Monday, December 5, 2011

Tips for Vocal Health

Singing is a very physically demanding activity. Being a singer, I find that the more I take care of my voice, the more rewarding it is to me in terms of range and flexibility. I would even go so far as to say that it really affects my delivery -- when your voice is in good shape, you feel more confident and you worry less about the technicalities of singing and focus more on the feel.

Over the years, and especially when I trained my voice for opera singing, I gained some insight about what keeps your voice healthy, in shape, and ready for a performance at any time. Some of these tips might work for you, and some might not. At the end of the day, everybody's voice and vocal cords are different and respond individually. Personally, my voice is very sensitive and if I make a mistake with any of the below, it really does compromise the quality of my singing. Let me know if you try any of them and how they worked out for you. Again, these are only insights from my very humble experience with music and singing.

  • Avoid dairy products on the days you're singing. Milk and other dairy products (yes, this does include chocolate!) create mucus in your throat and vocal cords which can interfere with vocal clarity and cause irritation in your throat. You might find yourself not being able to enunciate your sounds as well as you could do. I personally stay clear from milk up to 3-5 days before a performance (my vocal cords are EXTREMELY sensitive to it) though for most people laying off the dairy for a day should be good enough. 
  • Hydration vs. Lubrication. Of course, its very important to keep your vocal cords hydrated, its one of the best ways to allow your voice to stay limber and flexible. Singers, especially around performance days, should consume more water than normal - maybe 2 big bottles a day or more. However, once you get on stage/record, I find that drinking water wont help you so much. At that stage, you need lubrication and not hydration. Drinking water when your vocal cords are dry just makes you aware of how dry they are. I prefer drinking something to lubricate my throat rather than hydrate it. The best thing I've found for this is pineapple juice because of its viscous nature. Eating something a little bit oily like noodles in a cup/ramen noodles also helps right before a performance or recording session.
  • Avoid citrus fruits and juices. While my vocal cords don't really suffer from drinking citrusy drinks, some people really do get affected by it. I steer clear of it anyway, just to be on the safe side, on days when I'm singing.
  • Exercise! One of the best ways I have found to increase my vocal range and power is to do cardio, especially running, before I record. That kind of intense exercise stimulates your lungs greatly and allows you a greater range of breath, which will make it easier for you to hit higher notes as well as sing more powerfully! 
  • Don't smoke. Even though Adele is a smoker and she sings beautifully, not everyone is as lucky. I'm a hypocrite though, I totally preach things that I don't do myself. I am dying to quit smoking and to gather enough willpower to never smoke again. I should really follow my own advice on this particular tip! If you find it too hard to quit right now, try at least not smoking the day you are singing, and double your water intake to make up for the damage that smoking causes.
  • Don't shout! Seriously, your voice won't recover until you sleep and wake up the next day!
  • Talk! This is really the best and most important warm-up ever. If you just woke up and you plan on singing right away, it can be difficult. Naturally warm your vocal cords by speaking -- call a friend, read a book or poetry out loud, or talk to your cat like I do (don't judge me! ;) )
  • Do your vocal exercises and warm ups every single day, even if you're not singing. This is another one of those tips that I try very hard to follow but continuously fail to do so, given my extremely shaky self-discipline and forgetfulness. When I was training opera, I used to do it every day without fail. Now, I have to really push myself to do it. They really do work though, sometimes I manage to keep this healthy habit for a week or two before I fail again, and it really makes a remarkable difference. If you are unsure where to start when it comes to warming your voice up, I highly recommend Eric Arcenaux's videos on YouTube on vocal warm-ups (it also helps that he's very easy on the eyes!). His videos feature warm-ups for both male and female voices. View the first part of the warm-up here.
Like Eric Arcenaux recommends, it is actually very helpful to have a vocal/singing coach by your side. I would highly suggest that once you feel comfortable with the warm-up exercises on YouTube that you seek a singing coach to tailor a set of exercises specifically for your voice type, so that you may identify your strengths and weaknesses and work on them. I still have a recording of the warm-up exercises my opera trainer gave me about 2 years ago that are tailored especially for my voice, and I use Eric Arcenaux's videos as kind of a warm-up to my warm-up. If the warm-up exercises feel too hard, don't push your voice as you might damage it that way. Take extra care and time to make sure that all the exercises are done in the correct way possible, to reap their benefits. Try to record yourself doing the vocal warm-ups the first time, and put that recording on your phone. Then you can just play the recording anywhere and do the exercises. I usually do mine on my way to work in the morning, and I'm glad I recently got my car windows tinted, because you will do some weird shapes with your mouth and look funny :)

Remember: your voice and vocal cords are made of muscle, and just like any other muscle, you need to train and exercise to keep them in shape. With that being said, also be sure not to push yourself. If you want to try doing a split with your legs, you cannot achieve that overnight or in a short period of time without hurting yourself. You would stretch everyday and push yourself just a little bit everyday... until you get there. Keep that analogy in mind and hopefully you can become the best singer you can be!