Vocal fatigue is exhaustion of the vocal folds resulting in hoarseness, weak, scratchy or breathy tone, throat pain, and lost or breaking notes. Common causes of vocal fatigue include excessive speaking on the job or at social functions, yelling, shouting and other forced vocal production, excessive singing, particularly in extremes of your range or with improper production, speaking at an unnatural pitch, common colds and respiratory illnesses, dehydration, and excessive coughing.
As much as singers, speakers and actors may do their best to avoid the above situations, ending up with vocal fatigue is sometimes inevitable. The occasional bout of vocal fatigue is normal and can usually be healed by a day or so of vocal rest and hydration. However, chronic vocal fatigue can be very damaging, may result in permanent changes to the voice, and can be a symptom of other more serious health conditions. If you are experiencing chronic vocal fatigue that your voice teacher can’t help you solve, make an appointment to see your general practitioner or a speech pathology specialist.
If you feel your voice starting to get tired, the very best thing you can do is to stop using it completely for a couple of hours up to a couple of days, depending on the severity of your condition. However, if you are in the middle of a performance or work event and must continue speaking, the following techniques can preserve the voice you have left:
Talk less, and slower.
Allow others to dominate the conversation and be thoughtful about how you could get the same point across with fewer words or increased body language. If you are on a performance break, sit in silence rather than chit-chatting with friends and fellow singers. Speak slower, as it makes your tongue and articulator muscles less fatigued. To build tongue strength, try the following exercise: move your tongue up and down, and side to side, without moving your jaw along with it.
The vocal cords and surrounding anatomy is one of the most sensitive areas of the body to internal hydration, and is one of the first places to dry out when the body is short on water. Although it feels pleasant going down, drinking water won’t immediately hydrate your vocal cords. Water needs to circulate fully through your digestive system and into your bloodstream in order to reach the vocal cords, therefore, staying well hydrated in the hours and days prior to a speaking or singing event is critical. In general, staying well hydrated has numerous benefits to overall health and is recommended for singers and non-singers alike. For further details on taking a common sense approach to vocal and general health, read up on vocal hygiene.
Avoid glottal starts.
A glottal start is a type of onset, or way in which a singer initiates the first sound of a musical phrase that begins with a vowel. There are two main types of onset: 1) glottal and 2) gliding. A glottal onset begins with the vocal folds against each other in full contact and will sound detached, sometimes with a slight cracking sound. A great example is the way we speak the phrase “uh-oh,” as both the U and the O sound start with that slight cracking sound.
A gliding onset occurs when the vocal folds are not touching, allowing a little bit of air to leak through the middle, as the singer fades gradually into the pitch with no audible crack or abrupt sound.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with using a glottal start, as it’s a necessary and useful technique when used properly, when overused it causes friction on the vocal cords and over time will result in hoarseness and even vocal nodules in extreme cases. If you are singing a piece that doesn’t specify the type of onset required, and you find yourself tired halfway through, opt to finish the remainder of the piece with a gliding onset on words starting with vowels. For a more detailed explanation of glottal and gliding onset techniques, see Set 2 of Vocal Exercises for Beginning Singers.
Stop coughing and clearing your throat.
Similar to glottal starts, coughing and clearing your throat makes the vocal folds come together, but in an even more forceful, damaging way. A cough essentially makes your cords crash into each other in order to get them to vibrate, which in turn makes the phlegm fall off. Instead, try humming, an equally effective but much gentler way to make the cords vibrate and remove phlegm.
Speak at a slightly higher pitch than you’re used to.
Data suggests that people respect those with lower voices, both male and female, and regard them with more authority. For this reason many people speak slightly below where their natural speaking pitch lies, without even realizing it. Speaking this way for long periods is uncomfortable and will cause vocal fatigue in a hurry. Make an effort to speak at a slightly higher pitch than you normally would, and you’ll get a lot more miles out of your voice.
The simplest and best way to avoid and recover from vocal fatigue is to rest, meaning to be silent. Don’t over-rehearse, avoid jobs where speaking is required all day such as sales or teaching, and make careful choices about screaming at concerts and sports games. For further suggestions on how to practice effectively for voice study, read this article.
For specific questions related to how you’re using your voice, consult a voice teacher.
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