Vocal Perils of a Day job

Although singers by definition would prefer to sing full-time, the reality is otherwise. Many singers hold down part-time or full-time jobs that have little to do with singing, and more to do with paying the grocery bills and rent. While day jobs are obviously essential, it is important to pick the right job to preserve your vocal health.

Although vocal professionals spend many years (and much money) perfecting their singing technique, only a few have applied these lessons to their speaking voice. And no matter how much you sing, you certainly spend more time speaking, using the same instrument. If your day job involves long hours of speaking, particularly under adverse conditions, you can easily damage your larynx, no matter how good your vocal technique.

How can speaking damage the voice? First, most singers are extroverted and loquacious, and even social interactions involve a lot of talk. Hours spent on the telephone, or with friends in a restaurant, all put miles on those cords. Particularly hazardous, however, are jobs that require excessive and loud voice use.

The two worst such jobs are working in a restaurant and teaching. Restaurants are usually noisy. In order to be heard, the speaking voice must project over the background noise. This projection, called the signal-to-noise ratio, must be maintained, no matter how loud the background din. This din can be so loud that it in itself can damage your ears. Loud music, the clatter of dishes, the chatter of customers standing around the bar can produce a noise level in excess of 85 dB, higher than accepted safe levels. A few years ago, New York magazine even published a piece on “the loudest restaurants in New York.” If you work in this environment, you will raise your voice unconsciously, in order to be heard. This phenomenon (called the Lombard effect) can have you speaking at levels of over 100 dB. All of the open-throat low-larynx supporting typically goes out the window, and the voice is produced using excessive vocal fold pressure and muscular strain. The voice produces the equivalent of a raw belt. Waitressing or hostessing five hours a day in such an environment will produce muscle strain, even nodules, despite the best singing technique.

School teaching is another high vocal attrition occupation. I have several patients, well-trained classical singers, who became music teachers in the public school system and within two years developed nodules. Class sizes tend to be large, curriculum expectations unreasonable, and the children undisciplined. Once again, the teacher will find herself speaking loudly, for long hours. When directing the school choir, the teacher will usually sing along, using exaggerated and excessive muscular force to project to her students. Less hazardous but also potentially harmful are jobs involving sales, either in a noisy store or on the telephone.

How can this damage be minimized? The simple answer–don’t work at anything but your singing–is not reasonable. The two strategies I recommend are: 1) pay attention to your speaking voice; and 2) choose that day job with an eye on the potential noise and vocal hazards it presents. Most of us don’t pay attention to our speaking voice, because it is so much a part of who we are. While the singing voice is something you create and nurture, your instrument, your speaking voice is you. Even when singers are told how to speak correctly they often either forget, or find the new voice alien and unacceptable. Women in business situations often speak at a lower than optimal pitch to sound more no-nonsense. Men, especially in sales, often speak more aggressively to convey their message. In reality, the same techniques you use in singing should be applied in speaking. Women should try to speak in head voice, rather than a belted chest voice. A round, supported head voice (what Dr. Anat Keidar calls “the Julia Child voice”) is the least harmful to your larynx. It does not come naturally, any more than “Una voce poco fa.” It must be cultivated and constantly monitored. If this is not acceptable, either for psychologic reasons or because of the demands of the job, at least monitor your laryngeal and neck tension, check support and sound level as much as possible, and do not speak unless necessary. Drink lots of water, especially if your talking takes place in a dry environment.

In terms of choosing the job, salary, hours and qualifications are clearly important, but so is the potential for vocal damage. It seems self-defeating to pay for voice lessons using money earned by damaging the voice. All of the pros and cons of a day job should be weighed, and the job chosen should enhance, not undermine, a performer’s ultimate goal of fully supporting herself by singing.

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D., noted author and professor of clinical otolaryngology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has offices in New York and New Jersey and is a noted author of The Care of the Professional Voice.