Vocal Investments

Any performer—or for that matter, any public speaker—may suffer from vocal strain. Indeed, according to the performers and coaches we spoke with, the issues for all vocal artists are pretty much the same. There are only "stylistic differences and differences of scale, meaning how much voice is being used," says Los Angeles–based actor, singer, and vocal coach Dan Balestrero.

But, says Balestrero, it's most problematic for the voiceover artist who does animated characters, oftentimes several within the same script. "People tend to do caricature voices by squeezing," he says. "And these voices are not supported by the breath, and when that happens, they're going to have short-term careers." Other performers often afflicted with vocal damage are poorly trained and/or inexperienced opera singers and classical actors, whose roles involve a lot of proclaiming. Balestrero says some of these actors have never learned the difference between what he calls "screaming" and "hollering." "Screaming is what people do at football games, and we know how that turns out; the next day they can't speak. Screaming is grinding and irritating. Hollering is a great actor doing Shakespeare. Hollering is never grating and always clear." Actors who spend long hours recording audio books, singers in studios and on stage, and even actors in contemporary plays may also suffer from vocal problems.

A very large theater may inform the way a performer uses—or abuses—his or her voice, despite electronic amplification. While most of our sources agree a microphone should mitigate vocal strain, Erica Kelly, a vocal coach based in Santa Clarita, Calif., suggests that when singers' voices are miked, the singers may have even greater difficulty hearing themselves, as they are often competing to be heard over other miked singers and an orchestra that is also amplified. In an effort to hear their own voices, singers shout and strain, resulting in damage. Serious vocal abuse can lead to nodules or polyps on the vocal cords, which may require surgery.

No Pain, Yes Gain

No one disputes that the way to avoid vocal damage is to have a solid technique coupled with experience. Still, those we spoke with insist there are modest voice-saving tricks of the trade that even the most unseasoned performer can master. At the top of the list is a vocal warm-up before any performance. Singer–voiceover artist–film actor Carmela Rappazzo says she does a 45-minute vocal warm-up daily, even if she's not performing.

There are many vocal exercises, and performers should select those that work best for them. Kelly sings scales as well as exercising her facial and lip muscles, starting with a big smile. Balestrero suggests taking "five vowel sounds and putting a consonant in front of the vowel and uttering the sounds softly: 'me-ma-may-mo-mu' followed by progressively louder repetitions. You are teaching the voice how to operate at different volumes while keeping your breath support," he explains. For additional strength, he also advocates dog pants: short exhalations of breath on a single syllable like "ha, ha, ha."

He does not recommend that everyone work with a vocal coach; he says a bad educator is worse than no teacher at all. It's not unusual for voice teachers to tell students to view their vocal cords as muscles in need of "building up," which often leads to screaming and straining, he says. "The other thing that's hugely problematic is that they tell young actors, especially young women, who have high-pitched voices that they have to lower their voices. That's ridiculous. That's pasting something affected on top of something you already don't like." Balestrero says what many may view as unpleasant, high-pitched, squeaky voices are often just "pinched voices." If that's the case, he suggests breathing exercises, such as sighing or yawning the sounds "he-hay-ha." He says that will help the voice have natural warmth and "float lower," not because it's been artificially deepened but because "the voice is open and not pinched." Whatever vocal exercise you're doing, he emphasizes, should not cause discomfort or pain. You're supposed to feel better, not worse; the adage "No pain, no gain" does not apply to vocal exercises, he says.

Water, Water Everywhere

Hydration is essential for good vocal maintenance. Rappazzo, who routinely drinks eight glasses of water daily, says she always takes bottled water into a recording booth or keeps a bottle of water backstage at the theater. Kelly prefers warm water rather than cold. Drinking alcoholic beverages and smoking contribute to dehydration, and coffee is a diuretic, so those should be avoided the day of a performance, though for some actor-singers longer abstinence is called for, notes Balestrero. Rappazzo, however, does not find drinking coffee a problem as long as there is no milk in it.

Consuming any dairy product before using your voice is generally viewed as unadvisable because it "coats the throat and it doesn't clear away," says Kelly. "It makes you feel you're fighting something in your throat. Teas are okay, but stay away from the sugar. I'd also say avoid sodas because of the sugar, which amps you up. My gut reaction is to avoid carbonation altogether." With that, she's concerned about belching. Rappazzo, on the other hand, says ginger ale or ginger tea is a good antidote to coating in the throat, specifically if the coating is caused by chocolate.

Balestrero notes that drinks, even soothing ones such as herbal tea, have no bearing on the vocal apparatus, only on the throat. Honey, which some vocal artists advocate, may trigger the salivary glands, and that's a good thing if you're dehydrated, he says. But while any of these substances "may relieve dryness and irritation in the throat area," says Balestrero, "any ear, nose, and throat doctor will tell a vocal artist that the best thing to do is boil distilled or bottled water on the stove, roll some paper towels into a funnel—but be careful not to burn yourself—and inhale the steam with an open mouth for about 60 seconds a couple of times a day. Steam scrubs out impurities and soothes any irritations in the vocal folds."

Dehydration is a major issue in airplanes; Balestrero urges performers who travel cross-country to rub body lotion on their skin to help maintain hydration. For vocal artists who suffer from allergies or live in communities awash in pollens or smog, he suggests an air purifier. Rappazzo warns that humidifiers often have mold in them and are thus counterproductive. Buyers should make sure humidifiers are "spanking, sparkling clean," she says, adding that bottled water, not tap, should be used in humidifiers.

None of those we spoke with believe special vitamins are necessary for good vocal maintenance. Eating right, with lots of fruits and vegetables, is good for the voice as well as your general health, they all say. Still, many vocal artists have their own remedies. Voiceover artist Dmitri Michas says broccoli helps keep his sinuses from swelling, and that helps his voice. He also likes pineapple because it's an anti-inflammatory. He advocates the Zone Diet, with its low-glycemic carbohydrates and low protein intake. "This diet keeps inflammation to a minimum," he says.

Kelly recommends apple slices as a way to counteract a "clicking noise" the voice can sometimes make, especially in the course of a long recording session. She notes the microphones are highly sensitive and will pick up anything. They can also pick up stomach grumbling, so Kelly advises bananas to settle an empty or upset tummy.

Shut Up

It's also good to rest the voice before and after a performance or recording session, though everyone is different: Dedicated silence works for some but might not be necessary for others. "But you need to value your voice," says Kelly. "It's a delicate thing, and you need to give yourself a break. That may be a weekend break or a month break. If you end up straining your voice, and perhaps even developing nodules, you'll miss opportunities." She cautions that whispering is not the solution; it may be more vocally stressful than speaking.

For allergies and colds, most of the experts find nothing objectionable over-the-counter products, though Rappazzo warns against using saline solutions: "For allergens, such as pollens or ragweed, I'd recommend Xlear. It's a nasal spray without saline. It's important to keep the nose clean. And then I'd suggest gargling with warm water—but not tap water, because it's dehydrating."

All agree there is no one-size-fits-all vocal care; it's trial and error, and it's highly individual. Perhaps Balestrero sums it up best when he says the bottom line is "common sense."