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:
- Drinking plenty of water
- Tea with honey (don’t go overboard, though – caffeinated tea can dehydrate you)
- Staying away from caffeinated/dehydrating beverages like coffee, soda, and alcohol
- Stretching and massaging tight muscles
- Doing some breathing exercises
- Straw phonation
How Do I Practice When My Voice is Tired?
There are a number of non-vocal ways to practice, including:
- Character work
- Researching/listening to recordings
- 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!