motivated, take some time to think about what your goals are.  Why did you decide to take lessons in the first place?  What accomplishments do you feel good about from last year?  What are you hoping to accomplish this year?  Think about something you can address with your teacher, even if it’s just a question you have or something you’re curious about – as long as it motivates you.  Having some kind of concrete goal in mind will give you something to focus on in your practicing.

Get back to your lessons as soon as possible.  This will motivate you to practice more and get into a groove more quickly.  If you wait until mid-to-late September (or later) to reach out to your teacher, her schedule might be full and it may take another week or two to book a lesson.  Even if you do manage to book a time right away, keep in mind that it will take 2-3 lessons to really get the momentum going again.  Do you really want it to be mid-October – at which point the semester is already half over – before that happens?

Once You’ve Started…

Devise a reasonable schedule for yourself.  It’s good to be ambitious, but be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.  If you set your sights too high, you could start to feel overwhelmed or burned out.  Make sure your goals are realistic and attainable.

Stick to your schedule as best you can.  Good habits can only be built with consistency.  Sure, there are times when you will fall off the wagon, but if that happens, get right back on.  Don’t use one “failure” as an excuse to stop altogether.  Cut yourself some slack, and re-focus on your goals.

Plan ahead.  I’m talking weeks and, if possible, months in advance.  If you know, for example, that your school musical rehearsal schedule will eat up most weekday afternoons starting in November, make sure you are communicating with your teacher well enough ahead of time about a schedule change for your lessons, and adjusting your practicing routine.  If you do not give this some thought ahead of time, it will be very hard for everyone to adjust once it creeps up on you, and you will suddenly be “too busy” for voice lessons.  NEWS FLASH: you are not too busy.  You just didn’t plan ahead, and now you feel overwhelmed.

Stay healthy.  This means getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, drinking lots of water, exercising regularly, and preventing sickness inasmuch as you are able.  Remember to be mindful of your mental health too.  Give yourself time to decompress, especially when you’re really busy, and try not to fall into negative thinking.

Back-to-school season can feel overwhelming, but just remember: stay focused on your goals, and be disciplined but realistic with your schedule.  Just keep truckin’, and it will be Christmas break before you know it!