Voices of Experience: How Singers Protect Their Most Important Asset

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - 12:00 PM

April 16 is World Voice Day and my topic for this article is what I have learned about keeping voices healthy. I am almost at the end of an intense period of travel and public speaking in which my own voice has been constantly tested.

Since February 27, I have given 22 lectures (two of which were 4 hours long) and made five radio appearances. My travels have taken me to Chicago, Washington, Massachusetts, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Frankfurt, London and Oxford, in addition to eight talks in the New York area. Before this marathon began, I sought input from physicians, writers and singers I communicate with on social media on how to protect my voice.

I have been on planes, trains and automobiles, all of which were either cold, hot, drafty, dry or filled with allergens. Some were air conditioned and others were heated. For my lodgings, I always asked for rooms in which I can open the window for fresh air. Many people I met were battling colds, the flu and bronchitis. It was not a given that I would get a full night’s sleep, often for several days in a row. How to cope?

The one thing everyone agreed on: hydration. Drink lots of water, preferably without ice and perhaps at room temperature. One person said that in the dry environments of airplanes she keeps a glass of water on the tray table to moisten the air. Several people touted HumidiFlyer, a filtered mask that captures moisture from your breath. Many people advised the regular use of saline solution to keep nasal passages moist and less susceptible to infection. Soprano Courtney Mills wrote, “Coconut water rehydrates you faster than water. I drink one before and after a flight."

Dr. Anthony F. Jahn, medical director of the Metropolitan Opera and an ear, nose and throat specialist at Roosevelt Hospital, is much sought-after by singers, actors and speakers. He edited The Singer’s Guide to Complete Health and wrote some of the essays in the book. He is also the co-author of Care of the Professional Voice: A Management Guide for Singers, Actors and Professional Voice Users.

On his website, Jahn offers tips for a healthy voice that include most of practical ones singers suggested to me, with more specificity about the mind/body connection and its effects on the voice. Of particular interest: “Avoid noisy places if you can. Even if you are not speaking, your throat tenses reflexively.” I have experienced that and it is another reason we need to advocate for quieter public spaces. 

He offered advice for singers that actors and public speakers can use too:

"There are a number of important differences between singing in your normal environment and performing on the road. The change in time zones, with attendant insomnia, heartburn, headache and fatigue, is the first problem. I suggest changing over as soon as you can, beginning with your flight, and even before. When you arrive, try to delay rehearsals for one or two days, but force yourself immediately into the new time zone. Protecting the voice means minimizing noisy social events and monitoring all voice use, speaking and singing, social and professional. Remember, you may lead multiple lives, but you only have one larynx, and your engagement hinges on being able to perform. Always use your voice mindfully.”

I learned years ago, thanks to singing lessons, what mindful voice use is about. When I speak, whether in conversation, on the radio or to a very large audience, I stand or sit in a way that air passes from the area of my hips and navel upwards. When standing, my feet are planted somewhat apart so that my body is comfortable and supported. I breathe deeply (though not audibly) through my nose, which expands my lungs and is also a relaxation method. I warm up a little bit using a technique favored by the great Mavis Staples: simply repeating the words “yes” and “no” on increasingly more breath, all the while extending the range my voice can reach. Whether or not I am using a microphone for amplification, I seldom shout or force the voice. 

An online magazine called the Voice Council is always full of helpful articles, including one singer’s secrets to longevity and another's nine tips for saving your voice.

I got highly unusual counsel from food writers about protecting my health. Móna Wise wrote, “Drink cider vinegar every day – 2 TBSP and eat seaweed ... Lots of it. Germs are okay and unavoidable – just boost your immune system and you will be grand.” Nancy Harmon Jenkins said, “According to our friend Paula Wolfert, you should bind a cut red onion to the bottom of your foot every night before you go to sleep. Maybe both feet (I mean two cut onions, not binding both feet together with one cut onion). Try it—they say it works!”

Mezzo-soprano Diane Elias wrote that she attended a lecture from an ENT who advised singers to "enter your hotel room and put on the shower (hot water), let the humidity permeate the room. Bring your own cup to drink out of. Wash your hands often, don't touch your face. Drink bottled water so your stomach doesn't have to adjust to the different mineral content in the water. If you are sitting a long time, make sure you get up and stretch or walk for 5 minutes each hour, if you can. Take your own pillow to sleep on, if possible.”

Tenor Bryan Hymel and I both have had trouble with certain mineral waters. You might find, as we did in Frankfurt, that local tap water is actually more tolerable than bottled waters. Tenor Peter Furlong said, "Rest. The. Voice. This is the most important thing I can offer. Let other people talk to you and keep your answers polite, but short. Let them tell you about them...Be wary of vitamins. They tend to dry people out (especially Vitamin C). It is better to eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can and get your vitamins the natural way...Apples are wonderful for promoting saliva. And they're good for your teeth!”

My only additional advice: enjoy what you are doing and remain entirely in the moment. The concentrated focus seems to trigger feelings of well-being and pleasure.

Photos: Humidifier (Shutterstock); Mavis Staples (Shorefire Media); Bottled waters: Karly Domb Sadof

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Comments [2]

Steve Duffy from Iowa

"I stand or sit in a way that air passes from the area of my hips and navel upwards." Not literally, I hope. I don't think the lungs go down that far.

Apr. 16 2014 10:40 AM
Paul Capon

Dear Fred: I have heard some opera singers try to avoid travelling by air and limit overseas contracts. A century ago, most opera singers travelled by ship and train...

Apr. 16 2014 12:22 AM

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