The effect of alcohol on singing

How often have you sat in a club and watched the singer down drinks on their set breaks? In certain genres of music it's so common you’d think alcohol was the singer’s drink! Singers who drink and sing usually do it to "take the edge off" or help them through performance anxiety, which is completely understandable. In fact, some vocalists might say that their performance is better, more creative, and more emotionally connected, after a drink or two. However, let's consider the facts, what alcohol really does to your voice, so you can make an informed choice whether or not you want to drink before heading onstage.

The anatomy of a drink

Whatever emotional associations one may have about liquor, for the body alcohol is a poison. And as with any poison, a small amount is a stimulant which will give you a “buzz” and larger amounts are sedatives which can cause you to lose motor control. The body releases fluids to rid itself of this poison and so urination increases after drinking alcohol. This extra fluid release tends to dehydrate the body and especially the vocal folds.

Your vocal folds are small muscles encased in mucous membrane. They need to be fully hydrated and pliable in order to perform the subtle and precise movements demanded by singing. Alcohol’s dehydrating effect makes this difficult, so it is recommended that singers wait until after performing to have a celebratory drink. Then drink lots of water to help your body regain normal fluid levels and wait about 24 hours before singing again.

Alcohol may increase production of mucous which gums up your vocal folds. Additionally, your body uses up its stores of B vitamins to counteract the effects of alcohol. B vitamins are essential nutrients for the proper function of your nervous system which controls your muscles. Alcohol dehydrates your vocal folds, gets mucous in the way, and hinders your nervous system from controlling your vocal muscles well.

Alcohol has a numbing effect on your throat and reduces awareness that you may be using too much force. A few hours post-performance, you might feel hoarse and sore, not realizing that you pushed your voice too hard. A dangerous, but rare, effect of alcohol is blood capillary dilation, which creates the perfect storm of potentially rupturing a vocal fold blood vessel during a performance.

Pal or poison? 

Alcohol is a seductive solution to stage fright, which most performers, even seasoned ones, experience regularly. Performance anxiety can be so uncomfortable that a drink, however unhealthy, seems a small price to pay in order to remove some of that discomfort. Keep in mind that the audience's perception of you will not change whether you're drinking or not - only your own perception of yourself will change, as your brain experiences the distorted reality of drinking. While you may perceive yourself as confident, outgoing and socially savvy after drinking, the audience might see you as sloppy, unprofessional, out of tune, or over-the-top dramatic.

While I can't honestly say that I've never used drinking to ease stage fright, I can report that I've created a strict personal limit of one drink while performing, and only in situations where other tactics don't work first. I encourage you to check out some of the resources available on this site on meditation for performersexposure therapymuscle relaxation and other performance anxiety solutions so that you can be fully informed and well rounded in your arsenal of battling stage anxiety.

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