Looking after your voice

When I started taking singing lessons I was playing guitar in a rock band. I remember all the fuss of looking after my fingers and my hands, trying to warm them up when it was cold, trying to stop them sweating in hot weather, avoiding doing things like gardening and handyman work, and so on. It occurred to me that a singer would be free of all that nonsense, and wouldn't that be a relief. No more lugging guitars, amps, pa, lighting and general heavy gear to gigs. I'd just have a briefcase with my score in it and off I'd go, free to do lots of manual things that I enjoyed without a care in the world. If I got stiff or cut fingers, too bad! They would heal up in due course.

What I didn't reckon on was the constant problem with colds, vocal fatigue, sore throats, draughts, air-conditioning, humidity, dryness - the list goes on. The more critical the singing job, the more I felt I had to wrap myself in cotton wool. No alcohol, no smoking (I didn't smoke anyway), eat the right foods, avoid dairy products, don't talk too much, get plenty of sleep, constantly monitor the state of my voice... I longed for the simplicity of just worrying about my hands. Too late though - the guitar playing door was by now firmly shut in my face and I was committed to being an opera singer.

The voice is such a small, delicate instrument and reflects your general well being in an instant. Many times I'd be singing away happily and confidently and suddenly it didn't want to work any more. Not such a problem in rehearsals, but horrible in performance. I'd have to shepherd my voice to the end of the show as best I could, which was highly anxiety provoking and stressful. Sometimes I'd have to transpose high notes down when the top of my voice failed, which was deeply embarrassing, but fortunately not fatal.

Managing your instrument becomes and obsession and can rule your life if you're not careful, so you have to accept that things go wrong and do your best to cope when they do. That's what a rock solid technique helps with. All those hours working on your voice and building stamina will usually get you through with nobody the wiser but the conductor and your. The conductor never misses anything. Apart from that you have to find out what triggers allergies, excess mucus, blocked sinuses, vocal dryness, unusual frequencies of coming down with colds and chest infections, and any other thing that stops your voice from doing your bidding.

Here are a few things that helped me:

  • Never take anything other than paracetamol for headache or pain if you have to perform that day. Things like Neurofen+, Sudafed and Panadeine dry you out and also force your muscles to relax, which generally affects the way your vocal chords phonate.
  • Avoid alcohol and cigarette smoke.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay properly hydrated.
  • Stay fit doing sports that are voice friendly, eg. bike riding, walking, golf, jogging. I found that if I went swimming in a public pool I would frequently end up with a cold.
  • Try not to talk too much, and don't shout at all.
  • The best lozenges that I found are Vocalzone. They helped me through many a scratchy performance, as did diluted apple juice.
  • Get proper sleep.
  • Don't sing too soon after a cold, it can make things worse if you get inflammation from singing on an already slightly inflamed throat.

Good luck, and remember, your voice is delicate, and if you abuse it you could very quickly and easily lose it.