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by Robert Fisher, Catoctin School of Music

As we approach the winter months, many of us have prepare for the colder season. This includes pulling out those winter coats, turning off the outdoor water spigot and throwing on the water kettle to boil up your favorite warm drink! Winter tires, ice scrappers, snow shovels, mittens, scarves, knitted hats – you prepare for winter weather; however, do you spend the same time and level of care to prepare your voice?

Check out some tips on maximizing vocal health, whatever the season, whether you sing or just speak:

  1. WARM-UP! Any successful athlete will tell you that the secret to their performance is in the preparation before a game. A trained athlete would not blast head on into competition cold, without some form of muscle/body warmup. Likewise, we shouldn’t dive right into heavily using our voice without some form of warm-up or conditioning before heavy use! When you sing or speak, you are tapping into system of muscles, ligaments, cartilage and bones that connect and function in tandem together within the Larynx (“Voice Box”). Some people are surprised to discover that their vocal folds (cords) are two small muscles and just like any other muscles used in sport, requires conditioning and warming up to prevent injury! Whether you are a singer or utilize your voice primarily for speaking throughout most of the day, a healthy warm-up in the morning or before use allows these small yet powerful muscles prepare for frequent or heavy use.

    Simple vocal warm-ups that are excellent in preparing the voice of singing and speaking include:
  2. Vocal “Sirens” (think the sound of a firetruck or tornado siren) – this involves sliding up and down your vocal scale/range on vowels, slowly with a deep breath (diaphragm) and open mouth, gently “stretching” the vocal cords (like a runner gently stretching their legs) to prepare them for solid use throughout the day.
  3. Humming up and down a scale can help loosen any phlegm or drainage built up on the back of the throat during sleep and helps to “awaken” the throat and nasal passages.
  4. Vocal “Fry” warm-up – this involves sliding up the scale (similar to the vocal siren) on an “ah” vowel and then descending down the scale to the lowest point of your range, where a gentle “crackling” sound is made. Sustain this sound for several seconds while paying attention to keeping the mouth tall and open.

  5. HYDRATE – Drink Water! We’ve established that the voice is a set of real muscles needing real conditioning and warming-up, it is crucial to understand that the vocal folds (cords) are unique in that the muscle is more exposed to the elements that other muscles in our body. Whereas our arm and leg muscles, for example, are protected by our skin and clothing we wear, our vocal cords have a relatively thin mucosal membrane for protection. In order to avoid damage or injury, this membrane and surrounding system in the throat needs continual hydration in order to function properly. What then is the best/worst thing to drink for vocal health? WATER is the BEST drink to hydrate the voice! Plain, simple and clean water is perfect! Drink it often. Continually hydrating throughout the day ensure those muscles are happy and can function at peak performance!

  6. AVOID CAFFEINE: It’s in your coffee, black/green tea leaf teas, and energy drinks! Caffeine is a stimulant, however, it is also known to be a vasoconstrictor and diuretic. This means that while caffeine can help with alertness, it can also reduce blood flow and lead to dehydration. Decaf, anyone? There is still caffeine (in lower amounts) in these products as well! There are a lot of factors involved with hydration (how much you drink, overall health, plain water intake), so consider your caffeine intake when planning on using your voice heavily.

  7. TAKE CARE IN EXTREME TEMPS: – Take extra care when venturing out into those sub-zero temperature. Those dry winter temperatures can wreak havoc on maintaining hydrated vocal cords! Exercise caution when you reach for that kettle of boiling water to warm up – allow the water to cool to safe drinking temperatures and avoid exposing your vocal cords to excessively hot liquid that can ironically dry out or potentially damage the lining in your throat.

  8. AVOID OVERLY SUGARY, ACID or DAIRY PRODUCTS: – avoid sugary, acidic and dairy products or harshly acidic beverages including sodas and syrupy juices if you plan on using your voice heavily. These drinks can often inflame the vocal cords and coat the throat in a way that can hinder resonance and become a breeding ground for unwanted germs! Though there are studies that suggest dairy drinks can be good for overall “hydration”, the downside is that our body responds to dairy by secreting a mucosal coating in the throat. Your body may feel hydrated but your vocal cords end up covered and hampered. If you plan on using your voice heavily or have a performance planned, it’s best to avoid these products ahead of time and stick with water.

  9. AVOID DUST/SMOKE: Smoking (and vaping) dehydrates and coats the throat with inflammatory and often toxic chemicals. This one is simple: avoid smoke/vaping and dust if you want a healthy voice for the long term!

  10. AVOID SUSTAINED PERIODS OF ELEVATING YOUR VOICE: Like any muscle, your vocal muscles do have limits and will wear down with extended use and become inflamed. Just like arms or legs after a long period playing a sport, your voice muscles (which are, remember, only a fraction the size of other muscles like your arms or legs!) can only do so much before you risk overuse injury. Screaming or speaking in high/strained tones (singing/speaking) for long periods of times can increase the risk of vocal injury. It’s easy to lose track of the level of your voice in a loud environment (concert/sports stadiums), however, try to pay close attention to your voice and how it is feeling, especially in these environments. Be proactive – avoid situations or the urge to scream wildly at events for hours on end. Take care with the level of your voice and find ways to communicate that avoid overstressing your vocal cords. Your voice will thank you later! Be wise. Vocal injuries are real and vocal paralysis or overuse injuries are more common than you think! Just remember: scream now, pay for it later!

  11. REST: Rest is the best way to recover and build strength for your body, mind and voice! A good night’s sleep goes a long way to building and maintaining vocal strength and health. Getting the recommend 7-8 hours of sleep (average adult) allows your body to reset, recharge and heal. Better mental clarity equates to making better choices, especially when it comes to how you use and care for your voice! The more alert and in-tune you are with your body, the sooner you will be able to detect and respond to any issues with your vocal muscles. Sleep also allows the body to repair damage and build muscles. Anyone familiar with body strength training knows that an essential part of recovering sore muscles and building strength after a heavy workout is recovery and rest. Voice feeling a bit tired or weaker after spending the day speaking or hours singing? Prioritize rest. Your voice will thank you and you’ll help your body build some strong, healthy vocal muscles in the process as well! Rest = Health

  13. Sick? Start with REST! Your body can only heal itself if has the energy and support to do so. Make sure rest is regular and spend some extra time resting when you have a cold. Anyone with a sore throats/voice cold should take vocal rest – this means no talking/whispering. Allow your body to address inflammation, take medicine as needed (as directed by your doctor) and practice silence! Don’t risk damaging you voice further by wearing it out or inflaming it further. Silence means letting your body heal vocal cords without added stress or strain from phonating and creating sound. You may feel bored and want to “do” things to heal your body quickly. This may inadvertently add more strain or stress and delay your recovery. Nothing heals quicker than rest!
  14. Use Cough drops? Be careful with products that contain numbing ingredients like Menthol. Though temporarily pain relieving, menthol’s cooling effects simply provide a mask of pain relief for sore throats. The absence or decrease in pain should not be confused with being fully healed. Standard vocal rest protocols should be followed. You might not feel much pain or vocal discomfort after popping a cough drop, however, your vocal cords are most likely still inflamed. Healing takes time. Even if you find temporary relief from pain with cough drops, stay hydrated and avoid using your voice unnecessarily until fully healed.

  15. WARM DRINK SUBSTITUTES TO COFFEE OR GREEN/BLACK TEAS – Try these-voice supporting, warm-drink alternatives if you are craving something warm to drink on a cold day:
  16. Lemon-Ginger-Honey Tea: warm-water tea can be a mild remedy for voice colds. A drop or two of honey (honey has naturally antiseptic properties) along with a squeeze of lemon juice (contains electrolytes for hydration) and a slice of ginger (anti-inflammatory) in warm water can provide soothing relief. Just remember to make sure your water has cooled some after boiling!
  17. Try Rooibos Tea (Red): Rooibos is an herbal tea, not related to green or black-tea, made from the leaves of a shrub grown in South Africa. Non-caffeinated, with a distinctive red color and mild slightly “nutty” taste, this tea is known for it’s calming effects and is packed with antioxidants. It is a great soothing and hydrating drink substitute that can be consumed any time of day, morning or night, without any of the side effects found in other hot teas/drinks.

Whether you are a lessons teacher spending days on end constantly talking and giving instruction to students or a budding singer looking to maximize your vocal strength, it is essential to prepare the voice for daily use especially as the mercury drops. In the end, remember the voice is a muscle. Like any muscle, it needs to be warmed-up, conditioned and taken care of for it to perform well. Practice healthy vocal care and support your voice for a lifetime of use and music making!