Do you want to guarantee you’ll give the performance of a lifetime at an upcoming gig? Or are you determined to smash an important audition for an exciting new show? Then we’ve got some very important advice for you: look after your voice!
Keeping your voice healthy is essential for all vocalists, no matter where they may be on their musical journeys. Professional singers who are serious about their craft all prioritise their vocal health – after all, they’d have a hard time hanging onto their singing careers if they lost their voices!
We’re going to help you make some healthy habits (and break some less healthy ones) while we explain how each of them affects different parts of your body, and how these habits will help you sing better for longer.
But first of all, let’s quickly go over what your vocal cords are before we look at how to look after them:
What are vocal cords?
Vocal cords, also known as vocal folds, are two strips of tissue stretched across your larynx (your voice box, also known as your Adam’s apple). When you push air past them, these strips vibrate and produce sound.
Your vocal cords get tighter and thinner to allow you to sing higher notes, then looser and thicker for lower notes. You determine the volume of your voice by how much air you push past your vocal cords – less air for a quieter sound, and more air for a louder sound.
Most of the below techniques have been designed to keep your vocal cords functioning well and to protect them from damage – but before we get into that, let’s begin by assuming the right position.
1. Stand or sit with good posture
Standing or sitting with correct posture is important for many reasons, but the main ways it can help your singing are: you’ll be comfortable standing or sitting for a longer period of time; and, your voice won’t get choked up due to tension in the wrong places. This means you won’t get tired too soon and start trying to force yourself to sing, which can make your vocal cords sore.
You need to make sure your body is relaxed, balanced, and straight. This will create a clear path for you to push air up through your throat and make sure no part of your body is having to work harder than it should.
Depending on where you’ll be practising or performing, it’s important for you to know how to sit and how to stand in a way that will help you sing better without taking too much effort. There are a few things you need to remember for either position:
- Head back
- Chin parallel to the floor
- Chest up
- Shoulders down
- Back straight
If you’re standing, keep your legs relaxed but straight (don’t lock your knees) and your feet shoulder-width apart.
If you’re sitting, sit forward in your chair, keeping your feet flat on the floor and your legs uncrossed.
2. Breathe properly from the diaphragm
Now your body is in the right position, let’s look at why a proper breathing technique is good for keeping your singing voice healthy. Since singing is essentially you controlling the air that comes out of your body at different rates, it stands to reason that keeping your breathing muscles in check is a good move.
The main aim here is to get the right amount of air from your lungs up through your larynx in order to produce the sound you want. The best way to do this is to breathe from your diaphragm, which is beneath your ribcage.
Unless we’ve actively tried to breathe from our diaphragms, most of us will naturally breathe from our chests. Try breathing now, and place your hand on your chest – did you feel it rise, then fall?
To breathe properly from your diaphragm, place your hand on your stomach instead, and imagine you’re inflating your stomach with air, like a big balloon. This is actually your diaphragm inflating fully.
You also need to learn to control your breaths so that when you exhale, your air comes out at a steady rate. Achieve this by breathing in through your nose, then pursing your lips (as if you’re drinking through a straw) as you breathe out.
This will give you more air to sing with, so you won’t run out before you’re ready and strain your voice.
3. Warm up before you sing
Singing is a physical action, so you need to make sure your voice is ready to go before you put it through the wringer. Just like how you should warm up before hitting the gym to avoid putting strain on your heart and lungs, you need to warm up your voice gradually to avoid putting strain on your vocal cords.
It’s generally recommended that you spend 10 to 20 minutes warming up your voice before you attempt to sing. Don’t try and belt out Led Zeppelin or Whitney Houston songs without warming up first – start off low, then gradually work your way up.
It’s important as well for you to warm up the other parts of your body you use for singing, and there’s a one-word reason for why: tension. If you’re carrying tension in one part of your body, then muscles in other parts of your body have to pick up the slack, meaning they have to work harder and will tire quicker.
4. Stay hydrated
Nothing wets one’s whistle as well as water! It’s generally agreed that vocalists should drink between 1.5 and 2 litres of water a day to maintain a healthy voice, although this can vary slightly from person to person.
Drinking plenty of water helps our vocal cords to produce the right amount and the right kind of mucus, which protects your vocal cords as you make them vibrate when you sing. Aside from this, water will help regulate your body temperature, which is bound to skyrocket if you’re planning any onstage acrobatics.
Other drinks like caffeine and alcohol can dehydrate your body, so they’re best avoided altogether. If you do feel the need to perk yourself up with a crafty cappuccino or calm your nerves with a sneaky chardonnay, then make sure you top yourself back up with H2O.
If you’re singing a lot at home or in the studio, it’s also worth you considering getting yourself a humidifier. If the air you’re breathing is too dry, this can lead to a dry throat which can become painful – so give your vocal cords an extra helping hand and fill the air with moisture.
5. Don’t abuse your vocal cords
There are certain vocal styles which are harsher on your vocal cords than others, and you should try to do these as little as possible, if at all.
- Whispering – surprisingly enough, whispering can harm your vocal cords. This is because when you want somebody to hear what you’re secretly saying, you’re squeezing your vocal cords closer together and forcing more and more air through as you struggle to be heard.
- Coughing and throat clearing – some of us habitually cough and clear our throats more than is necessary. This action slams your vocal cords together, which damages them – so next time you feel a tickle in the back of your throat, drink some water instead.
- Shouting – whether you’re belting from the stage or screaming from the audience, shouting will make your vocal cords vibrate together so forcefully that they can start to hurt. Don’t forget – in a live stage setting, you shouldn’t be competing to be heard, so make sure you’re properly mic’d up.
Vocally abusive behaviours such as these can cause growths to develop on your vocal cords, the two most common being vocal nodules (when your vocal cords start to harden) and vocal polyps (when a blister-like lump appears on one or both of your vocal cords). Not only are these uncomfortable and make it painful to sing or even speak, but in extreme cases surgery is needed to remove them.
If you do want to shout as part of your performance, limit the damage by following the other techniques on this list!
6. Exercise regularly
We’re sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, but it’s true – exercise is good for you, in every way! Even a small amount of physical exercise will, if you do it regularly, help to improve your stamina and lung capacity.
Aerobic exercise, often simply referred to as ‘cardio’, is the name given to any type of exercise which keeps your heart rate up. The NHS currently recommends that adults spread about 150 minutes of moderate exercise (walking, dancing) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (running, swimming, sports like football or hockey) out over each week.
Practicing yoga and pilates 2-5 times a week will also benefit your singing voice. Not only will they play a huge role in ridding your body of unwanted stress and tension, but they will also work wonders for your core muscles, meaning you’ll be able to maintain a good posture for longer and breathe more effectively from your diaphragm.
As an added bonus, when you exercise, your body releases ‘feel-good chemicals’ such as endorphins. A mood boost and a sense of accomplishment is exactly what you need to carry on trying to master those difficult lyrics or reach that high note!
7. Eat wisely and avoid irritants
It may surprise you to learn that there are even some food types that can help you keep your voice healthy, as well as some which can harm it.
Food that’s good for your singing voice is generally fresh and plant-based. The main factors which make these food groups good for your singing voice are their high water content and the fact that they contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Lean protein is also good for slow-release energy, which you’ll benefit from if you’re going to be singing for a long time – here are a few ideas to add to your menu:
- Fresh fruit (watermelon, cucumber, pineapple)
- Fresh vegetables (celery, broccoli, iceberg lettuce)
- Lean protein (white fish, lentils, tofu)
As for food types which are bad for your voice, you need to avoid foods which will dehydrate you, foods which can cause acid reflux (heartburn) and foods which contain allergens that cause your body to produce more (and much thicker) mucus than you want it to. Here are some of the main offenders:
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, cream)
- Spicy food (chilli, curry, salsa)
- Fried foods (french fries, onion rings, fried chicken)
It’s also important to avoid fizzy carbonated drinks, as it’s very difficult to sing when you’re burping!
Also, it’s best to avoid smoking if you’re a singer. As well as reducing your lung capacity, meaning you’ll have a harder time mustering up enough air to sing with, the cigarette smoke will dry out your vocal cords.
8. Rest your voice
As you grow in confidence and ability, we completely understand that you’ll want to sing more and more. However, overusing your voice can cause lasting damage, just as abusing it can.
Even if you don’t notice any strain or soreness in your throat, it’s important to give your voice a chance to recover once you’ve finished singing for the day. Taking regular ‘vocal naps’ throughout the day will give your vocal cords a break before they become strained.
Rest the rest of your body as well – which means getting enough sleep at night! Your body can do some amazing things if you give it a chance to – plus, everything will take a lot less effort if you’re not physically fatigued.
9. Avoid illnesses
Now, we don’t want you getting ill for any reason – and we’re sure you wouldn’t put yourself in harm’s way on purpose! However, there are a few steps you can take to improve your chances of avoiding the worst illnesses for your singing voice – illnesses which, among other things, will undo all the hard work we’ve just done to keep healthy.
Viral infections like the common cold or influenza (flu), allergic reactions to certain types of food pollen, and breathing in harmful substances like dust, mould and smoke can all lead to conditions like laryngitis – an inflammation of your larynx, the home of your vocal cords. Although allergic reactions are often hard to prevent, you can still do your voice a favour by avoiding dusty or smoky areas.
Make sure you also practice good general personal hygiene to reduce your risk of illness – wash your hands regularly with warm, soapy water, wear freshly washed clothing, and wipe down any surfaces that are regularly touched by others.
10. Don’t sing with a sore throat
If you are unfortunate to catch an illness, then we wish you a speedy recovery! But until you’re back to your good old self, you need to avoid using your voice at all costs.
A sore throat is a common symptom of many illnesses, and it’s when your throat is sore that your vocal cords are at their most vulnerable. It’s all very well taking the old “the show must go on” saying to heart, but if you lose your voice, then there won’t be much of a show at all!
There are several remedies out there which can help ease a sore throat – here are our top picks:
- Gargle salt water
- Throat lozenges
- Tea with honey and lemon
- Breathe in steam
- Over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol
However, the best thing to do when you’ve got a sore throat is to avoid singing, shouting, speaking and whispering altogether for around 7 days. If, after about a week of complete silence, your voice is still hoarse, then it’s time to pay your doctor a visit – but limit the amount of other people you see, as these illnesses are easy to pass on, and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience!
Bonus tip – Keep up the good work
We know that adopting the previous 9 steps will take a bit of getting used to, but it really is worth making them all part of your daily routine if you’re serious about singing. These steps won’t do you much good if you only start following them on the day of your performance!
With a healthy lifestyle, a healthy diet and a healthy exercise regimen, you’ll be putting yourself in the best possible position to continue to develop your singing skills.