Vocal health is serious business for actors and singers whose voices are their instrument. Singing with a raspy voice may be desirable for specific performances, but usually you’ll want to learn how to get rid of a hoarse voice before damaging your vocal cords. Here are two reasons your voice might be hoarse after singing—and what you can do to soothe your worn-out vocal cords.
A hoarse voice is caused by multiple factors, but the most common culprits for singers are vocal fatigue and cold medicines.
Vocal fatigue: Just as it sounds, vocal fatigue results when you’ve overused your voice without proper recovery time. The vocal folds are muscles, and just like any other muscle or muscle group, they get tired, sore, and don’t work as well after a strenuous workout. You might have vocal fatigue if you find that along with the hoarseness, you’re running out of breath when speaking or singing, your throat or neck feel tight or tense, you’ve lost facility in your upper and lower parts of your range, your voice feels scratchy, or your mouth feels very dry.
Over-the-counter cold medicines: Antihistamines can be a godsend when you can’t breathe due to a cold or severe allergies. They function by drying the mucous membranes in the sinus cavities and throat. But sometimes they can be over-drying, leaving the vocal folds without the healthy coating of mucus necessary for optimal functioning. When that happens, the voice is more prone to injury and temporary loss of flexibility and ease. As with all things, know your body and how it reacts to what you put inside of it. Take these medications only when you really need them and go easy on vocal use until you recover.
With these causes in mind, how can you help ease your voice? Here are three tips.
1. Hydrate: The standard recommendation for a daily water requirement is usually 32 ounces. However, for professional voice users, athletes, and dancers, the preferred recommendation is about twice that. Vocal use is drying, and without adequate and regular hydration, the vocal mechanism suffers.
If you drink coffee, tea, sodas, or alcohol, moderate your intake and replace each serving of these drinks with a glass of water. These drinks are diuretics, which remove needed fluid from the body, so you need to replace it. Like everything you put in your body, listen to what it needs and choose accordingly. Keep fluids flowing to help rehydrate dried-out tissues.
Another option for hydrating your voice is to use a humidifier, which releases miniscule water droplets that bypass the epiglottis barrier. Try using a hot-water vaporizer overnight with room humidity of 30%–50%.
2. Rest: For a healthy voice, rest for at least 10 minutes following every 90 minutes of vocal use. Ideally, this means no talking or singing at all. Use this time to drink water, meditate, or work on your lines or music. It’s difficult at times to avoid talking with our peers on a rehearsal break—so if you must talk, speak in a “confidential voice” using a fully phonated (not breathy) but low volume voice, as if you were speaking to someone very close about something confidential. Whatever you do, do not whisper! It’s one of the most damaging things you can do to an already damaged or tired voice.
3. Warm up and cool down: When you jump right into heavy singing or speaking without warming up first, you risk vocal injury or at least temporary hoarseness. A sprinter wouldn’t think of running a race without first warming up, and a dancer would never dance full out without first warming up. Singers and actors are no different. Even a five-minute warmup will ease your vocal folds into optimal functioning by gradually getting more blood flow and hydration into those tissues. A warmup also focuses our attention on proper breath support, posture, and resonance. It is a warmup for the mind as much as one for the body.
According to voice pathologist Dr. Linda Carroll, vocal warmups should include:
- Stretches: Physical stretching of the upper torso helps open the thoracic cavity (that is, the chest cavity), expand lower rib cage movement, and strengthen the flexibility of inhalation and exhalation—meaning increased ability to hold long notes. To stretch the upper torso, arch the left arm up and over, reaching above your head toward your right side. Breathe slowly and deeply, and feel the “floating ribs” expand and contract as you breathe in and out. Change sides and repeat. Now bring your arms out palms up, with your shoulders down, and feel the “floating ribs” expand and contract with each breath cycle (purse your lips for respiratory drive). Keep your upper thoracic cavity stable and work your core support muscles.
- Sharp exhales: Take a deep breath in and then exhale sharply and quickly on “p” (unvoiced “puh”) 50 times; feel those muscles get ready for action. If you can’t make it to 50 on a single breath, take a second long inhale when you hit 25 sharp exhales. You can follow the 50 “puh” exhales with a similar set of 45 seconds of unvoiced quick “la” exhales.
- Elocution: Next, warm up your filter—the top of the larynx, pharynx, mouth, and nose that controls vocal tone, timbre, and texture. Exaggerate the diphthongs, or the vowel changes, and pitches in “how now brown cow?” Avoid wide oral openings and seek to have great intraoral space (think Julia Child). Now, recite your favorite Shakespearean sonnet, which are great tongue twisters requiring pitch, range of motion, and good breath control. Make sure you can feel the sonnet resonating in your mouth and skull. The lips and tongue tip should bounce around the wonderful noises of those consonants. If you are not a fan of Shakespeare, try repeating “unique New York” numerous times, changing your pitch throughout the phrase repetitions.
- Slides: The vocal folds now need to be warmed up using a variety of pitches, loudness levels, and registers. Vocal slides with increasing intervals should precede any triad intervals or vocal acrobatics. Some singers have better success starting with the “oo” vowel, while others prefer the “ee” or “ah” vowel. In general, the vowel “ee” works well for low and mid-range pitches, but it can be strained for higher pitches (especially if the lips spread for the vowel). The sounds “oo” and “oh” often work well for the mid and higher. They also help stretch the pharyngeal region, letting you access higher pitches.
- Flexes: Vocal flexibility exercises should be next. These gradually exchange the necessary tension of the lower pitch muscle (thyroarytenoid muscle) with those needed for higher pitches (cricothyroid muscle), which lets you hit those high notes. Altering note loudness also warms up your ability to change the vocal fold’s edge contour, which reduces fatigue and helps register coordination. Here’s a tip: Use a quick diminuendo (go from louder to softer) on the last note just before a much higher note. The diminuendo will thin the vocal fold edge, making it easier to start the high note. Then go ahead and do a quick crescendo (go from softer to louder) on the high note.
- Lip flutters: Lip flutters (“raspberries”), rolling the “r,” and singing “oo” into a five millimeter drinking straw—especially if the straw is submerged in about two inches of water—help balance the subsystems of your voice. These exercises support your voice by reducing resistance demands on the delicate vocal folds.
- Fake yawns: Keeping your mouth closed, pretend that you’re yawning to engage and loosen the jaw. This will help your jaw drop before the performance, which allows access to a wider range of sound.
It’s equally important to cool down the voice after intense vocalization. When vocal folds are tired, it’s a good idea to gradually decrease inflammation with a gentle onset of voice, moving from a high pitch down about five notes. Sighing gently while relaxing the neck is also in order. Easy humming can help cool things down a bit, too.
Carroll explained that vocal cooldowns should include:
- Descending slides: Lip flutters and descending five-note slides (“oh” to “ah”) with a little trill on the lowest note can be a great cooldown for the delicate vocal folds. Take the slides down as low as you can to help transition from your singing voice range to your speaking voice range.
- Continued vocalization: Then, count from 1 to 20, keeping the voice flexible in pitch, loudness, rate, and pauses. Sudden cessation of voice use can leave it high and dry. Cool those jets down by slowly lowering vocal intensity.
You want your voice to support you and your career for many years to come. Make it a priority to give it the care and attention it deserves. Hoarseness that seems worse than usual or that lingers for two or more weeks should be addressed by a professional.
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