Voice Check: 10 Tips for Healthy Singing

1. Technique is King
Maintaining great technique is without question the basis for a healthy voice. Good technique prevents injury and enables performers to sing at the top of their game every time. “With proper training, the singer/actor learns to release excess tensions in the body and throat muscles,” says Rodgers. “This means that the vocal mechanism is sitting in a muscular environment that will allow it to function at its best. Proper vocal technique means that the singer/actor has learned to use ‘diaphragmatic breath support’ in singing. This moves the effort of support to the abdominal muscles and away from the muscles that are closest to the throat. Proper vocal technique means that the singer/actor has trained the vocal folds to respond to pitch changes and that the singer/actor can maximize the gifts that nature has provided.”

“Improper technique can lead to vocal injuries, which can be annoying and limiting at best and career-ending at worst,” says DeVore. “Most common vocal injuries (nodules, polyps, bruising, swelling) are caused at least in part by the vocal cords slamming together too hard when we speak, sing, shout, scream, wail, keen, sob and so forth. There are ways to do all of those things healthily, which ensures that a performer will have a flexible voice to last through his or her career.”

Like many experts, Farris believes that proper technique begins with the breath. “The only physical part of singing should be breathing,” she says. “That should be naturally obtained and constantly maintained. It is much like a violinist practicing bowing. I know a good violinist is always attentive to balancing the bow on the strings. In singing, if one’s breath is balanced, it is nearly impossible to have any kind of strain on the vocal apparatus, and the easiest and most beautiful sound is achieved. Thus obtaining a correct vocal technique is the key to the prevention of vocal problems. The vocal cords themselves are muscles. Athletes and dancers know that any muscle that is used correctly gets stronger with use, not weaker or injured.”

However, good technique cannot be gained through a “one-size-fits-all” approach, says Cazden, who explains that “many vocal techniques work but for a different reason than the teacher proclaims. The field of voice is still emerging from centuries of speculation, guesswork and secretive folklore. A singer needs to trust his or her own experience, use what works and not get distracted by flowery explanations.”

Adds Melton: “Each performer is unique, so the to-do list that answers all the issues does not exist. However, to quote Mary Hammond, head of musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music in London, ‘Technique frees the imagination.’ The better, more solid and more unconscious the technique, the freer the performer is to grow, explore and mature.”

2. It’s All about Prevention
Prescription medications might get a singer under duress through a performance, but they are not the way to solve vocal issues in the long-term. “Many singers resort to doctors who fill them with cortisone shots to get through a performance or audition,” says Farris. “But if the cause of the problem is not corrected, the issues continue and these so-called ‘remedies’ can cause additional problems of their own. At that point, the singer should have vocal rest and then seek out a good teacher to help correct the issue. Prevention, however, is key.”

Cazden concurs: “The absolute biggest problem that singers have is not visiting a doctor soon enough. Financial pressures and a mistrust of mainstream medicine lead people to ‘muscle through’ or ‘get by’ for months longer than they should. This adds layers of bad technique onto the original injury, and delays recovery. Unless you have terrific insurance, set up a medical savings account and stash whatever you can every month so that when you need a voice doctor you can afford a good one. Plan ahead, and before you need help, locate a laryngologist with videostrobe exam equipment and experience working with singers. Exams without videostrobe are only accurate about one-third of the time. You might need to travel to get to a good clinic, but in the long run, the right diagnosis will save you time, money and anguish.”

Warning signs can help performers identify and take care of potential problems early: “Missing warning signs of a vocal injury can be a problem,” says DeVore. “Common warning signs include hoarseness in the absence of an illness (or hoarseness that hangs around after cold symptoms have cleared up); decrease in speaking or singing range; change in voice quality (breathiness, gruffness, a veiled sound); increased physical effort to speak or sing; physical discomfort or pain when voicing; something just not feeling right with the voice.”

3. Calisthenics Count
Warming up the voice is absolutely essential to a singer’s ability to prevent injuries. Just like going for a run without first stretching, the voice can easily strain if pushed too hard and without first being primed. “Develop a warm-up routine that slowly ‘wakes’ the voice and brings it into alignment with breath control and natural support,” says Robertson.

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