Most singers at the recreational level have had little or no training. But, according to speech pathologist and voice consultant Joanna Cazden, this can put them at risk for vocal strain. “Who would run a half-marathon without learning a bit about running technique and pacing? Singing is equally athletic, just with tinier muscles! But people are often afraid to take voice lessons because they want to sound “natural” and authentic as a person, and they imagine that a teacher will destroy that. The best training helps you sound better and stronger, and to sing with more variety—able to express yourself even more freely than before,” she asserts.
Typical symptoms of vocal strain are a rough or breathy voice, difficulty reaching high notes or singing and talking quietly, and exerting extra effort to sing at all. If you begin experiencing these symptoms, Cazden says you should stop pushing. “Plan a day or two of focused recovery: minimal talking or singing, long showers to ‘steam’ the vocal chords, and only a few minutes at a time of very gentle singing in your mid-range,” she says. Her recovery program is detailed in her book, Everyday Voice Care: The Lifestyle Guide for Singers and Talkers (Hal Leonard Books, 2012), which contains many tips for avoiding strain.
So what’s at the root of this vocal problem? “Most commonly, the voice patients I see have an organic or medical cause combined with overuse or misuse,” she says. For example, someone who has had bronchitis and a lingering bad cough the same week as the Christmas concert. Other ailments that often contribute to vocal strain include sinus infections, acid reflux, and allergies.
What constitutes overuse varies from person to person. “A well-trained voice can handle greater amounts and extremes of use, so the real issue is of someone singing longer, harder, or higher than they personally can do safely. Some voices are just more robust than others,” Cazden explains. “A light, more delicate instrument used to belt musical theater or death-metal would be a serious mismatch, like a dulcimer trying to sound like a baritone sax!”
Cazden explains how a vocal coach or speech pathologist can help even recreational singers. A voice coach takes an untrained voice and makes it wonderful, while a speech pathologist is trained to get people out of problems when they have a diagnosed medical condition. “Ideally, the teacher or speech therapist gets to know you, your unique vocal instrument, your concerns and goals, and shows you how to be safe, as well as expressive—better on key or in sustained notes,” she says.
Cazden wrote the book, Everyday Voice Care, to give singers as much clear information as possible, fact versus folklore. Here are some of her common sense tips and facts about vocal health:
- Take your voice seriously.
- Get some training and learn what works for you without getting overwhelmed.
- It’s not normal to sound husky, rough, or crackly, even if some of your friends think it’s cool or sexy.
- It’s not reasonable to have a job where you talk all day and then expect you can sing hard at night.
- Drink more water and less coffee, more tea and less alcohol.
- Don’t do heavy weight-lifting. It forces vocal cord muscles to close tightly and take on the pressure of the weight.
- Stop hollering at your family up and downstairs, or to your friends over party noise or background music.
- Pay attention to digestive, sinus, spine, or sleep problems as they can compromise your voice.
- Choose humid environments over dry.
- Rest your voice by letting other people talk.
- Warm up your brain and body before you warm up your voice.
- Be willing to be thought of as a “diva,” because that’s usually a sign that you’re doing enough to protect your voice.