You go to lessons and coaching. You practice and practice and practice. You do yoga because you’ve heard it’s great for singers. You hydrate until your pee can’t be any paler. You become a hermit at the first sneeze you hear. But are you really doing everything it takes to keep your instrument in shape for peak performance?
Though some of the above are good practices, other’s like over-hydrating, may not do your body good. And perhaps they have you focusing on the immediate rather than the long-term health of your voice.
The following is a list of components I feel, after singing a lifetime and teaching for over 20 year, every singer should consider in the health of their instrument. Some you may already be doing. Some you may find you haven’t even thought about.
1. Good Alignment
You’ve been taught what good alignment should be – ears over shoulders, over hips, blah, blah, blah. What you really need to be concerned with are muscular imbalances.
Daily activities such as sitting, texting, even sports and running can cause tightness in some muscles and weakness in others. To maintain good muscle balance requires a strong core and stretch and strength exercise to correct for any underlying imbalances. You also need to be thinking more about the fascia that runs through your body and connects everything,. This all needs to be worked on a daily basis to counteract our daily activities.
Your alignment should be a natural default position that can be held without tension, unconsciously.
2. Good Breath Mangement
The use of breath is of utmost importance for singing. It’s the motor that gets the voice in motion. This requires learning to strengthen and control the muscles of respiration. It requires good alignment for freedom of movement of these muscles. Learning how to breath for singing is one of the cornerstones of voice lessons.
One thing that isn’t always addressed in lessons is the need for cardiovascular capacity. This means the functioning of the lungs in such a way that you are able to oxygenate your blood and body sufficiently to allow your muscles to work to full capacity without tiring too soon. It will allow you to sing longer phrases. If you’re body is screaming for oxygen it’s going to lead to a premature breath. So yes, that cardio is important.
3. Freedom from Unwanted Tension
For a freely functioning voice we need freedom from unwanted tension. You need to understand the root cause of tension. Is it due to muscular imbalance? Stress? Over-stretched muscles? Contracted muscles? Bad habits? You can read more about finding the root cause here.
Work at restoring balance through a stretch and strength program and stress management.
There are two types of stamina we need to sing. One is vocal stamina. This is achieved by correct technique and slowly building your endurance over time. The other is physical stamina.
Physical stamina is necessary to deal with the demands on the stage so that you can move and sing without being winded. It will help you with your vocal stamina as well, since if you are exhausted you are more likely to start pushing your voice and set yourself up for vocal fatigue or, even worse, vocal injury.
It also helps with the demands of life. You need to get through that whole day first. Grocery shopping, cleaning the house, yard work, children and even lugging equipment for a gig are all tasks that are going to drain your energy if you don’t have the strength and cardiovascular conditioning to pull you through. And then you are expected to hit the stage with a dazzling performance.
Work on all aspects of your stamina.
5. Strong Immune System
The dread of every singer is that they get sick before a performance. Common infections like colds, flus and strep throat can really mess up your plans and even your income. Allergies, too, are a condition of the immune system and all that gunk in your sinuses and back of the throat can make it difficult to sing.
Building a strong immune system is a must. You can read more about it here.
6. Freedom of Disease
At first glance you may be thinking, well isn’t that like having a strong immune system? Yes and no. What I’m referring to here is chronic disease: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, premature aging and cognitive decline. These are often referred to as diseases of affluence that are greatly attributed to lifestyle.
It can affect your voice and ultimately your longevity. The medical and scientific communities now understand that 80 – 90% of these diseases are preventable and many even reversible through lifestyle changes. These will include eliminating processed foods and eating a healthier plant-strong diet, physical exercise, and eliminating risk factors such as alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity.
7. Balanced Hormones
Hormones greatly affect our voices and not just the reproductive hormones that have been well documented. Other hormones that can relate to singing include thyroid hormones, insulin, mood hormones, digestive hormones and stress hormones. Many have a direct impact on your vocal folds, others will affect your peak functioning that can put you at risk of vocal injury. Balanced hormones can also help in the battle against chronic diseases. You can read more about hormones and the voice here.
8. Alert Focused Mind
An alert focus mind is an absolute must for a singer.
We need to deal with learning our repertoire, having it memorized, sometimes singing in a foreign language. We need to be able to be aware of all the technique we need to produce a great sound, plus communication of the text. On stage we need to be aware of everything around us and be present and focused in the moment to do all the above PLUS watch the conductor, be aware and interact with the other singers and musicians you are working with, move while singing, handle props, and deal with any mishap or missed cue that might occur. There is no place for brain fog to do all that.
When you are able to get all these 8 things in check then you are in for a lifetime of healthy vibrant singing. How did you do? How many are in your control? If you need help to get all eight elements on track for peak performance, then join our free Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice community.
My friend Kate, a professional singer for a decade, had a rude awakening about 3 years ago. In the middle of singing a song her voice snapped. She had a vocal hemorrhage. On closer inspection it turned out she also had pre-nodules and significant stiffness in her right fold.
She chronicles her journey back to vocal health in her book “Just One Voice”, but one of the underlying causes of her injury was reflux.
This is the stuff singer’s nightmares are made of. The thing is many singers are not even aware of their reflux. When you feel heartburn or have a distinct backflow of acid to the back of your throat, you can be sure you are suffering from Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), but many singers don’t feel this, yet they may still experience Laryngopharyngeal Reflux (LPR).
LPR occurs when stomach contents come up the throat in a gaseous form or as a mist. This allows for easy access to the larynx as the mist can be inhaled. And you won’t even know it.
Though it was previously thought that the acid was doing the damage, more current research suggests that it is actually not the acid, but inflammation due to the action of pepsin.
Pepsin is a digestive enzyme, specifically for the breakdown of protein. Guess what the pharyngeal and laryngeal tissue is made of? That’s right. Protein. So the pepsin is digesting your tissue! Gross!!! Right? The stomach has a special lining that prevents this from happening, but outside of the stomach all tissue is fair game for the pepsin.
To make matters worse, Even if pepsin stops digesting and lays dormant, it can be reactivated by acid. So that coke or orange juice you drink can be reactivating it starting the cycle all over again.
What does this mean to your voice?
If you have LPR you may be experiencing inflammation in the vocal folds and even a thinning of the epithelial layer of the vocal folds. This puts you at greater risk of nodules, polyps, and hemorrhages when you sing. It also increases the risk of laryngeal cancer (though this is still a very rare form of cancer at 1% incidence).
If you have a very active singing life, this is a disaster waiting to happen.
Look out for the symptoms:
Chronic cough and throat clearing
Feeling of a lump in the throat
See an ENT if you have any of the above issues that are not associated with a common cold and persist for more than 2 weeks.
What can you do?
I’ve already laid out some basics in Acid Reflux and the Singer: What Every Singer Needs to Know. Paying attention to what you eat does matter. There is now evidence that a plant-based diet together with alkaline water is as effective as proton-pump inhibitor (PPI) therapy.
Why is the alkaline water important? Remember earlier I mentioned that the pepsin is active in acid (that's a pH of 2 – 6.9) and can be reactivated by coming into contact with more acid? Well, it turns out that pepsin is permanently deactivated in an alkaline environment.
An alkaline pH of 8 – 10 is most effective to deactivate pepsin.
You can buy alkaline water, or you can buy expensive machines that can mineralize your water to make it alkaline. It’s also possible to make your own by adding baking soda to water, however, this has a high sodium content, which is not recommended for your health. Buying bottled alkaline water may be the best way to go if can’t spring for a machine. If you are on a tight budget, then instead of drinking the baking soda water, try gargling after a meal.
These are the dietary steps Kate took to help with her reflux: An anti-inflammatory plant-based approach, avoiding triggers like soda, caffeine, chocolate, citrus, tomatoes and strong spices and alkaline water. Her folds are now pristine.
If you suspect you have reflux, get checked by and ENT, and if you want to get back on track vocally, you may be interested in The Fit Singer’s 14 Day Vocal Reset, which includes a reflux friendly meal plan.
Doucet, Kate J, Just One Voice A Book on Vocal Sustainability and Injury Prevention, 2018, Outskirts Press, Inc.