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How to Improve Your Vocal Health

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Your voice is your instrument. Take care of it. Protect it. Would you let airline baggage handlers throw your guitar around without a hard shell case? You can't walk into a rock shop and buy a flight case for your vocal cords, but there are a number of things to consider when talking about vocal health. When you consider how thin a membrane a vocal cord is, you'll realize how fragile an instrument it is.

Don't overtax your voice, even if you're young and can recover more quickly than people in their 40s and 50s. Many vocalists have had to take serious time off from performing because they strained their voices. The more you take your singing seriously, the more it becomes necessary to pay more attention to rest, sleep, nutrition, and hydration. Here are some important tips:


Vocal cords are made up of two strips of muscle and need a moist atmosphere to remain supple, which results in optimal vibrations. This means drinking about a half-gallon of room temperature water each day NO ICE WATER! The dry winter months are a real problem when you're trying to keep your throat moist. One simple thing you can do is fill a sink with hot tap water, cover your head with a towel, lean over the sink and breathe deeply for five to ten minutes. Or, take a hot shower and breathe in as much steamy air as you can.


The caffeine in coffee, tea, and various soft drinks is a diuretic, which also dries the vocal cords and aggravates stomach reflux. Avoid caffeinated beverages before you need to sing since this reflux causes mucus in the throat, making it feel like your vocal cords are covered. If you need a steaming hot beverage, try non-caffeinated tea with a bit of honey.


Avoid milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, or any type of dairy product since this produces phlegm and hinders your vocal cords' ability to ripple and produce a clear sound. Milk or cream added to coffee is a double no-no.


Alcohol also has a drying effect, causes reflux, and dilates blood vessels that can alter vocal fold function. Some serious singers will avoid alcohol consumption for up to a month prior to a concert. If you sing for three hours, three days a week and want a drink, I'd recommend having one the day after your three days are up, and maybe the next day, but NEVER before or during a singing engagement. The natural high of singing itself is the best performing enhancing drug. And the audience will appreciate the fact that you're in control.


Put down the nacho chips smothered in salsa or the chicken vindaloo. Spicy foods also aggravate reflux in singers, which causes swollen vocal cords, excessive throat clearing, and a feeling that there is a lump in the throat. Speaking of clearing your throat, don't. A gentle cough should be enough to clear extra mucus. If not, have a sip or two of water, then cough.


This should be a no-brainer, but smoking and being surrounded by cigarette smoke irritates the respiratory tract, giving you a raspy voice predisposed to injury. The smoke impairs the mucosal wave, so in many singers, not all, range is decreased as is the quality of the voice, unless you like sounding like Joe Cocker. It also impairs lung function, which weakens support for the voice causing singers to compensate and strain throat muscles.


Vocal naps, or simply avoiding talking for 20 minutes, will keep you from overstraining your voice before a concert or performance. If you're driving home from work or a gig, instead of singing along with the radio, just listen.


There is so much emphasis on warming up, that few people realize it's equally important to warm down your voice after a performance. Voice doctors recommend five to 10 minutes of warming down after a robust concert where you push the envelope with your voice. To get the volume and pitch of your voice down to normal range, make a yawning motion with your mouth and sing "ahhh-ummm" from a high to low note.


Slippery Elm throat lozenges work great to soothe the throat and don't contain any irritants that would aggravate the larynx. Used by opera singers, Thayers Slippery Elm lozenges can be found at local health and natural food stores, Vitamin Shoppes, and GNCs.


If possible, visit the performance space before a concert to familiarize yourself with the settings and other factors you may not be able to control. Check the acoustics and sound system, temperature, where the bathroom is, and make sure water is available. Look out for unexpected irritants like smoke, stage fog, freshly painted sets, ammonia on floors, and other hazards that not only injure voices, but make the performance difficult if they are unanticipated.


Ask your physician for a referral to a voice specialist or ENT, and have your vocal cords checked regularly. If you're traveling for concerts, look into the availability of specialists in the places you're performing.

Besides avoiding irritants like caffeine, smoke, alcohol, and spicy foods, the best way to keep your voice healthy and strong is to live a healthy lifestyle. Getting the proper amount of sleep, eating a balanced diet, exercising, and drinking lots of water will keep vocal cords supple so they sound loud and clear when you need them the most.


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