Anyone who sings (or speaks) for their supper knows how critical it is to take care of their voice. If you’re a voiceover artist, singer, or anyone who relies on their voice for work and for play, this essential guide of the dos and don’ts of taking care of your voice is for you.
Vocal health is necessary to maintain vocal quality and prevent vocal disorders such as laryngitis, vocal nodules, and vocal cord weakness. Sound is created by vocal cord vibrations, so if your cords become injured, it can mean the end of your career in vocal work. Strong vocal hygiene is a matter of instilling good habits that protect your voice over time—think proactive, rather than reactive. Taking care of your voice is vital for any performer, “especially a professional whose living depends on their voice,” music professor John-Paul White told Oakland University News. “Maintaining vocal health is so much easier than having to fix a problem once it has occurred.”
Hydrate: Proper hydration is the most important thing you can do for healthy vocal cords—and if you’re wondering what to drink to have a good voice, the number one answer is always water. “Drink plenty of water at least an hour before a session, in order to moisten all the tissues in your mouth,” says Marc Cashman, a voiceover actor, producer, and instructor. He points out that this can also cut down on extra mouth noise: “You want to eliminate any noises in between words and sentences, or within words themselves, so you’re speaking clearly, with very little mouth noise.” Aim to drink at least two liters of water a day to hydrate your voice.
Use a humidifier: “Your voice likes moist air, so use a humidifier (especially during winter months and in drier climates) to prevent it from drying out,” vocal coach Theresa Fowler Pittius says. Use a hot-water vaporizer overnight with room humidity of 30% to 50% to lubricate those cords.
Warm up: Vocal warmups are necessary to keep your vocal muscles from strain and help keep you speaking and singing. Less than 30 minutes before any extended or critical voice use, spend between 15 to 20 minutes to do vocal warmups that “cover the full range of breathing, voicing, resonance, and articulation exercises,” voice pathologist Dr. Linda Carroll told Backstage. Check out our guide for a full breakdown of the best vocal warmups for singers, including stretches, sharp exhales, elocution, slides, flexes, lip flutters, and fake yawns. For voice work, voice teacher Andrew Byrne recommends mouthing your lines to activate the articulators: your jaw, tongue, and lips. “Additionally, several postural muscles of your larynx will be moving and getting warm, even though your vocal cords will still not be touching,” he says.
Use your time wisely: If you’re commuting to an audition or performance, use that time to the benefit of your vocal health. “I tell my students, when they’re on the way to an audition or session, to vocalize in the car. It takes you 15 to 30 minutes to get anywhere in Los Angeles, so you may as well take advantage of it,” Cashman says. “Look at billboards and make up melodies with the words they see. Singing at a comfortable range will stretch your vocal cords. By the time you get to the session, you are vocally where you need to be. You’ll be warmed up, focused, and ready to hit the ground running.”
Cool down: Cooldowns are needed to bring your voice back down to its state of normal use. Take about two to three minutes to do cooldowns—including descending slides, lowering vocal intensity, and gentle breath pulses—within five minutes of closing out your vocal performance.
Take care of your sinuses: “Keep your sinuses clear,” Cashman says. “A decongestant spray or tablet will work for a short amount of time, but it will also possibly dry out your mouth. A saline spray can also help.”
See a doctor: Find yourself with constant stuffiness? You might want to consult with an ear, nose, and throat doctor. “If you’re diagnosed with a deviated septum, you might consider surgery,” Cashman says. “They’ll Roto-Rooter out your sinuses and make things a lot easier.” He has found that the vocal quality of some actors improves after the surgery: “I’ve known a number of people, including myself, who have gone through this procedure and it has completely changed their voice. It’s given me much more depth and resonance. It was life-changing.”
Exercise your voice: Cashman has a series of exercises to strengthen the voice, as well as the actor’s diction and clarity. “Hold your top and bottom teeth together gently and go through a series of tongue twisters, forcing your lips to do the work,” he suggests. Another exercise he recommends is to put a wine cork halfway in your mouth, then try to read copy as clearly as possible. “The clearer you are with the cork,” he says, “the better you will be without it.”
Exercise your body: Physical exercise is also important to keeping your voice working well. “All voiceover takes breath and breath control—that’s why cardiovascular exercise is so important,” Cashman says. “The better your fitness, the bigger your lung capacity and the more control you will have over your breathing.” Cashman finds physical fitness vital when doing more-demanding sessions: Those who don’t exercise “will have a hard time. They will run out of breath at the end of a phrase or sentence. Sustaining long passages is particularly difficult, and they may not be able to pull off long-form work like audio books.”
Know the value of rest: Taking breaks in between recording and performance sessions helps protect your voice from overuse and strain. “I think good rest is probably the best thing you can do for your voice,” singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell said in an interview with Reverb.com. Pencil in regular vocal naps of 10 to 20 minutes every two to three hours on longer days of voice use.
Work with a voice coach: Beyond helping you hit your best notes and read melodiously, voice coaches can guide you toward best practices in “intonation, articulation, interpretation, mic technique, breath control,” and other important elements of maintaining vocal health, Cashman says.
Overuse your voice: Overuse and strain can make your voice hoarse—or even make you lose it entirely. "Excessive talking is one of the worst things for your voice,” Evanescence singer-songwriter Amy Lee told Reverb.com. “Text or play a video game instead if you’ve got a performance coming up.” Cut down on the late-night karaoke sessions, try not to release a melodramatic scream if you encounter something creepy-crawly, and reduce practice and performance hours if necessary to protect your voice from strain.
Venture too far outside your range: Allow your vocal range, the range in which your voice is the most comfortable, to dictate most of your performances. Someone with a naturally guttural bass voice, such as James Earl Jones, would likely find it difficult to perform the high soprano voice of a Mariah Carey long-term. Stick to your range as much as possible, and only venture outside of it for brief stints.
Talk with your mouth full: Food and drink can be treacherous for the vocal performer. Cashman warns students to avoid caffeine, sugar, dairy products, and alcohol before a session. Meals are also another potential problem. “Don’t eat a heavy meal before a session,” he says. “You’re just going to be tired, and your throat will be full of food detritus. If you do eat a heavy meal, rinse your mouth, brush your teeth, clean your mouth out completely.”
Ignore physical issues: Physical issues are a sign that there may be a medical condition that needs to be addressed. Anything including soreness, a lingering cough, ongoing laryngitis, or a vocal cord hemorrhage should be checked out by a doctor who specializes in the throat.
Smoke: Smoking is a surefire way to damage your voice. “This should be a no-brainer, but there are voice actors who feel smoking gives their voice character, that edge or rasp,” Cashman says. “I argue that actors who don’t smoke can always put an edge or rasp in their voice, but the smoker cannot take it out. Besides the vocal issues, you stink up the control room and the booth. If you must smoke, wait till after your session.”
Drink or eat harmful substances: Alcohol and overly acidic, spicy foods and drinks can damage your throat. Minimize the hot wings and cocktails to prevent damaging your cords.
Perform sick: Being considerate of your fellow actors’ voices is also important. “Don’t show up at an audition or session with a cold,” Cashman warns. “It’s a selfish thing to do. If you miss an audition, it’s like a bus: Another one will always come along. If you know it will affect your performance, you need to bow out. People will respect that.”