Take care of your instrument, people. I can’t stress that enough. You already know the importance of cultivating the vocal instrument through breathing and proper technique. Today we’re going to talk maintenance.
If you think of breathing and vocal technique as the cornerstones of the voice factory, vocal maintenance is the practice that keeps operations running smoothly. This is especially important, because unlike other instruments, your voice is in use around the clock, minus time for sleeping – which I imagine are some pretty odd hours if you're out there chasing the dream. There’s no fancy, velvet-lined case in which to send it off to bed between gigs. You can’t easily change out the strings, reed, or mouthpiece. So, how do you take care of your voice?
1. Work out every day
The voice is a muscle that needs maintenance, just as your abs need maintenance for the upcoming beach season. Set aside time each day (at least a half hour) to run through some warm-ups and songs. If you’re pressed for time, the shower works great. There’s no room in the house with better acoustics, so let it rip.
Call me old school, but my favorite book of warm ups is the Vaccai. Disclaimer: it’s in Italian, but you can master the phonetics in about five minutes, and once you do, you’ll be well on your way to tackling every vowel sound you could possibly encounter.
2. Get steamy
Like any muscle in your body, the voice needs to recover after being worked out – especially if you’ve just melted some faces in a venue with an extremely loud band. Every singer’s best friend should be the Vick’s Personal Steam Inhaler. No, I don’t get anything if you purchase one, it's just saved my ass on more than one occasion, and you can bet it’ll save yours too.
If you’re a little more DIY, boil a pot of water on the stove, then remove from heat and drape a towel over your head and breath in that glorious steam. You will sweat it out like an old fat man in the Elk’s Lodge sauna, but your voice will reward you with quick recovery.
Okay, the jury is still out on these. Some teachers push Ricola like it’s going out of style. Others treat them like you’re swallowing razor blades – okay, that’s a bit dramatic. Here’s my take: I’m all for lozenges to soothe your throat. If you’re feeling especially tired or sore, there’s nothing better to breathe some coolness than a nice, herb-packed Ricola. The trick is to avoid having one right before singing – especially if it contains menthol, like Halls. They all help to soothe, but some may actually dry you out. Not fun to sing with cotton mouth.
4. Avoid milk
It's a common misconception that milk increases the production of mucus. It may feel like it, but it’s just not true. However, drinking milk before a show is still akin to voice suicide, and I’ll tell you why. Besides being moo juice from an entirely other species – I’ll get off my hippie rant – milk can work to thicken saliva or existing mucus, and that junk will take a front-row seam on your cords. So unless you plan on yodeling throughout your performance, pass on the milk mustache and grab some water instead.
5. Drink tea
Tea is liquid magic for soothing the voice. It is not, however, magic for hydrating the voice, especially if it contains caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic, which can lead to dehydration. Stick to decaf tea after your performance, and your voice will be singing your praises. (See what I did there?)
6. Just a bag full of apples
Many fruits, such as citrus, have high acidic content, which is a no-no for your chords before a performance. Apples are different. They have low acidic content, but just enough to be helpful to your voice! In fact, it’s an old opera trick to keep a bag of cubed Granny Smiths backstage. If you feel mucus creeping in, just pop a couple cubes. The slight acidic content works to burn the excess mucus off your cords.
Pro tip: I wouldn’t make regular practice of it, as it’s highly acidic, but a swig or two of Coke before a show will clear your throat in a cinch.
7. Vocal rest
This term has become so cliché lately that I almost hate mentioning it. Everyone gets tired. Singers are often overworked. The voice isn’t delicate, especially as you continue to work out the muscles involved in vocal production, but it needs to be nurtured. If you’re feeling especially tired, take a break. Don’t sing, don’t talk, just be. If the problem persists, don’t mess around or try to sing through it. Get checked out by an ENT.
With daily maintenance and a little TLC, you’ll keep your voice flowing strong for decades to come. Do you have any pre-show vocal rituals, or home remedies? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Jonathan Hack is a Brooklyn resident, musician, writer, and ping pong aficionado. His career in the theatre has spanned acting, music direction, production, carpentry, and more. As a marketer, he has worked with major brands in music and fashion. He is a proud member of AEA and NATS. Follow him on Twitter @writerninja and on Instagram @jonnyhack.