Coping with vocally-demanding jobs

lady with throat pain due to vocal health problems

Are you a professional voice user? According to Lions Voice Clinic (Minneapolis), a professional voice user is anyone who relies on their voice to carry out their job.  This can include: teachers, actors, singers, sales people, trainers and coaches, call centre workers, receptionists and public-speakers.  People who use their voices for long periods of the day increase their vocal loading (vocal stress levels) and therefore need to take extra steps to care for their voices.  In this blog post, I outline three steps that enable you to do this: (1) manage your speaking environment; (2) manage your vocal health; and (3) consult a voice professional when necessary.

The vocal folds are an amazing instrument! In an adult male of female, they are just 15-17mm long. Yet, they are capable of vibrating across a five octave range, and in the course of a person’s lifetime, easily withstand millions of collisions needed for speaking and singing.  Yes, the human voice is extremely resilient and resistant to injury. Never-the-less, injuries do occur at times. In many cases, these injuries have two contributing factors: chronic overuse and/or vocal abuse. People who use their voices for long periods of the day increase their vocal loading (vocal stress levels) and when coupled with other factors, this can lead to vocal injuries. Therefore, if you are in a vocally-demanding job, you need to take extra steps to care for your voice. You can do this by taking steps to manage: (1) your speaking environment and (2) your vocal health.

Your Speaking Environment

No matter how careful you are, bad speaking environments can have a detrimental affect on your voice. Environments that are dry or smokey will tend to irritate the mucus membranes of your throat and reduce vocal stamina. Noisy environments cause you to increase your vocal effort and volume in an attempt to lift your voice above the noise. This is known as the Lombard effect.  Try to avoid speaking in noisy environments. Sometimes, this can be as simple as closing a door/window or moving to a different room. If you’re in a public venue, such as a restaurant or bar, consider moving to a different seat.

If you are speaking or singing regularly in an environment that is not optimal, or if you must speak for considerable lengths of time, then ensure you use some sort of sound reinforcement. A simple PA system is a great resource for any professional voice user. You don’t necessarily need something big and expensive. You also don’t need a system that is loud – just something that will give an extra boost to your voice. For an example of some simple PA systems for public speaking, see the following links:

Manage your vocal health

Vocal injuries are best treated by prevention. When we talk of vocal health or vocal hygiene we focus on practices that will enable you to keep your voice in an optimal condition and prevent injuries associated with overuse or abuse. Six steps you can use to manage your vocal health are listed below:

1. Stay healthy

Your vocal health is a reflection of your body’s general health – which often comes down to three simple factors: sleep, diet and exercise.  One of the first places you will feel the effects of inadequate rest is in your voice. So try to ensure that, on balance, you are sleeping for an adequate period each night. Prepare for big speaking/singing engagements by being well-rested. Maintain your physical fitness through an appropriate exercise routine. Regular fitness has both short term and long term benefits for your health that you will feel in your voice. Eat a balanced and nutritious diet. Remember that the prime reason for eating is to nourish your body so that it can continue to regenerate and repair cells. Your voice is part of this system.

2. Stay hydrated

Regular intake of fluids is essential for peak performance. Dr. Van Lawrence a leading medical specialist in voice problems and founder of the Voice Foundation is famous for his advice, “sing wet; pee pale.” Generally, this rule of pale urine during your waking hours is a good indication that you are maintaining adequate hydration. Bear in mind that certain foods, medications and vitamin supplements can alter the colour of your urine. As a general rule, the more physical and/or vocal activity you have during the day, the more water you need to drink. The old guidelines was that adults should drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. However, science has demonstrated that hydration levels vary among individuals and can be affected by your genetics, level of physical activity, fitness and environment.  Online hydration calculators are a useful tool for estimating your ideal hydration levels. Some useful links are:

Remember, nothing you eat or drink actually touches the vocal folds. Drinking water does not lubricate the folds directly, but works on your body as a total system. Your body must consume enough fluids to produce a thin mucus to coat the folds. This takes time, which means you need to be drinking throughout the day and in the lead up to speaking or singing engagements.

3. Warm up your voice

Literature on sports science and exercise physiology describes the importance of warming up the body before active physical exercise, and the voice is no different. Singers and speakers who use a regular warm up routine almost unanimously report a greater sense of vocal ease and fewer vocal health problems. Like physical warmups, vocal warmups should be gentle and focus on getting things moving easily. There are many approaches to warming up the voice. As a general rule, most warmup routines involve bringing your awareness to your body (releasing tensions and finding good posture), focussing on your breath (slow deep breathing), moving to your voice (gliding gently across your full vocal range), and developing resonance (delivering clear ringing sounds). For best results you should consult a voice professional and get a personalised vocal routine developed for you. Total Voice Studio provides this service. As a stop gap, YouTube provides a number of resources for vocal warmups.  See, for example:

4. Your posture and vocal health

Posture and alignment is the foundation of healthy speaking,  singing and maintaining vocal health. How you hold your body affects the quality of the sound, the degree of vocal freedom, the clarity of your words and your ability to take low supported breaths.  Your voice will sound fuller, richer, more resonant if you practice good posture and you will achieve this boost of sound quality easily and naturally. A slumped posture with your chin jutting forward will bring the weight of your head down on the larynx and shorten the neck. This affects the acoustic properties of the vocal tract and makes it harder to pronounce your words clearly. Similarly, a sunken chest and rib cage restricts the movement of the breathing muscles and makes it difficult to support your voice with good airflow.

As a general rule of thumb, the areas to focus on for maintaining good posture are: (1) alignment of your head, neck and shoulders, (2) lengthened spine, (3) comfortably high chest (ribs up and out), and (4) weight distributed evenly across both feet or sit bones. For more information on posture you could consult a more-detailed blog post on posture I wrote on this topic.

5. Speak well

You can ensure you speak well by avoiding any vocally abusive behaviours, such as persistent throat clearing, coughing, yelling, or prolonged loud talking. Monotone speaking and keeping your voice down in a gravely or croaky place can cause vocal fatigue problems and lead to more serious vocal injuries.  Consider the analogy of carrying a heavy backpack with just one arm. Your arm would fatigue rapidly, because it is doing all the work. However, if you carry the same back pack, spreading the weight evenly across both shoulders, you will easily carry the same weight for a longer period of time.  In the same way, by constantly varying the pitch and volume of your voice, you distribute the vocal load more evenly across the entire mechanism. An easy way to do this is to try to be passionate and engaging in your speech. You can find your optimal speaking pitch by listening to how you spontaneously say the sound “mm-hmm” like you are agreeing with someone. The upper pitch of your “hmm” is a good place to start. Try sustaining this pitch and then say a phrase you’d typically say. For example, “mm-hmm-mm-how are you?” If this pitch range differs substantially from your typical speaking voice, you may not be speaking at an optimal pitch. Other indicators of a good speaking pitch is your easy laughing sound.

6. Take Vocal-naps

In their book The Vocal Athlete, speech pathologists Dr. Wendy Leborgne and Marci Rosenberg suggest that heavy voice users can benefit from including regular vocal naps throughout the day.  A vocal nap is a short period of voice rest from (5 to 20 minutes).  Try to make effective use of break times by resting your voice. Also, vary your workload so you can find other short periods throughout your working day and don’t do all your vocally intensive work at once.

Consult a voice professional

There are no guarantees concerning vocal health. Even if you do all the right things, accidents can happen or viruses and bacterial infections can inflict you.  Symptoms of vocal problems can include: hoarseness; loss of voice; vocal fatigue or feelings of effortful speaking that comes about very quickly; pain or discomfort in the throat; acid reflux; feeling either hot or cold in the throat; feeling like something is stuck or that you need to keep clearing your throat.  Ongoing issues with your voice should not be ignored. If your voice doesn’t feel right, give it a break. If it doesn’t start to feel better after a few days of rest, go to see your GP. If the problem persists for two weeks, it likely is time to visit a voice therapist or laryngologist to ensure that there are no medical problems. For chronic voice problems medication, surgery, voice therapy or combination of these may be needed. Every professional voice user needs to have connection with a speech pathologist and laryngologist (ENT specialist) who is skilled in working with voice problems. The links below provide a starting place for finding a reputable speech therapist or medical professional in Australia who is experienced in working with the voice.


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