Healthy Body, Healthy Voice

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything! I thought I’d write a little bit about what’s been on my mind a lot lately in my teaching as well as my own singing: the importance of good posture and body awareness for singers.

It’s easy for singers to focus on only what’s going on in the throat and mouth as we sing. After all, that’s where the sound is created and shaped. However, posture and tension in the rest of the body can also have a huge effect on our singing.

When I was in college, I was overweight and felt disconnected from my body. Over several years, I lost more than 50 pounds and began reconnecting with my body. (One of the things that started me on that journey to getting healthy was the two weeks I spent at the OperaWorks program, where we had an hour of yoga every day… and I could, and eventually will, write a whole post about how Ann Baltz and OperaWorks changed my life and my singing!) I’m not saying that simply losing weight made me a better singer. I’m not saying that being overweight is bad, or that anyone should be ashamed of their body. But as I got more comfortable in my own body, I was able to feel more connection and support while singing. And for me, personally, being healthier and stronger has made me a better singer. I also know singers who have had the opposite experience: after losing weight, it was harder to feel support from the abdominal muscles, and singing became more difficult. Everyone has their own unique experience, and mine has greatly influenced my growth as a singer and as a teacher.

Lately I’ve been amazed to discover how much the slightest tension in my body affects my singing!  If my shoulders are feeling particularly tight, that tightness will show up in my voice. Most of the time, if I am struggling with something vocally, I can fix it by finding and releasing tension in my body, and making sure the right muscles are working to support my sound. I’ve also recently been working on my core strength, which has had an amazing effect on my singing and helped me to discover a richer, fuller sound that I didn’t know I had.  As I continue to get healthier and stronger, so does my voice.

With my beginning piano students, I talk about using the larger muscles of the arm to play, instead of making the little finger muscles do all the work. With singing, I feel that it works the same way: really supporting your voice with good posture and active (but not rigid) muscles in the torso and abdomen reduces tension in the larynx. (Of course it’s important to experiment with these ideas under the careful guidance of a voice teacher, because using the abdominal muscles to push too much air through the vocal folds can cause vocal fatigue and lead to damage!) I’d really like to write more about the concept of support, and some of the varying opinions on it, but I will have to save that for my next post.

I’ve been finding ways to incorporate these concepts into voice lessons, but it seems especially difficult with young students who have not developed good body awareness yet. With young students, props like rubber balls or resistance bands are especially helpful because they keep the students’ hands busy and cut down on extraneous movement and wiggling, while encouraging more stable posture without becoming stiff and rigid.

Teachers and singers, what are some of your favorite ways to engage the body while singing? How do you develop body awareness and good posture in young singers? I’d love to hear what is working or not working for you!

Dos and Don’ts of Vocal Health

  1. DON’T overuse your voice.  Most damage to the speaking and singing voice is caused by overuse.  NEVER push your voice to the point of hoarseness.
  2. DON’T dry out your mucous membranes.  Dry membranes are more susceptible to injury as well as infections.
  3. DO drink at least 8 glasses of water per day to stay hydrated.
  4. DON’T smoke.
  5. DO get plenty of rest to keep your voice and body healthy.
  6. DON’T sing if you are sick.  If a cold or flu is having any negative effect on your voice, don’t sing!  Singing with inflamed or irritated vocal cords can delay recovery and even cause serious vocal injury.
  7. DON’T speak or sing in the wrong tessitura (range).  Know which pitches are comfortable for your voice, and don’t push the extremes of your range.
  8. DON’T speak too loudly.  Screaming, laughing too loudly, or talking over loud noises are hard on the voice.  Whispering is also problematic, as it can cause tightening in the throat.
  9. DON’T take certain drugs before singing.
    1. Aspirin – makes capillaries more fragile and can increase the chances of hemorrhaging in the vocal folds.  Ibuprofen (Advil) can have the same effect, but acetaminophen (Tylenol) is safe for singers.
    2. Antihistamines and Decongestants – dry out the mucous membranes.  If antihistamines are absolutely necessary, counteract the drying effect by drinking lots of liquids and inhaling steam.
    3. Hormones – including some oral contraceptives, can have side effects including the thickening of the vocal folds.  This can result in a deepening of the voice, hoarseness, or difficulty singing higher pitches.
  10. DO find a good laryngologist or ENT who specializes in working with singers.  It’s a good idea to schedule an appointment while you are healthy to establish a baseline.  This makes it easier to detect and diagnose changes and problems when they occur.
  11. DO see a doctor if you experience any prolonged vocal difficulty or unexplained changes in your voice.  Continuing hoarseness, loss of range, difficulty producing sound, and persistent breathiness are some of the warning signs that should be investigated by a doctor.
  12. DO be honest with your voice teacher and doctor about how you are using your voice, and follow their recommendations carefully.
  13. DO pay attention to your voice and how it feels.  Some singers can’t have dairy or chocolate before singing because it increases phlegm production.  Some singers feel better after drinking certain herbal teas.  Pay attention to what works and doesn’t work for you.
  14. DO always remember: If it feels bad, don’t do it!

What are Nodes?

Vocal fold nodules, commonly called nodes or singer’s nodes, are basically small blisters or calluses on the vocal cords.  They can be caused by vocal abuse, such as excessive screaming, or by singing or speaking with poor technique.

To better understand vocal fold nodules, it’s important to have basic knowledge of how the voice works.  The vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords) are a small pair of muscles inside the larynx, which are covered by a delicate membrane.  As air passes through the larynx, the vocal folds vibrate together, which produces sound.  To make a higher pitch, the vocal folds stretch to become thinner and longer.  For more information on this process, see my previous post, “How the Voice Works: An Overview.”

Nodules are generally caused by prolonged unhealthy use or overuse of the voice.  Vocal abuse can cause hemorrhaging (bleeding) in the vocal folds.  Over time, the vocal folds can develop callus-like lesions, which we call nodules.  Nodules come in many shapes and sizes, and their effect on the voice varies accordingly.

The singing voice of someone with nodules often sounds breathy or raspy.  It may be hard to hit higher pitches or feel like extra effort is needed to make sound.  In severe cases, the voice can be extremely raspy and rough sounding.  Nodules are usually not painful, since there are no nerve endings on the vocal folds.

Nodules are usually treated with speech therapy, which corrects the behavior that caused the nodes and develops healthy vocal habits.  In some cases, surgery may be necessary.  Rehabilitating the voice must be done carefully and under the guidance of a speech therapist and laryngologist.  Singers suffering from nodules should be sure to carefully follow their doctors’ instructions to ensure a full recovery.

The best way to prevent nodules is to sing and speak in a healthy way.  Many people don’t realize that speaking is just as tiring for the vocal cords as singing.  Vocal fry (speaking at the lowest part of your range, with a creaking or rattling quality) is a particularly unhealthy speaking trend, which leads to tension and fatigue in the vocal folds.  Hoarseness or a scratchy-feeling throat can indicate that your vocal folds are fatigued and maybe even slightly swollen.  When this happens it’s important to let your voice rest.

Another important (and easy!) way to keep your vocal folds healthy is to drink plenty of water.  Staying hydrated protects your vocal folds by keeping the mucous membranes moist.  Dry vocal folds are more prone to damage and fatigue.

How the Voice Works: An Overview

As a voice teacher, I often find myself explaining to students how the voice works and why it’s important to take good care of it.  While it’s not necessary for all singers to know all the tedious details (muscle names, etc), a basic knowledge of how the voice works is important because it helps singers understand their instrument.  

Sound is produced by the vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords), which are tiny muscles inside the larynx (aka “Adam’s apple”).  They are about the size of a dime in women and the size of a nickel in men.  They form a “V” shape, which can open or close, and when they are fully closed they block the airway to the lungs.  (To experience this, try to lift something very heavy while inhaling or exhaling.  It should be difficult if not impossible.)  To produce sound (for speaking or singing), the vocal folds gently come together and vibrate as air is passing through.  This process is called phonation.  

The vocal folds stretch to become longer and thinner for high pitches, and thicken and shorten for low pitches.  When the muscles of the larynx are trained to work together efficiently, the singer will be able to smoothly and evenly move throughout his or her range.  Voice breaks and cracks are signs that these muscles are not working together effectively.  

The vocal folds are covered  by a delicate mucous membrane, which is an important part of the vibration that creates sound.  This membrane moves in a wave-like rippling motion.  It is very important for singers to drink plenty of water so that this membrane stays moist and does not dry out.  A dry mucous membrane is much more susceptible to damage, including hemorrhages and nodules.  

The sound produced by the vocal folds is different from the sound we hear outside of the singer’s body.  At the source, it is a soft buzzing sound.  As this sound passes through the throat and mouth, or resonators, it is filtered and amplified into the sound that we recognize as singing.  This process is why things like jaw and tongue position and mouth shape are so important for singers: these things shape our sound, and a small adjustment can make a big difference.  

There are some really cool videos on YouTube that show the vocal folds in action.  Just search for “vocal fold stroboscopy” (this process uses a tiny camera and a strobe light to show the vibrations in slow motion).   

If you are interested in a more detailed and scientific description of the vocal folds, watch this video from Anatomy Zone.