Q & A: Keeping Your Voice Healthy on and off the Road
Today’s blog is all about your voice and keeping your vocals healthy for a long successful career. A big thanks to my current intern Trevor Kidd for helping me compile these questions and vocal coach Monica Sui for answering the Q&A for us. Hope you enjoy!
The human voice is an incredibly unique asset to our genetic makeup that with the right training and years of practice can become an astoundingly powerful instrument. It’s important to remember that although a powerful tool your voice can also be very fragile which is why it’s vital you take special care to make sure it stays working the way you want it to. You can’t just head down to your local music store and pick out a new set of pipes like you would a guitar so it’s imperative to make sure the ones you have last. Vocal damage can take months to recover from and in some nightmare cases even be permanent depending on how bad. World renown rock and now Country singer Steven Tyler did a special on National Geographic a few years back revealing he suffered bleeding in his vocal cords due to years of vocal abuse and through medical monitoring doctors learned Steven’s vocal cords slapped together over half a million times during a full Aerosmith concert. That’s a lot of wear and tear. Canadian rock singer Chad Kroeger recently had to cancel the rest of Nickelback’s world tour due to a vocal injury. So as you can see even the largest touring acts run into trouble with their voices. So whether you’re an internationally touring star or just playing the local bars in your home town, if you’re a singer this article is for you.
We were fortunate enough to have vocal coach Monica Siu join us and answer a few questions on what we need to know about the voice and how to survive on and off the road as a singer.
Q: What are some common misconceptions about vocal training?
A: So many….here a few:
- You are either born with a good voice or not
With help and determination, someone with an average voice can improve their vocal quality significantly and learn artistry skills to bring their performance to a professional level. Personally in my vocal coaching career I have seen singers with seemingly “average” voices transition into successful careers. Similarly, a singer with a great sounding voice to begin with, but understands that voice is their product and vocal trains to maximizes their vocal ability, will have that “extra edge” over other singers. The music industry is a business and they want to sell the best product out there. Building strength, range, flexibility, and learning different style options will also ensure longevity of their voice over the course of their career.
- “I don’t need vocal training”
Those who are seriously on the “pro-track” need to recognize that they are vocal athletes and vocal training is an essential investment that will pay off. Right now, when the gigs are just beginning to come in, is the best time to invest in training their voice. Just as the casual jogger would train and build up to running a marathon, the pro-track artist can use vocal training to convert bad/limiting vocal habits into good ones as well as build their range and strength so that as their singing schedule gets more demanding, they are vocally in shape to handle that.
For actively touring artists, as all voices are different, they definitely need their personalized “vocal strategy” and set of exercises specifically to counter their vocal challenges and habits to stay in shape “on the road”. There is no room for “losing your voice” or seriously damaging your voice while on tour and others are depending on you to make their living too. This is essential to combat the challenging conditions of traveling life and back to back performances with little or no down time in between. Call it an insurance policy and taking care of your musical family/team too.
- “I’m ok most of the time, and if I can’t hit the note, I can get away with powering through, pushing or pulling the high notes”
True, sometimes we can get away “pushing, pulling, squeezing” or whatever you want to call it, but the vocal quality is difficult to control, inconsistent, often is pitchy, difficult, lacks depth, power and styling flexibility to express your song. It actually takes more vocal control to expressively sing something higher in a quiet intense way, than “powering through or blasting” through high notes. Also, depending on your vocal and overall health, vocal habits, how much you use your voice, what conditions you are using your voice under, at some point you will experience limitations. This can range from breaks in the voice and being unable to sing from low to high in a consistent and controlled manner and vocal fatigue, to loss of voice or even serious permanent vocal damage. Keep in mind, this can happen at any time and the recovery period for vocal damage can often be long and expensive. In very extreme cases surgery and extended long periods of vocal rest may be required. Specifically strengthening the voice through targeted vocal training results in control over, consistency and flexibility in your voice and performance. Ultimately you are protecting your “product” and ensuring that you can continue your career (or to work) and generating an income (for yourself and your musical team who may be counting on you).
- “I don’t have time to take vocal lessons or practice the targeted practice exercises”
Vocal lessons will actually help you save time practicing. How many times have we sung that area in the song “over and over again” because we can’t reach the note, or it’s not quite the quality we want etc? It’s is spending 10-20 minutes maximum on exercises and applying those principles practiced into your songs you practice. You have to practice your set list songs anyways. Why not have your voice in optimum shape to go through your set list? You might find you have the vocal strength, ease and flexibility to try out some new stylistic things.
- “Vocal lessons will make me sound classical”
A singer’s personal style and sound is their trademark. Unless you are a classical singer you shouldn’t be sounding classical. A good vocal coach will diagnose your vocal symptoms, give good advice and exercises for vocal safety, and prescribe specific corrective practices and exercises to enhance your singing and assist with the full expression of “your style”. Targeted “unfinished sounds” exercises are used for converting ineffective habits and building strength, but thankfully they aren’t finished product. My job as a vocal coach is to help an artist do better and more easily what they are already doing great!
Q: How important is it to warm up before singing?
A: It is extremely important to warm up before singing. It’s like running long distance without stretching. It’s the same as for practicing. You are singing anyways. Why not have your voice in optimum shape to go through your set list? You’ll find you have the vocal strength, ease and flexibility to try out some new stylistic things. Some vocal warm up exercises are also good for vocal cool down which help your voice ease back into rest mode after singing. It’s again the same concept as running a marathon, you can’t just stop completely or your legs will cramp up. You need to transition into a slow walk to relax your muscles.
Q: Does diet affect the voice and how bad does alcohol affect your singing ability?
A: Diet plays a large role in general health and subsequently vocal health as well. I recommend eating food that is nourishing and energy building, and staying away from foods that are overly acidic or mucous generating. It’s also important to stay well hydrated with water. Remember, if you consume alcohol (or coffee in my case), you will have to compensate for the dehydrating effect of alcohol or coffee in addition to drinking enough water to stay hydrated for the day.
On the topic of alcohol specifically, from an objective vocal health perspective, alcohol dehydrates the body and therefore the vocal folds as well. An optimal singing performance requires hydrated flexible vocal folds, precision control over them, and the ability to meaningfully express the song.
Many of my busiest active male touring artist students (signed and independent) may not advertise this fact, but they don’t drink alcohol before or during the show. As with everything in life balance is required and the concern is with excessive alcohol consumption and not replacing lost fluids. After the show, or during non-busy touring periods, like everyone else, they have a good time with their friends and fans.
Q: When on tour it can be hard to get sufficient rest which I imagine is crucial for your voice to repair as it’s like any other muscle in our body, is there a way to compensate for lack of sleep while on the road?
A: There isn’t a way to compensate for lack of sleep unfortunately. If there was, someone would have bottled it up, sold it and be making a profit from it. Joking! I know from personal experience it’s difficult to get restful sleep, the conditions on the airplane, tour bus, or van can be dehydrating on the body, or it’s difficult to access ideal meals and beverages. This is hard on the body and negatively affects the voice obviously. Poll results from several of my busiest touring and gigging artist students yielded a similar reply. Yes tour life can be difficult, but you have to deal with the often non-ideal sleeping arrangements that are often part of touring the best you can, and sneak in naps whenever you can. They were all male students and I wonder if sneaking in naps is a male thing? Joking… Rest is important, so please get it any way you can that is healthy and non-compromising to your vocal performance.
Q: We always hear about singing from the diaphragm but what exactly does that mean? Where is the diaphragm located and how do you utilize it when singing.
A: This is one of the most common misconceptions so I’m glad you asked. The diaphragm is the large sheet of muscle that is attached to the bottom rib on both sides. It works with the ribcage-lifting muscles to expand the lung cavity so we can breathe. A simple and more accurate way to explain how we use the diaphragm is: the diaphragm helps us expand the ribcage so we can bring air in to support to vocal production – aka singing.
Relatively good posture (relatively as many singers are also musicians who are hunched over and instrument) and relaxed muscles are important in this process. Surprisingly every person has a different way of taking in air, and lot of my initial work is pointing out specifically ways that student could improve getting a better breath.
Q: What are the best ways to avoid vocal strain?
A: As a vocal coach, naturally I’d say getting an assessment of how you use your entire body and vocal mechanism when you sing, diagnosis of your specific vocal habits that are interfering, and getting targeted corrective exercises is the best way to avoid, minimize and counter vocal strain. I think sometimes it’s not possible to avoid vocal strain, so vocal exercises are part of the rehabilitative process too.
Being healthy, staying hydrated and relaxed, and getting rest so you have ideal control over your body and vocal mechanism is important to avoiding and minimizing vocal strain. The touring artists all mentioned this aspect as well: managing your environment and planning situations where you can avoid overusing your voice are also crucial.
Q: Anything to add for our readers?
A: Stay healthy, stay positive, and stay true to working at your passion. Remember it’s a good thing get help along the way!
Thank you so much for your time Monica! To our readers: I hope you all enjoyed this Q & A and will walk away with some valuable knowledge that will help guide you in the right direction with your voices!
To learn more about our guest Monica Siu visit her website here: