How To Take Care of Your Voice

The human voice is one of creation’s most marvellous instruments. The average speaking voice is capable of a vast range of tones, sounds, and inflections. A singer’s voice is even more spectacular, and needs to be taken care of or else — like any unloved instrument — it will warp, crack and break.

To understand how to care for your voice, it helps to understand how it works. Vocalisation is produced when air coming from your lungs passes through your vocal folds (also known as your vocal cords) making them vibrate. In general, male vocal cords are longer than female vocal cords; like the bass string on a harp, longer vocal cords produce a deeper note.

Most vocalising is done without thinking, but when you’re singing, it pays to be conscious of the mechanics. You move your vocal cords around to produce a different pitch, volume and timbre: higher, lower, louder, softer, thinner or thicker. To make a lower note, for example, you stretch your vocal cords to make them longer. You do this by widening the opening of the vocal fold in your throat. To make a higher note, you close up the fold. You use other parts of your throat, mouth, head and chest to change the timbre of the note. You can direct the sound up through your nose, or down into your diaphragm, to change its timbre and resonance. You can also use your nose and sinus cavities to increase resonance.

There are various schools of thought concerning proper vocal technique, some based on hundreds of years of practice, and others hinging on more recent science and theory (see Meet & Greet). Also, there is a dominant cultural bias in what we in the Western world appreciate as "good” vocal technique — have a listen to a Bulgarian choir or Tuvan throat singing to get a radically different view.

Much of what we typically describe as "good” singing flows from the Bel Canto tradition. Bel Canto, meaning "beautiful singing,” is a vocal technique that originated in Italy in the 16th century; it’s the style we associate with opera. Bel Canto was really the first widely appreciated technical approach to singing, and focused primarily on breath control. Now, obviously, popular music in the last hundred years has very little to do with the kind of music associated with Bel Canto. Yet our appreciation of the aesthetics of voice, and most formal voice training, generally begin there.

According to Bel Canto, every singer has four stages of voice. The first, the chest voice, is the voice we use to talk and do most of our singing. Chest voice is the most natural range for most singers. Next in the range are middle voice, head voice and falsetto. Every singer can naturally produce tones in these ranges, but doing it with control and prevention of injury to your vocal cords takes technique and practice. Rock singers in particular tend to do dangerous things to their voices — shouting, growling and belting it out puts a lot of stress on your cords and vocal muscles.

One of the most important things you should learn as a singer is to find your range and try to work, as much as possible, in that range. One way to do this is to talk — just talk — as you plink around on a piano keyboard. Sooner or later you will find a note or series of notes in the range of your normal speaking voice. Since your speaking voice is generally the "resting” position, this is the place to start exercising your voice.

No matter what the school of technique, it’s agreed that you can minimise the damage by exercising responsibly. Daily vocal exercises are a very good idea. If you don’t have a voice coach or a set of exercises handy, then at least you should try to sing every day. Find a quiet spot where you can give ‘er without being embarrassed by roomies or parents walking through. This may well be the shower, and so be it. Run through a range of songs, starting with something you love and find easy to sing, moving along through songs that may be more of a challenge, range-wise. (When you’re feeling confident, have a go at the Billy Strayhorn standard, "Lush Life.” If you can sing that, you’re good to go.)

When you are practicing, try not to force your voice. Yodelling is a sure sign you are pushing too hard. Be conscious of how you are breathing. Try to fill your lungs with each intake to increase your capacity and breath control. Always try to warm up before a gig by singing for an hour or so during the day, and then giving yourself a 15-minute warm-up before you take the stage. Being relaxed will most definitely improve your performance, so chill out in a quiet room if you can. Do some relaxing shoulder and side stretches to give your lungs room. Stretch your neck as well. Drink plenty of fluids (by which we mean water, not bourbon!) to keep your whole body and voice lubricated. Avoid drinking buckets of coffee, beer and other diuretics: they dry you out.

This should be obvious, but smoking is really bad for your voice. Never mind the lung cancer, but the most immediate problem is that smoke dries out your vocal cords and decreases your lung capacity. You need to keep your vocal cords lubricated and your lungs clear. Herbal teas made with ginger and licorice will help. Some singers swear by chewing raw ginger, and others glug down Buckley’s Mixture to get their lungs opened up, but beware: these may also have an anaesthetic effect on your voice.

If you happen to get a cold or flu, avoid taking aspirin: it’s a blood-thinner and could make bleeding vocal cord injuries more likely. Ask your doctor whether you can take ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) instead. And try not to use nasal decongestants or sprays: they dry you out like seaweed on gravel. Knock off the dairy products, especially drinking milk. Consuming a lot of dairy increases mucus production — it gunks up your nasal passages, which are needed to increase air intake and vocal resonance.

When you are singing — either at home or on stage — mind your posture. It’s hard to make pretty noises when you are hunched over, so stand up straight. You’ll sound better and you’ll find it easier to get command of both song and audience from an upright position.
One last thing you can do to keep your voice sounding its best is to use your sound check properly. Make sure you can hear yourself without having to wail. If the sound mixer says she’s given you all the monitor she can and you still can’t hear yourself, get your bandmates to turn the hell down and don’t take any flak. After all, if your guitarist blows a cone, he can always buy another one. As a singer, you only have the one. Be good to it!