The Secret + Dangerous Ways You’re Hurting Your Voice

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There’s something in the air in New York City this week (beyond the typical wafting spring scents of garbage). This week, we learn the nominees for the 73rd annual Tony Awards, and it may put a song in your heart. This is a great time to check out Backstage’s theater auditions, but before you do, heed the vocal health advice of industry and Backstage Experts below. Thank us later—in your Tonys’ acceptance speech!

You aren’t at one with your swallowing muscles.
“So here it is: The big secret is to stop your swallowing muscles from coming down, engaging, or interfering with your sound production while singing or speaking.

“First become aware of exactly where the swallowing muscles are located. Place your thumb under your jaw in the center and then swallow. You will feel those muscles push down. If you have difficulty locating them, open your mouth and do an exaggerated yawn. You will definitely notice them, as well as how your air is stopped during the yawn. This is why, when those muscles are working, they will block your air and cause you to push to attempt to create sound. This is what leads to the hoarseness as well as the exhaustion while singing or speaking.” —Roger Burnley, vocal coach for 25 years, and Backstage Expert

And you don’t know what to do with that tongue.
“Tongue position is a great way to ensure that you’re breathing properly. When we are not speaking or singing, our tongue is supposed to rest on the roof of our mouth. The tip of the tongue should be right behind the upper front teeth (where we pronounce an ‘n’), and the rest of the tongue should be lightly suctioned up along the hard and soft palate. If you keep your tongue in this position, you promote proper jaw function, and you also ensure that you are breathing through your nose by blocking off your mouth.” —Andrew Byrne, voice teacher, performer, and Backstage Expert

You’ve forgotten your posture (for vocal health).
“Frederick Matthias Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, was an actor who kept losing his voice. After years of self-exploration, he realized that his habits of movement were causing tension in his neck, restricting his breath, and squeezing his larynx, which led to hoarseness and temporary loss of voice.

“As a result, Alexander coined the term ‘use of the self.’ He discovered that often when we try to change our posture, we attempt to hold ourselves a certain way, which restricts the body’s natural need to continually and subtly move in order to balance. In other words, we get stuck and fixed in what we think is the right way to stand, sit, or move. That leads to tension that of course affects the vocal mechanism. Luckily we’re incredibly adaptable. We can relearn to use ourselves as freely and easily as we did when we were toddlers.

“Especially if you’re having vocal problems, relearning better ways to move, breathe, sing, or speak is potentially life and career changing. Actors and singers may benefit from private lessons with a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique.” —Connie de Veer, professor of acting and voice at Illinois State University, and Backstage Expert

APPLY: These musicals are casting right now!

You know about warming up—but what about cooling down?
“In general [you] should always warm up really well and cool down properly before rehearsals and performances, just like any other athletes would warm up and stretch prior to a race or game. Also, really good hydration. Lots of water and avoid instances of anything they identify as an irritation to their voices—and that’s usually something really specific. Some singers say it’s milk and dairy, others say it’s caffeine. But figure out a known irritant and eliminate it. Also, in the winter, oftentimes having a humidifier at the bedside helps, along with six to eight hours of time where you’re quiet and your voice can restore itself.” —Dr. Melimn Tan-Geller, otorhinolaryngologist and former pianist

You think whispering is your life-saver, but actually…
“Whispering does not conserve your voice. In fact, whispering is one of the worst things you can do if you want to maintain a healthy voice. It is incredibly taxing on the vocal cords because it is produced by placing the vocal folds close together and then keeping them there. This irritated and swollen tissue keeps touching and vibrating, which further damages the vocal mechanism.” —Arden Kaywin, voice teacher, vocal coach, and Backstage Expert

You’re sacrificing safety to please others.
“The director wants you to scream, growl, or make some other sound and when you try it, you can tell it doesn’t feel right. This would be a good time to say, ‘Can we bring in a voice coach to help me with this?’ If they’re not willing to bring in a voice coach, try saying, ‘Would it be OK if we mark this for today? If you give me some time to work it out on my own I can bring it back to you.’ Use the comparison that aggressive vocalization is like a stage fight and needs time to prepare and practice.” —D’Arcy Smith, associate professor of voice and speech at the University of Cincinnati, CCM, and Backstage Expert

You think all the basics are suggestions. Nope, they’re mandatory.
“1. Sleep. Without enough sleep, your voice pays the price.
2. Dairy. Makes your voice phlegmy.
3. Caffeine/alcohol. Dries out your vocal cords, so avoid when working.
4. Health. When you get sick, your voice is the first thing to go.
5. Smoking. There are better ways to get that sexy voice.
6. Warm up. Just like an athlete would.
7. Hydrate. Drink water. Lots of it.” —Yuri Lowenthal, working actor and Backstage Expert

We have much more vocal advice and tips right here!