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Your Vocal Clock

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I've found a really useful image, which helps me conceptualize my voice usage and helps me protect the most important part of my voice: my vocal folds. Just imagine that you have X amount of time every day on an imaginary vocal clock before your vocal folds begin to swell. You can't know exactly how much time you'll have on your clock before the swelling starts, but once the swelling begins, so does the hoarseness. So every time you yell, scream, laugh, growl, talk or sing, (even with perfect technique), you're taking time off your vocal clock for the day. You choose the vocal activity knowing that some activities will take more time off the clock than others. When we're singing great, partying and generally feeling invincible, the last thing we're thinking about is the state of our tiny, fragile body parts known as the vocal folds. The average vocal fold size is only that of a penny. You heard me; together your left and right folds are only the diameter of a penny and that's if you're average. Women's folds can be even smaller. High sopranos folds may be as small as a dime. Knowing what to be afraid of is actually an empowering piece of knowledge. Instead of harboring a vague fear of losing your voice, instead of feeling demons all around anxious to put a halt to your career, you can now focus on the only body part you can actually injure and the ones worth protecting: your vocal folds. And when you injure a body part, it swells, right? When your vocal folds get puffy, you end up with a raspy, rough tired voice. Not only are vocal folds small, but the act of making sound, what we call vibration, is actually a collision. Try this: play an A below middle C. That's called A 220. When you sing that note, your folds are flapping against one another 220 times each second. Amazing, true fact. Now sit down, because it gets better. When you sing the A above middle C, your folds are vibrating 440 times a second. Pretty awesome. High A is called A 880. Famous women's high C?: over a 1000 times each second. That's a lot of collisions! Not only does high pitch take time off your clock but loudness does too. If you clap your hands together lightly with very little space between your hands, you can easily visualize what singing softly looks like in your folds. Now clap your hands hard with a wide excursion. This is your vocal folds being loud. So the combination of high and loud singing creates rapid and powerful collisions, which create hoarseness sooner. Vocal folds are complex, layered structures with muscle inside: a ligament on the edges which meet and are all surrounded by spongy pink mucous membrane like the inside cheek of your mouth. Their ability to change shape is stunning: they can lengthen and shorten, the interior muscle can tense or relax, and the Jell-O-like covering can be taut or flaccid. They are sensitive to humidity change, preferring humid to dry air. Drinking more water and eliminating coffee, tea and alcohol prior to singing will extend time on your daily vocal clock. What if you do everything right? Does hoarseness only result from misuse? Unfortunately not. Studies of school teachers who use their voices constantly have shown that it is not uncommon for teachers to experience 1 million collisions during a standard work day and that does not include all the talking after work at home. That's a stunning number of collisions even if the person speaks with perfect vocal technique. So the answer is, good use is better than bad use, but use is use and reduces your ability to maintain a comfortable, healthy sound. There are a surprising number of elements that can affect how much good voice you can expect in any given day. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I yell or scream today? Yesterday? Two days ago? Take time off the clock.
  • Was I on the phone last night chatting while laying down? Definite time off the clock.
  • Did I eat fried food last night, alcohol, too much food? Uh oh...
  • Did I get my beauty sleep, or am I stumbling around on four hours of sleep? Oh dear...
  • Am I a blabbermouth, need to put a sock in it, laugh way too loudly?
  • Ladies: are we bloating right about now? If the rest of you is swelling, so are your folds!

Let's say that you like your raspy sound, it's your signature. You think it sounds even sexy. Fine, but then you have damaged vocal folds and that's acceptable to you. One can sing with vocal nodules, edema even tissue scarring. It doesn't sound good, it's not healthy and there will be limitations on your range and stamina, but that's your choice. Like so much in life, it's about knowledge and choice. If vocal health, consistent vocal ability for many years to come, easy high notes and lack of pain are of value to you, then keep an eye on your vocal clock. If your reflux has kicked into high gear or you partied too hearty last night, you will need to be extra careful the next day. Try not talking so much, speaking more softly and postponing a rehearsal if you need to. You are not a diva or divo just because vocal excellence is a priority to you. Unlike guitar strings, vocal folds are not replaceable. So getting a little extra sleep, laughing less loudly or speaking only as loudly as you need to be heard all will go a long way toward getting the most time from your daily allotment of natural vocal health. Protect your vocal folds by being aware of how remarkable they are. Like babies, they are tiny and precious. This essay first published March 11, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.



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