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Master Class

Looking after your voice

As a singer, actor, speaker or entertainer (excluding mime artists) you will know the important role your voice plays in your performance. A croaky voice or worse still the loss of your voice can have a devastating effect on your presentation. A prolonged voice problem can become a very costly experience when your livelihood depends on being able to sing or speak clearly. So let's have a look at what the voice is and how to protect it.

Where does your voice come from?

The larynx, or voice box as it is commonly known, is a cartilage tube located in the throat. Across this tube are stretched your vocal cords also known as vocal folds. The larynx sits at the top of the trachea (wind pipe). Air is pushed from the lungs through the larynx causing the vocal cords to vibrate. This vibration creates the sound of our voice which is further modified by mouth, tongue, nasal passages and lips.

Why does the voice sometimes fail?

Problems occur when the vocal folds become inflamed and swollen. This prevents the proper vibration of the folds and so creates the hoarse sound we all know or the loss of voice in more extreme cases. Another cause of a distorted and raspy voice is nodules or nodes which can be described as calluses on the vocal cords. Voice problems can also be caused by paralysis and tumours.

What can be done to prevent and treat problems?

To work efficiently the vocal folds need to be kept well hydrated so drinking plenty of water is the first thing to do. Some pundits advise cutting down on caffeinated drinks as they can have a dehydrating effect but I've heard other experts claim the hydrating effect of these drinks outweigh any dehydration. Alcohol intake should also be limited.

Viral infection is the biggest cause of laryngitis so it's hard to take preventative measures against this form of acute laryngitis. There are common-sense things you should do such as avoid people that have colds, coughs and flu and making sure you observe good rules of hygiene such as washing your hands before eating.

Treatment for inflamed and swollen vocal folds caused by a virus is thin on the ground and once viral laryngitis strikes there is very little that can be done other than to rest your voice and wait it out. The vast majority of acute laryngitis from a viral infection, such as a cold, normally passes within a week. If the problem persists then you should see your doctor.

Other ways of warding off laryngitis is to not smoke and to avoid smoky atmospheres and other irritants. Smoking can cause long term swelling and ultimately laryngeal cancer.

Alcohol contains many things that can irritate the larynx so it a good idea not to overdo it.

Try not to clear your throat as this can be rather brutal on vocal cords causing them to slap together quite violently. Instead try swallowing or sipping water. Excessive throat clearing can cause damage and hoarseness.

The back-flow of stomach acid and enzymes, into the larynx, is another cause of laryngitis. This can occur while sleeping. Acid reflux can happen without warning and cause irritation to the larynx. This can happen without any accompanying heartburn but can cause hoarseness, sore throat and the feeling of having a lump in your throat. Another tell-tale sign is the need to frequently clear your throat. Avoiding acidic drinks such as orange juice and late night spicy foods may help. Also limiting alcohol intake can be beneficial. Sleeping with your head raised is another thing to try. If this is a recurring problem, your doctor may be able to prescribe something to inhibit your stomach's production of gastric acids.

There is also fungal laryngitis. It is sometimes accompanied by an itching in the throat as well as soreness and a hoarse voice. It can be caused by inhalers of the type used by asthmatics. If you use an inhaler and develop fungal laryngitis your doctor can help.

Finally, (for this list) there is mechanical laryngitis which is caused by overuse or misuse of the voice. Shouting, screaming, talking loudly for long periods and bad vocal technique are all causes of mechanical laryngitis. Nodes are also caused by violent use or overuse of the voice. With nodes a callus is formed at the point where the two vocal folds are in contact the most. The more the voice is used the more the callus grows until eventually it prevents the vocals folds from closing properly. This causes a raspy voice and instead of one clear note being produced two frequencies can result as air pushes past each side of the callus or nodule that has formed. Good vocal technique is the best way to avoid these problems. Working with a singing teacher or a vocal coach will help you with your technique and so help to circumvent mechanical damage.

To boil it all down

Keep hydrated, don't smoke, avoid people with colds, flu and coughs, adopt good rules of hygiene, limit alcohol intake, try not to eat or drink spicy or acidic things late at night and improve vocal technique with the aid of a coach. Should you suffer from vocal problems the best thing for it, in most cases, is rest. This mean not using your voice. If you have to speak it's better to speak softly than to whisper as whispering causes more trauma to the vocal cords.

Warm up

Warming up your voice before a show is good practice. A search on YouTube will return a number of videos showing how to warm up your voice. This is one of them picked at random that shows one of the exercises you can do. Its called the lip trill:

Your Tips & Tricks

A while ago I asked a question on the EntsWeb Facebook page: How do you protect and look after your singing voice?

These are the responses that were posted:

Guy Young: I use cold water before a gig and Pineapple Juice during it

EntsWeb : Pineapple juice is interesting. It contains bromelain which breaks down protein but it's thought to have anti-inflammatory properties. It's also recommended for dry mouths as it very good for saliva production. Anyone else use it?

Shelley Moore: A sip of dark rum – preferably Woods. It will burn the phelgm away – just don;t use it in excess if you are driving! Vocalzones are also excellent.

Amanda Seal: I can't drink anything but water when I'm singing as anything else gives me a “Juicy mouth” ha!! Plenty of sleep the night before a gig, always warm the voice up before u sing is a Must & warm down is Important for longevity of the voice.

Shelley Moore: And the BIGGEST tip – Make sure you ask everyone you are working with to NOT use spray deodorant. Think about how it dries your armpits! Plus a lot of the scented ones are hugely allergenic. Lynx Africa is one of the worst!

Jenny Green: been singing for 30 years never had a throat so bad it stopped me from performing. Just keep singing every day is the answer very sugary tea helps relax the throat.

Peter D Hill Singer: lots of water, good night rest but not too much — allow good four hours, between waking up and singing so don't be getting out of bed at 3pm – vocal zones, and any sweets that keep your mouth relaxed and not dry ( airwaves is my favourite, keep your voice ready for long periods of sustained singing practise makes perfect n all that ,no good not doing any practise for 4 days then expecting your voice to hold out for 3 days of gigs

Jackie Bithell Roberts: Vocalzone are very good ! Also sips of brandy works for me and water no ice and not over doing it ,know your limit xx

Stacey Young Steam inhalation and nasal decongestant spray. I also use brandy and honey to gargle if desperate. Asprin in a small amount of water gargled is meant to work a treat too

Nicky Davis I am also a fan of the 'Water, no Ice' approach, warm water with a slice of lemon is even better. Port helps too (but not half a bottle haha!). Avoid talking between sets, hum and 'ahh' your scales before you go on. If you front a noisy live band like me, make sure you can hear yourself by using good ear-plugs and getting your monitor mix right, this will prevent over-singing everything just so you can hear your own voice. Then have a nice hot cup of tea when you get home

Rich Parsons Dont smoke. Or shout or sing either side of your shows! Stay quiet..it adds mystery to how people see u as well!!

Rich Parsons Well…you have rehearsals of course so u may have to sing but i rehearse in my head with my iPod on the train. I can sing easily enuff..so usually its just cues and stops in my backing tracks to run thru.

Nicky Hambling I have nodules at the moment from abusing my voice, anyone know any good remedies for that, rather than surgery?

Regine Candler Re: Nodules – get to see a consultant ent specialist who works with singers….then arrange to work with a specialist singing coach…whatever else you do, do not sing with nodules as you will certainly destroy your range. In ear monitoring is excellent and I agree, make sure you can hear yourself clearly. Peggy Lee fought against loud confident and wrong musicians till one day she started whispering her vocals….everyone quietened down to hear her…thus a legend was born. Alcohol dries the throat so lay off it…I use honey and cider vinegar in a tiny drop of hot water – also honey and ginger tea works well..Diaphragmatic breathing tecniques are a MUST and warm up before a gig / cool down after….I'm still rocking at 59 and 40+ years in the biz!!!!

Stephen Hawkins Sandersons throat specific! i never leave home without a bottle!

Dom Ramos Camellia Johnson (“The best voice in America”- Leonard Bernstein) told me she eats bananas, and Maria Callas is said to have used a generous pinch of marjoram/oregano in a mug of boiling water; let cool and drink.

Tom Lake Vocalzones and honey in my tea also warm up properly scales etc. but the best I've heard from my days in a Commitments Tribute band was eat a lot of liquorice for a ropey throat it does work but don't ask me how.

James Carter Stringfellow first learn to sing this helps a lot .wear a scarf to protect throat area .gargle with thyme and honey .good posture good breathing .DONT SMOKE:

Peter Clarke Drink plenty prior to performing , the throat is the last area to be hydrated. , Avoid Cola's and coffee and acidic drinks too. Never sing with a sore throat it puts strain on the vocal chords . Make sure the sound guy(or Gal) knows what they are doing too , a poor sound set up will make you stretch beyond comfort got that from (James Carter Stringfellow) Potters Catarrh pastilles will clear all the tubes , as long as you can stand the taste lol .

Stormy Flick besides proper warm ups to protect singing voice avoic smoking and dusty places… For sore throat ~to coat raw honey w/lemon juice. A natural gargle is chlorohille & sea salt (1/2 teas in warm water) every few hrs. Drink plenty of liquids ~fresh juice is best. Liquid Vit C is good to sip.

Starr Hinzo Gargle with warm salt water! And you can get a humidifier for your room when you are sleeping!

Jose Zuniga Brush your teeth and tongue when your throat feels scratchy and dry. Stay away from dairy products and caffeine. Suck on lemons both green and yellow when your throat is not sore or dry. The green ones are called limes, but they are not limes. Limes are green and the size of an orange and sweeter than an orange.

Simon Farrell Sandersons Throat pastles abducted liquid oh abducted Manuka Honey it's amazing stuff

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