Singers have the unique experience of their body functioning as their instrument, making vocal health extremely important.
The vocal folds are tiny (11-20mm long), delicate, and unfortunately prone to wear and tear, even with easy vibration. Whenever we talk, our vocal folds vibrate on average 140 – 220 times per second. If we’re singing, they vibrate even faster (up to 1400 times per second in some cases!).
Part of how our vocal folds are able to vibrate so quickly is because of a moist mucosal layer on the outer edges of the vocal folds. This delicate layer needs to be properly hydrated and well taken care of in order for the vocal folds to vibrate easily. If the edges are dehydrated, swollen, or irregular, it becomes much harder for the vocal folds to vibrate.
There are two main ways to hydrate your vocal folds: systemic hydration through fluid intake and topical hydration.
We achieve systemic hydration through consuming water and the body absorbing it. Note that drinking water right before singing won’t offer immediate hydration effects. This is because nothing you eat or drink touches the vocal folds (if it did, that would mean you’re choking on it). It takes time for the body to absorb water, so it is important to stay consistently hydrated.
The specific amount of water a singer should drink varies by individual. A general guideline for maintaining systemic hydration is to assess the color of your urine, which should be a light or pale yellow.
Topical hydration is possible through humidification, steaming, and nebulizing. These devices allow a singer to breathe in moist air, which does directly touch the vocal folds. Find which device works best for your voice and make sure to regularly clean the device.
Diet and Substances
Even though nothing you eat or drink touches the vocal folds directly, certain substances and diet practices can affect the voice.
Alcohol can negatively impact the voice by dehydrating the body and therefore the vocal folds, triggering reflux, and also decreasing one’s judgement of how they’re using their voice. Notice how drinking alcohol may affect you individually so that you can adjust consumption accordingly and increase water intake.
Avoid smoking or inhaling substances. Cigarettes, vaping, and smoking marijuana all have risks to vocal health as the smoke passes the vocal folds directly as you breathe it in.
Stay away from menthol cough drops as the cooling sensation can be irritating and drying to the vocal folds as you breathe it in. Instead, try cough drops with pectin, glycerin, or slippery elm as the active ingredient.
Too much, too loud, and too tense voice use can increase the risk of vocal fold swelling and injury. Be especially cautious of talking in noisy environments (restaurants, bars, plane flights, phone or video calls), excessive talking, and excessive singing. Avoid yelling, screaming, or unnecessary loud talking. Minimize unnecessary throat clearing and coughing as these behaviors are traumatic to the vocal folds.
Make sure to also balance out your vocal demands and pace your voice. Notice if your voice is becoming fatigued and make sure to take appropriate rest to prevent the fatigue from ‘snowballing.’ Completing an adequate warm-up and cool-down for speaking and singing can help to minimize fatigue, especially semi-occluded vocal tract exercises such as lip trills, straw phonation, etc.
Consistent vocal function relies on consistent vocal hygiene practices. Vocal health is a daily commitment, not just the day before the show commitment!
For additional vocal health resources, check out @vocalhealthskb on Instagram and @vocalhealth on TikTok.