Have you heard the term vocal hygiene? It sounds complicated, (and possibly messy?), but it's very simple - vocal hygiene is the care of your voice by being aware and making choices based on how your voice and your health in general are affected by various environmental factors such as foods, drinks, weather, sleep, hormones, stress and other elements. Your vocal mechanism (and your body as a whole) is your instrument. Just like any good guitarist, violinist, or saxophonist knows how to care for his or her instrument (what kinds of temperatures and moisture levels to avoid, how to maintain its level of repair, etc.), a good singer must be diligent when it comes to maintaining his or her own vocal and overall physical health. In some ways, vocalists are lucky that when they travel their instrument is easily transportable, inside their bodies! However, with that convenience comes a price: vocalists must be much more careful about what they put in their bodies and how they take care of their health.
Vocal hygiene is made of up the following elements:
- Food: choosing nourishing, hydrating foods gives your body the energy it needs to perform the physical work of singing. Avoid fast food, packaged foods, foods high in man-made chemicals.
- Drink: singers need to get 64+ ounces per day of water, and avoid alcohol and coffee when performing.
- Sleep: the amount of rest you get affects your vocal folds and their ability to stretch, adapt and respond quickly to musical demands.
- Hormones: the current mix of stress hormones, sex hormones, adrenaline, cortisol, seratonin and other chemicals in your body will determine how energized or relaxed your body is as a whole, which in turn determines the pliability of your vocal apparatus.
- Emotional stress: as described above (stress hormones). The people and situations you choose to include in your life will play a large role in your physical health.
- Exercise level: your general fitness level determines the body's ability to distribute hydration and nutrients, and energize your muscles for the physical demands of singing. On a more short term level, exercising the day of a performance will help reset your hormones to relaxed, focused levels ideal for performing.
- Medications, supplements: many prescription medications, over the counter medications, vitamins and supplements cause dehydration.
- Weather: cold, dry climates are a challenge in that they dehydrate your body and vocal folds. If you live in an environment like this, sleeping with a humidifier can be helpful.
- Environment, air quality: related to weather, people who spend a lot of time in airplanes, air conditioned or heated environments will want to consider a humidifier (or a travel size humidifier) to preserve vocal hydration.
- Usage: over-usage of the voice such as yelling at sports games, talking in loud bars, singing forcefully with improper technique, or speaking at an unnatural pitch will all damage the vocal muscles and resonating areas. If you participate in these activities regularly, you can do chronic and permanent damage to your voice.
- Hydration: hydration is a multi-faceted phenomenon tied to most of the items listed above. Hydration is the #1 key to vocal health, as your vocal folds, muscles and resonating areas are all extremely sensitive to water levels. However, hydration is not as simple as drinking extra water on the day of your performance; it is an everyday routine comprised of all the elements on this list working together.
Most of vocal hygiene is common sense and are things most people want to do for their general health regardless. Your body is in constant flux with the above elements, and although you may not have control over where you live or what medications you must take, there are steps you can take to compensate for those drying, unhealthy elements, in order to keep your body in a hydrated and healthy balance.
Think of singing as you would a sport: to play at your peak, you need to attend practices, train, stretch, feed and hydrate yourself well, and sleep well. When you get out on the court to play basketball, you call upon your healthy muscles to do the work for you, and get the ball into the basket. When you step on stage for a singing performance, you are calling upon your vocal muscles to be rested, healthy and ready, so they can do the work for you.
As singers, we need to care for our voices the way we need to care for our cars. We can’t just assume our voice will always be healthy no matter what. With a regular routine of keeping healthy and hydrated, you'll be able to push your vocal apparatus a little bit here and there without damaging it. You'll be able to withstand the normal wear and tear of life and musicianship.
For more information about vocal techniques and how to condition your voice for health and performance, pick up a copy of our Vocal Exercises eBook, which covers practical warm ups for range, agility, vibrato, resonance, and more.
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