Today's post is written by our incredible resident speech language pathologist (SLP), Dr. Nancy Howells. An intuitive teacher with a stunning instrument of her own, she's been working with GRVC students for over a year to great success. I asked her if she'd be willing to contribute a blog article about one her areas of expertise: vocal health. As voice teachers, we get asked about vocal health A LOT: what to drink, what to eat, how to deal with allergies, and so much more. I'm thrilled we have an expert on our team to share with you. So without further ado, Nan is here to shed some light on your biggest questions about vocal health!
Maintenance and Care of Your Instrument
Nancy Leinonen Howells, BM, MM, DMA, MA-SLP
So you have a (new) voice! Ok, it’s not new, that’s true. You’ve had your voice since the
day you were born, but now you’re singing, and using it for all sorts of other things as
well, and everything we do with our voices can either make them better, or harm them.
This is a short article to help you understand your voice a bit better, and to give you tips
to help you keep it healthy.
What is the voice, anyway? It’s an instrument, but it’s an organic, living instrument.
There are things the vocal apparatus does that no other instrument does: used for speech,
used for swallowing, used for coughing, sneezing, and keeping things out of the lungs,
such as mucus, food, fluids, etc. Other instruments are used for music only, or for
decoration. In my previous home studio, my piano was also used as a filing space, but
that’s another thing!
Everything we do, nearly all day, affects the voice. What we eat, drink, chew; how much
sleep we get (or don’t), how much we talk, at what volume, how healthy we are in
general, all these things can and do affect the way you sing. So, what’s a singer to do?
Here are some good things to do:
1. Drink plenty of water. Athletes are told to “pee pale.” A little gross, yes, but that pale
color is evidence that you’re well-hydrated. The vocal instrument is lubricated by natural
mucus, and keeping that mucus thin is needed to keep the vocal folds from getting
“gritty.” So, drink plenty of water. Avoid caffeine, carbonated beverages, acidic drinks,
and sugary drinks, as these can produce thicker mucus, which is not helpful. But live .
We do have to live, and so that single cup of coffee or tea or that one glass of OJ in the
morning is ok, provided you don’t have other issues. If you do, you might want to
reconsider your fluid habits.
2. Watch what, and when you eat. Eating spicy, acidic food, or foods that make you
burp (I can’t have a cucumber before I sing, ever!) that cause reflux can hurt your vocal
folds. What is reflux? The leaking of stomach acids back up into your vocal tract. The
vocal folds (cords) are just in front of the opening to the esophagus. Sometimes, acid
leaks from the esophagus into the mouth, and when it does, it literally burns the vocal
folds. Not good. But, I don’t have reflux, you say, I don’t have heartburn! If you wake
up most mornings with a sore throat that gets better over the day, or if your top notes are
there, but getting more difficult, or if you feel like you have a lump in your throat a lot of
the time, you may have LPR (laryngo-pharyngeal reflux, or “silent reflux”). Silent reflux
doesn’t give you heartburn. It just burns your folds. A visit to the laryngologist** is
needed to determine whether that’s what you have, and he/she will treat it to preserve
3. Have good sleep habits. The voice is sensitive to the changes that occur in
your body when you’re tired. Remember that the vocal tract is made up primarily of
muscle and cartilage, and if the muscles are tired, they won’t work well. If you’re tired,
all of your body is full of lactic acids, and that means your vocal muscles are also
4. Be sure to check any medications, especially hormonal medications, with a
laryngologist. These can change your voice, sometimes permanently. One of the most
popular forms of medication for allergies is a steroid-based nasal spray. Steroid-based
nasal sprays can make a singer more likely to get a fungal infection in the vocal tract, so
check this out with a laryngologist first. See the doctor for regular check-ins while using
strong meds, and make sure to practice extra-safe vocal health. You can use an over-the-
counter saline spray several times a day to help dry what’s wet, and wet what’s dry – just
a few sprays in each nostril five or so times a day has been scientifically tested and
proven to help with dryness due to autoimmune issues, extra moisture due to allergies,
and basically helps to maintain moisture balance in your nasal and vocal tracts. Brands
that you can look for: Ayr, Simply Saline. You can use the generic as well. This is better
than a neti pot, because neti pots are labor-intensive, and when not perfectly sterile can
also cause fungal infections, and sometimes worsen things. The sealed package of the
saline spray (just water and salt, but sterile) is much safer. It’s also portable (but pack,
don’t carry on!). It’s non-habit forming, and again, studies were done to prove that it
5. Don’t smoke! Don’t vape – vaping is worse for your vocal folds than smoking, in that
it dries the out – see above. Don’t do drugs that change your chemistry, unless
prescribed. They change your vocal perceptions, causing possible damage from overuse
or oversinging. Marijuana, though legal now, still burns much hotter than tobacco, and
will both dry and “wither” your vocal folds. Alcohol is an acid.
6. If you have illness, please be aware that singing while sick has risks. Check things out
with your trainer, and if she/he is worried, see a laryngologist ASAP.
7. Watch anti-inflammatory drugs while singing. Anything that is a “blood thinner”
(even aspirin, motrin, aleve) leaves your vocal folds at risk for hemorrhaging. That’s
** What is a laryngologist? A laryngologist is a voice specialist ENT. A general ENT
may only know about ears, or may specialize in children’s Ear-Nose-Throat issues (think
ear tubes, ear infections, sinus infections, oral infections) but only know basic info about
the voice. A laryngologist is a doctor who specializes in voice issues, both singing and
You may be referred to an SLP (Speech-Language Pathologist). Be aware that not all
SLPs are voice-savvy, either. You want to work with a voice specialist SLP, and
preferably a singing-voice specialist. SLPs are the people who will collaborate with your
trainer to help to restore your voice to the place it was before illness or injury. This will
be done with a series of exercises, maybe massage by the SLP or yourself, and will
include checking in with the laryngologist, because even a very good voice-specialist
SLP can’t see inside your vocal tract. If you are seeing an SLP with training in
videostroboscopy (the use of a scope to look at the vocal folds) you may not have to
return to the MD. And don’t worry about the scope. It’s painless.
Be careful with your voice! It’s the only one you have. Surgery is not the best answer
for vocal damage, and these days, vocal rest isn’t often prescribed, because of the nature
of the muscle mass that deteriorates quickly. Don’t be afraid of a voice-specialist SLP
(I’m one!) and trust your trainer. Don’t try to teach each other technique (hey, we all
went to school for YEARS to learn how to treat your voice right!) though advice on
performance ideas and acting is great!
If you have questions about how to find a good laryngologist and/or singing-voice
specialist SLP, ask your trainer. Happy and Healthy Singing, everyone!
Want to learn more about vocal health? Leave us your questions in the comments!