By Becky Bressan, MusicWorx Intern
“Man, I need to learn how to sing.”
My co-intern has uttered this phrase countless times over the past five months of internship. She doesn’t say this because she can’t sing, on the contrary, she has a beautiful voice. But that beautiful voice will often fade at the end of a long day or week. There are many reasons for this, from stress to strain, overuse to misuse. The process of learning how to sing is not about learning how to sound “beautiful,” it’s about learning how to use a specific muscle set in a sustainable way.
Over the course of my undergraduate education and internship I’ve had many conversations about what it means to be a vocalist, and how voice is not usually viewed as an instrument by instrumentalists. In college, these conversations would always annoy me because many people approach voice as an “easy” instrument or something instinctual. Many argue that singing is an innate skill, however, mastering vocal techniques is not. Vocal techniques take work and practice like any other musical skill. What is even more important than the positive results from mastering vocal techniques, is that approaching voice passively can hurt your voice in the long run. Vocal fatigue from improper use or overuse can quickly become vocal damage. Vocal damage is tissue damage in the vocal folds, and can be as serious as vocal nodes, a bleed in the vocal folds, or vocal fold paralysis. All of these take time, and sometimes surgery to recover from. You can sound “good” and still be hurting your voice. However, explaining vocal technique, vocal health, and vocal health within music therapy can be complicated.
Most people use their voice all day without even thinking about it. We use our voice to communicate, express emotions, to pass the time in the car, to laugh, to sigh… the list goes on. If you are a music therapist, you are intentionally using your voice all day, every day, as you facilitate groups, sing with clients, sing to clients, educate, or even when you model breathing.
With this knowledge in mind, as music therapists, how do we take care of our voices? What is important to keep in mind when we sing so we can have healthy voices that will last our entire career? Below are my top 5 tips and tricks for everyone’s vocal health, especially for those who talk and sing for the majority of their day.
Step 1: DRINK WATER!
You most likely hear this from everyone from your mother to your doctor, but when it comes to voice, it couldn’t be more true. Your voice’s biggest ally is hydration. While other liquids can help hydrate you, if they contain caffeine they actually work against you, because caffeine dehydrates. Drinking at least a half gallon of water a day when you are going to be singing will make your voice resilient, flexible,and healthier. Everybody is different, check out this hydration calculator if you are unsure how much water you should drink in a day. I personally would recommend a gallon of water a day, but that’s just me. You’re probably thinking, “but I don’t have time to go to the bathroom that much in a day!” And while I understand, I think that’s a more acceptable sacrifice than losing your voice, or having vocal damage. Your voice is an instrument and a muscle, and both of those systems need to stay hydrated to maintain their flexibility. If you are supplementing with other liquids, make sure that they have little or no caffeine and low sugar.
Step 2: Warm up
When I tell non-vocalists this they always look at me like, “sure, that would be nice, but I don’t have time.” The wonderful thing about voice though, is that warming up doesn’t need to be a production. You can do simple vocal warm-ups while you get ready in the morning, in your car, on your commute, or even as you’re walking down the street. Once the voice is warmed up in the morning you should be set for the day unless you have more than an hour of two of silence (no talking or singing). However, you can do these same warm-up exercises if you feel your voice starts to slip into a vocal fry, or your voice becomes fatigued.
Begin with some breathing exercises; if you’re not using your breath correctly, you will strain your voice. Extended exhales are a great way to start warming up. Start with breathing in for 4 counts, out for 4 counts, then in 4 out 6, in 4 out 8, and so on.
Things to think about when you practice breathing for voice:
- When you breath in, your abdomen and lower back should expand. Your shoulders should not move too much. Think about the air filling you from the bottom up.
- We rarely use all of our air naturally when we exhale, so make sure you are rationing your air for each breath and using the full breath. A good way to start is by exhaling all of your air before you take your first breath in the exercise.
After breathing, I like to start with gentle humming. I generally do something simple such as “do, re, mi, re, do” and then go up in half steps. The specific notes you sing don’t matter as much as keeping to a simple pattern and not starting with large jumps; you then slowly start to stretch your range by going up in pitch. As you hum, try to focus the vibrations in the front of your face. As you get higher the focus of the vibrations move up your face from lips to nose/cheeks, to finally your forehead.
After humming, I generally do the same thing with lip trills. Lip trills are great because you can’t do them if you do not have a constant stream of air. This is the time when you can do more jumps, maybe going up in a triad, “do, mi, sol, mi, do” or “do, sol, fa, mi, re, do.”
The entirety of a warm up can take 10-15 minutes max. If you want to learn more about warmups that focus on projection, belting, or making sure your sound resonates, check out the video in step 4!
Step 3: Don’t Scream, Project
When you have a group of 20+ people, facilitation can be difficult, especially if you struggle with projection. Within older adult groups, this problem is amplified because many older adults have a hearing loss. To compensate, many music therapists will start yelling more than singing, which puts more strain on the voice. When thinking about projection, keep the below in mind:
- Focus on your breathing and use that air to project
- Make sure your songs are in a good key for your voice
- Attempt to focus your breath in your mask
Projection takes time to learn, so here are some tricks to help you along the way:
- Play your guitar softer so your voice sounds louder
- Do dramatic dynamic shifts to catch attention
- If none of the above are working, invest in a small microphone headset as you work on your projection and for large groups
- Don’t strain your voice for one group, especially if you have to continue singing for the rest of the day
Step 4: Voice Lessons
I know, I know. They are expensive, and when do you have the time? But if you can find a spare hour or two, I would highly recommend either finding someone who teaching voice lessons in your area, or looking at free lessons on Youtube. Even one lesson of someone listening to you sing can give you the resources to grow in your vocal technique. If lessons in person aren’t an option, check out this lesson that that goes over techniques and warmups, and first let’s fast forward to for more information on lip trills.
Step 5: Listen to Your Voice and Body
If you start losing your voice or feeling pain, stop singing, or at the very least don’t push your voice. Your body is trying to tell you those muscles need a break. If you greatly increase how much you sing or talk in a day, make sure that you are resting for significant amounts of time. Rest means no talking, no vocalizing of any kind. Not even whispering. Whispering is often more harmful than helpful, so if you do need to talk or sing, try making the sound clear and gentle.
Last, remember that your voice was made to project and sing! Often, our worst enemy is tension, and/or we overthink projection, highnotes, or songs we strain our voices instead of letting the voice do its job. Do body scans when you sing to make sure you aren’t tensing your shoulders, face, neck, tongue. Also, trying moving while you sing – even if it’s just practice. You can roll your neck, do shoulder shrugs, walk around the room, and/or stretch other muscle groups. This will help decrease tension throughout your body, including your neck and muscles surrounding your vocal folds.
Keep these tips and tricks in mind:
- Even if you’re tired, try to speak and sing a little higher in your range. Letting your voice rest low will wear it out more and can lead to vocal fry and damage.
- Drink water!
- Do gentle massages of your face, jaw, tongue, and throat – especially if you start feeling tense.
- Warm up before you start singing or talking all day.
- Cool down at the end of your day – gentle humming.
- Pay attention to your body when you start singing.
- Are you straining your neck, jaw, or tongue?
- Does you voice sound breathy? Try focusing on your vocal attack.
- Are you running out of breath during phrases?
- If your voice starts hurting, feeling tired, or just off, try steaming.
- You can do this with steamers made for vocalists, or just with a hot pot of water and a towel. Hot showers are also a great way to relax those muscles in your throat and around your vocal folds.
- Don’t underestimate the power of a humidifier.
- Sing with intention and energy – especially if you are singing softly. Enunciate and breathe. Put energy into your voice.
- Oh, and did I mention? Drink water!
- Do not underestimate the power of a voice lesson and general feedback from other people and vocalists. If you don’t have access to this, take a video recording of yourself singing. Looking at how you hold your posture, where you are tensing up, and how you sound can help you grow. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, send it to a friend who might be able to help.
- If something feels wrong, change it up! Not every technique works for every person.