As the holidays draw closer, the time for frequent gigs, concerts, and caroling are here. While it’s certainly a time to enjoy, it’s not as fun if you’re constantly fighting a hoarse voice.
While it’s always important to keep best practices for vocal health in mind, the sheer volume of singing we usually do during “the most wonderful time of the year” makes it vital that you really are diligent about it if you want to avoid phono-trauma.
What is Phono-Trauma?
I’m sure you know that you spend a lot more time singing during this season than any other.
All that extra rehearsal time and performances can cause phono-trauma. Phono-trauma is fancy way of saying vocal injury. Some people may say that hoarse voice is synonymous with vocal injury, but really it’s only a symptom of the damage that’s been done.
The actual damage is vocal fold swelling, inflammation and bleeding and ultimately could lead to vocal nodules or polyps.
What Causes Vocal Injury?
There are lots of ways that you can injure your voice. Doing these things every once in a while won’t cause permanent damage, but doing them frequently can.
And during the holidays, you’re singing so much more than usual that it’s highly likely that you are doing these things too much.
Here is a (not exhaustive) list of causes of phono-trauma:
- Repeated attempts to achieve perfect high notes.
- Insufficient lubrication.
- Lack of warming up before rehearsing.
- Inconsistent use of good technique.
- Singing for extended periods of time beyond what you’re used to.
- Failing to rest the voice sufficiently.
- Singing at a loud dynamic for extended periods of time beyond what you’re used to (regardless of the total time spent singing).
- Continuing singing after your voice is already overused.
Again, these won’t cause vocal damage doing them once in a while, but consistently abusing your voice will.
How can I Avoid Vocal Injury Over the Holidays?
Here is a list of 8 things to remember to keep your voice healthy over the holidays.
1. Stop repeating phrases (especially high in your voice) over and over.
High notes sound high because they are high frequency sound waves. That means that the vocal folds have to vibrate faster and faster the higher you sing.
In turn, your vocal folds collide more for high notes than for low notes, even if the note is the same length.
Then add to that the fact that your vocal folds have to stretch to create high pitches and now you’ve added the issue of muscle extensibility to the mix.
Excessive vibration and collision of the vocal folds means more friction and more friction requires more lubrication.
That leads me to #2.
2. Stay Hydrated
I’ve talked about this one before, so I won’t belabour the point, but drinking enough water throughout the day is absolutely vital to your vocal health.
This is even more true during the holidays. If your body isn’t sufficiently hydrated, then your mucosal membranes can’t produce enough mucus. Furthermore, the mucus they do make is thick.
Remember to drink throughout the day because the water you drink will never actually touch the vocal cords. The epiglottis prevents this as an evolutionary adaptation to keep you from drowning when you drink.
3. Always Warm up Before Singing for Long or Intense Periods of Time
I can’t emphasize this one enough. In fact, I’ve written an entire blog post about why it’s important to warm up. Sufficiently warming up your voice is akin to warning up your body before exercise.
You wouldn’t do a series of high intensity intervals without warming up first, so why would you do intense singing without doing warm-ups?
Make sure that your warm up includes all the facets of a good singing prep:
- Breath support.
- Phonation (sing production).
- Resonance (voice placement).
- Covers your full vocal range (or at least the range of your repertoire).
- Agility (ability of the voice to change pitch quickly).
If you’re not sure how to do that, or you don’t think you have enough time for all that use these go-to quick warm-ups to get it done in less than 2 minutes.
4. Use good vocal technique.
This one has several facets. In fact most of those facets of a good warm up are working on the vocal techniques that help you avoid injury (not to mention, make you some better, too!)
Use good breath support throughout rehearsal.
Too often, singers do breath support exercise during the warm up and then forget to use it during the actual rehearsal.
Remembering to apply good breathing technique during the whole rehearsal will reduce your vocal fatigue, allowing you to sing for longer periods of time.Let’s face it, holiday rehearsals are loooong. You have to use every tool in your toolbox to make it through.
Use the breathing technique post I’ve written to help you improve your breath support.
Use good phonation
Phonation is the actual production of sound. It’s the process of your vocal folds coming together coordinated with the release of the breath to create a vibration.
When your phonation is dysfunctional, it will definitely become apparent during the holidays as you incorrectly phonate over and over.
Use the phonation post I’ve written to learn how to correctly produce vocal sound.
Use Good Voice Placement
Voice placement (aka resonance) is how you shape your pharynx. Your pharynx is the space that the sound bounces around in before it exits your mouth. It’s what creates the timbre of your voice- what makes your voice unique.
Think about it like this: all string instruments have a neck, strings, and body, but they don’t all sound the same. Why? Because the body of the instrument (the resonator) is shaped and/or sized differently.
The same is true for the singing voice. Your skull, nasal passages, mouth, tongue, and teeth are unique to you.
Even if you have an identical twin, there are likely slight differences between you. Making sure that your pharynx is optimally shaped (aka vowel production) will allow for ease of singing.
5. Keep the amount of time singing to a minimum (as much as possible).
It’s probably fair to say that you aren’t used to singing quite this much, quite this frequently.I’m being that your rehearsal schedule is jam packed, so do yourself a favor and limit recreational singing (in the car, in the shower, etc).
Think about it this way: Your voice has quota at which it can optimally function.
Once you exceed that quota, it gets fatigued.
Imagine that you’re used to singing a total of 3 hours a week (just picking a number here) including all rehearsal and recreational singing.
Say that usually you have a 90 minute rehearsal once a week for one choir. Maybe during this season, rehearsal is 2 hours instead.
Then, because of the season, maybe you have multiple rehearsals or gigs a week and that adds at least another hour to hour and a half of singing per engagement.
Now you’ve already gone way beyond the amount you’re used to doing and you haven’t even uttered one note in the car. Nor have you done any outside-of-rehearsal practice.
So it’s a good idea to keep the use of your voice outside rehearsal and performances to a minimum.
That leads me to #6.
6. Rest your voice as often and as much as possible.
With the drastic shift of the ratio of rehearsal singing to recreational singing, means that the type of singing you are engaging in is most likely considered “heavy use.”
In other words, during normal times of the year, you do a lot more “easy” singing and a lot less technically difficult singing. During the holidays, that gets reversed.
This shift makes vocal rest imperative. So make sure to rest as often as possible – meaning when you’re not rehearsing, try to avoid using your voice, even to talk unless you really need to.
This means that, while you won’t want to, you should minimize the after-party appearances.
This is especially true if alcohol use bring served as alcohol dehydrated the body.
Of course you’ll want to talk to the guests and fellow performers. Add an already fatigued voice (from the concert/gig) to dehydration (from alcohol) as well as extra use (from the party) and you have a recipe for vocal injury.
What will happen if you don’t do this absolutely necessary vocal health care?
Lack of rest after heavy singing may result in vocal fold edema. That’s a fancy way if saying that you’ll develop excessive fluid in the margin of (around) the vocal folds. Basically, swelling.
This results in a lower fundamental frequency during speech or singing. AKA, if you weren’t a bass before, you’ll feel like one and all the notes you used to think weren’t high, suddenly are.
7. Don’t use your “full voice” all the time.
Repetitive rehearsals of a specific piece lead by directors, producers and conductors who know little about the voice are most likely to cause voice problems.I know, you’re in a choir (or 3) and you’ll be performing Handel’s Messiah. That means you’ll be practicing the Hallelujah Chorus for roughly a million hours (or that’s what it seems like anyway).
No matter which voice part you sing in that piece, it’s vocally taxing. It definitely qualifies as heavy singing.
Add to that a director whose always telling you to “sing out” and you’ve got a recipe for overuse (and injury).
Use sotto-voce (half-voice) as much as possible while rehearsing musical elements other than dynamics. Even if your director is telling at you to “sing out,” don’t take it personally.
It’s not healthy to sing as loud as you can for extended periods of time unless your voice has been conditioned for it and is already used to that.
And really, when else during the year are you doing that? Chances are, your voice isn’t prepared for that kind of use.
When it gets closer to the concert, then use your full voice.
8. Know when to call it quits.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: you have to know when your voice has had enough.
When you start to notice your voice getting tired, you need to stop singing- and talking. Going back to #6, you need to rest your voice. If you’ve gotten to this point, you probably didn’t do #6-rest your voice.
Once you’ve gotten to this point, you’re going to need more test than if you had rested intermittently. That means you need to know how to recognize the symptoms of phono-trauma.
Obviously, a hoarse voice is a clear indication that is fine too take a break from singing.However, there are early warning signs to watch out for before it gets too that point.Some things that may occur before the voice is hoarse are:
- Difficulty or inability to sing high softly and/or legato.
- Difficulty achieving normal quality of the voice.
- High notes that are preceded by the escape of air before the vocal folds come together (difficulty phonating).
- Presence of a voice break, particularly one you didn’t have before, or reemergence of one that you’ve worded to minimize.
- Vocal instability while softly singing a glide or when performing loud to soft sing.
Loss of vocal “brilliance..”
Avoid Making it Worse
Compounding Vocal Injury
The most difficult part of having a vocal injury is not making it worse.
1. Trying Too Hard
You might be tempted to try harder and harder to perform because singing gets so hard once phono-trauma is present.
Because your vocal cords are swollen, phonation becomes much more difficult. In order to produce sound, you have to use more force. That excess force of collision makes your vocal cords even more swollen.
Which makes phonation that much more difficult.Which causes you to use more force to make any sound at all.
Which causes more swelling…. Which causes more force….It’s a vicious, vicious cycle.
And it all end with a hoarse voice, or even no give at all. That’s why it’s so important to know when to call it quits.
2. Clearing Your Throat
Another thing that causes compounding vocal injury is clearing your throat and coughing. When your vocal folds are inflamed, more mucus is produced. This mucus feels dry and lacks lubrication.
It makes you feel like you need to chest your throat. But making that “eh- eh- eh-” sound slams your vocal cords together violently.
Guess what results from that?
You got it-more swelling.
And more swelling leads to more mucus.
More mucus = more clearing your throat and coughing.
Clearing your throat and coughing = more swelling. Another vicious cycle.
The Best Way to Care For Your Voice During the Holidays
During the stressful times of the holidays, it is easy to compromise one or more of these conditions resulting in vocal problems.
- The best way to take care of your voice, especially during the holidays, is to know your own voice and to perform a “check list” about the status of your voice during the warm-up.
- Don’t push your voice beyond its limits you want to avoid vocal health problems.
- Heed the early warning signs of an injury and stop singing.