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Vocal Health: Tips From a Singing SLP

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

your voice.


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

sluggish.


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

works.


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

never good.


** 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

speech.


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!

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WHERE YOUR VOICE WILL             BE HEARD.

HEYTHERE@GRANDRAPIDSVOICECOLLECTIVE.COM

always

GRAND RAPIDS VOICE COLLECTIVE

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