Losing your voice sucks.
For a singer, your voice is your instrument; it’s upsetting when your instrument breaks. If you play guitar or piano, it’s still upsetting but you can fix it. With your voice, it’s not as simple as calling in the repairman.
There are different types of vocal dysfunction and vocal strain. I’m not going to go into all the physiology of different types of damage you can do to your voice, but you can find out more here if you are interested: http://www.entnet.org/content/nodules-polyps-and-cysts. Medical Disclaimer: I’m not professing any medical knowledge of how to heal real vocal issues. Please see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist (ENT) if you think you have serious issues.
Losing your voice
Prevention is better than a cure so let’s talk about how to avoid losing your voice in the first place.
Vocal dysfunction or losing your voice occurs for three general reasons:
- when we abuse our voice by either a lack of support, lack of proper breathing, tight or clenched jaw,
- or singing when we are unwell and thus not being able to engage all the correct muscles needed to produce a healthy sound,
- or singing in a very loud environment and you cannot hear yourself. This causes you to overproduce your voice, as the constant feedback loop of listening to your own sound has been broken.
How to not lose your voice
The key to not losing your voice isn’t focusing on what not to do. It’s very hard to try to not think about something. Try to not think of a juggling monkey right now. See, pretty hard, right?
The key is to build a healthy habit of singing correctly. Proper support, breathing, relaxed jaw/facial muscles, solid vowels and resonance in the right places are all the signature signs of healthy, strain-free vocal production. A good teacher (Related: What to look for in a voice teacher) will give you lots of exercises that focus on the above. When you consistently practice, it will actually become second nature to sing correctly and hard to sing incorrectly. Yes, you read that right, singing with bad technique will actually be difficult to do, and you will have to make a conscious effort to sing poorly!
Singing when under the weather is also asking for trouble. You might be able to get away with it for a while, but once you try to sing above a certain pitch or volume/body you may find that you cannot support the sound, and you crack. To compensate, you push harder, clench your jaw, take in too much air or tense up. This causes the wrong muscles to be engaged and places needless pressure on the chords. (Sometimes you have to perform when you are sick, but the key is rest and laser-like focus on technique. There is a story of Pavarotti giving a flawless performance when he had the flu, and when asked how he did it, he explained it was nothing but technique.) There is certainly a fine line between knowing when not to sing, and when you feel you have no choice but to do so.
Loud environments can really throw you off. Conversely, one of the reasons we love to sing in acoustically pleasing places is that it gives us a sense of power that our voice projects so well. It is almost effortless that even a lighter tone sounds powerful and resonant in such an environment. As a result, we take our foot of the gas, and singing feels easy and fun. However, once in a dead environment with loads of people around us singing or talking/shouting, we are fighting to hear ourselves. This is a crisis for the chords, which are not designed to compete with a cacophony of sounds. The answer: Don’t sing. And if you do, get a good microphone with a monitor that is correctly configured so you can hear yourself.
Using Your Voice – the RIGHT way
When you use your voice correctly, there is no damage or strain. If you had infinite energy, it should feel like you can sing forever. Indeed, healthy singing is so enjoyable that you often wish you could. What makes you tired after a 3-hour concert or gig, is not the vocal strain – it’s your body saying ‘Give me a break’. I’ll prove it.
I’ve had performances where I have song straight for 3 hours without any amplification. I was in a large hall with hundreds of people in attendance. Immediately afterwards, I just wanted to sit down. I could barely stand up and greet people. I just needed food and sleep.
Yet, 4 hours later, after rest and food, I sang again, with full range, power, body, etc for another 1.5 hours in exactly the same way!
How does that make sense?
The answer is that my body was tired.
My voice was perfectly fine.
Once I had tended to the needs of my body, by sleeping and refueling, I was in excellent vocal shape and ready to roll. Heck, I didn’t even need to warm up, as I was so well placed. It was like continuing exactly from where I left off!
I’m not here to brag, as really anyone can accomplish this. It’s just what naturally happens once you put in the hard work to build a solid technique. I had a voice teacher that taught people for 10 hours straight, and he was using his full voice the whole time. To top it, he was not a young man! When I quizzed him on it, he explained that it was not some fluke or good genes. Rather, his technique was designed to create healthy vocal production. When you sing healthily, you don’t lose your voice. It’s as simple as that.
Though everyone has different natural energy levels, a lot can change with good diet, exercise and regular vocal exercises which build muscles and stamina. Another important aspect is what I call Vocal Strategy. This is how you pace yourself in any vocal discipline, song, concert, performance, recital, speaking engagement etc – giving 110% in the first 5 minutes will tire you out. We’ll cover this in more detail in another post.
Bringing it all together…
Using your voice should feel worlds apart from losing your voice. As you study more, you’ll learn to tell them apart. You’ll learn to experience the joys of using your voice more and more of the time. When you are still going strong 2 hours later, all those exercises and drills will feel well worth it 🙂 .
What about you? Have you ever felt the incredibly liberating feel of endless singing stamina? Or have you felt the confining feel of running out of vocal juice? Whatever your experiences, good and bad, leave a comment below and let the conversation continue…
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