How to Wreck Your Voice - 10 Bad Habits to Avoid - Total Voice Studio

How to Wreck Your Voice – 10 Bad Habits to Avoid

Do you know how to take care of your voice and avoid the most common causes of vocal damage? Anyone who learns an instrument also needs to learn how to carry that instrument around with them, and how to take care of their instrument. Singers are really no different!

Taking care of your voice often involves avoiding one of ten extremes. Let’s explore them in this video.

Mistake #1: Too Noisy

The first step in taking care of your voice is to look at the environment where you are using your speaking and singing voice. You’ve probably noticed that noisy environments cause you to increase your volume and effort to lift your voice up above the noise. This is known as the Lombard effect or Lombard reflex.
  • We’ve all been at loud parties or in restaurants, where we feel our voice is getting drowned out and we are fighting to be heard. 
  • The same thing happens when someone who is wearing headphones tries to speak to you.
Talking for a long time in a noisy environment can cause vocal fatigue or strain. It’s not very easy to control this because the the Lombard reflex is largely an involuntary reaction… So what can you do?
  • Be conscious of protecting your voice in noisy environments.
  • Avoid speaking for long periods in these conditions
  • Look for alternatives. Sometimes, this can be as simple as closing a door, a window, or moving to a different room. If you’re in a restaurant or public venue, consider moving to a different table.

Mistake #2: Too Loud

The ability to yell or scream or yell is a primal sound useful for our survival. However, some people yell all the time – either at home to get people’s attention, at sporting matches to support your team, when playing games, or for work.

Some jobs (sports coaches, teachers, actors or managers) involve talking to large groups of people or talking in large open spaces. These kind of jobs carry with them a real temptation to yell.

Yelling or screaming is like power-lifting for your muscles. It’s a highly energetic and strenuous act for your voice. When you yell you lift up the pitch of your speaking voice, you increase air pressure, and you constrict or squeeze your throat muscles.

How much of this your voice can cope with will depend on your level of training, some genetic factors and also your general level of health.

While there are “safer” ways to yell, prolonged yelling or screaming, is a sure-fire way to strain or injure your voice and some of those injuries can be quite serious, including

  • Vocal Fold haemorrhage where you rupture the lining of your vocal fold and cause bleeding
  • Growths or legions, including nodules, polyps and cysts
  • Fibrosis (thickening of the vocal fold lining)

The best way not to wreck your voice is to find alternatives to yelling, such as:

  • Move closer to the listener or use physical proximity to avoid needing to yell
  • At sporting games, clap or use whistles, don’t scream
  • If you’re a teacher, coach or professional speaker who regularly talks in large spaces or to large groups, use amplification or a PA system to save your voice

Mistake #3: Too Soft

Too loud is not the only volume-based problem for your vocal health. If you’ve ever had a bad cold, laryngitis, or fatigued your voice, your first reaction might be to try and “save” your voice by whispering or speaking very softly.

Whispering is quite strenuous for the voice. When we whisper, we alter the way our vocal folds come together, often holding them stiff and rigid or creating gaps. When air is forced through this kind of setup, it can be drying, irritating, and cause vocal fatigue.

It might appear like you are saving your voice but whispering requires more effort than using the voice at a regular volume. You are better off using your voice gently at a normal volume rather than whispering.

If you are sick, have a sore throat or laryngitis, try to minimise your voice use

You can find out more on this topic by checking on my YouTube video on how to treat laryngitis

Mistake #4: Too Long

We all know that strenuous exercise fatigues our muscles. The same principles apply to your voice. Anyone who places heavy demand on their voice can experience vocal fatigue, not only singers.

Vocal fatigue is a term that describes strain, tiredness or weakness in your voice that comes about from using your voice for too long.

  • Vocal fatigue can be caused by medical problems with your voice, or by the way you are using your voice (bad habits, or poor technique).
  • But the simplest way to experience vocal fatigue is to load up your voice by speaking or singing for too long without a rest.
  • Fatigue can become a vicious cycle, since over straining may occur in an attempt to compensate for the fatigue.

Vocal fatigue is particularly when you are sick or suffering from laryngitis

So, what you can you do about vocal fatigue? Prevention is always better than cure when it comes to any form of muscular fatigue. Vocal fatigue should be thought of as an early warning sign. If you don’t heed the warning signs it can quickly lead to more serious and lasting problems.

You can help prevent vocal fatigue during your day by taking a vocal nap. 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.

Mistake #5: Too Cold

If you want to train and improve your voice, the best thing you can do is approach your voice the same way as an athlete approaches their legs. Athletes who want the best from their bodies know the value of warming up.

Singers and speakers who use a regular warm up routine almost unanimously report a greater sense of vocal ease, better control of their voice, and fewer vocal health problems in the long term.

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

Mistake #6: Too High

The human voice is capable of producing tones across 2 to 3 octaves relatively comfortably. For the longest time, audiences and singers have been excited by singing high notes. We instinctively know that high notes take a lot of skill to produce and sustain.S o much so that the term “money note” is sometimes used in the music industry to refer to the highest and most dramatic tones of a song

Singers can run into trouble when they try to imitate what they hear on recordings or television talent shows by belting out lots of high notes. You can injure your voice if you try to sing strong and loud tones without knowing the technique or without first training and developing strength in your voice.

Damage does not happen because the pitch is high, but because of the collision force of the vocal folds, how many collisions they have to sustain and because of the extra muscles we often recruit to try and squeeze out the high notes.

Like any other muscle in your body, the vocal folds can’t achieve the level of flexibility and strength needed to hit those high notes in one session. It takes time, practice and correct technique to learn how to reach high notes.

Yes, singing exercises and vocal lessons can help increase the range of your singing voice. You can expand both your upper and lower range through developing your technique and vocal flexibility

Mistake #7: Too Low

It’s not all about high notes. Singing any notes repeatedly that are outside of your comfortable range can fatigue or strain your voice. This also includes notes that are too low.

You need strength in the bottom of your range or in your chest register so your vocal folds will close efficiently and resist the air. This produces powerful low tones and a solid foundation to your singing technique. While this is true for any singers, it is particularly relevant if you are a woman and find your low notes are breathy and that you can’t get enough power in your voice. 

A lack of strength in the bottom of the voice causes singers to push harder than they need to in order to produce a clear sound. Also, it makes singing feel more effortful than it needs to.

Another way that low sounds can damage your voice is through monotone speaking or by keeping your speaking voice down in a croaky or gravelly place. When your speaking pitch is too low and the airflow is light, it produces a sound called vocal fry. 

Vocal fry is used as an effect in many styles of singing and is thought not to be a problem in this context. However, Speech therapists currently disagree on the topic of whether vocal fry is a problem when used habitually in speech.  I prefer to think of it this way – nothing in your body works better if you lock it down and restrict its movement. The best range for your voice is dynamic, where things are free to move. 

Mistake #8: Too Dry

Water is the single most important substance we consume. Your body can survive for a month or more without food, but you would die in a matter of days without water.

As well as contributing to our general health, water has an important role for us as singers. The act of singing involves repeated tiny collisions of your vocal folds. These collisions produce friction, heat and wear/tear on your vocal organs.

Just as your car uses oil to lubricate the moving parts against friction, so too your body uses water you drink to produce a thin mucous that coats and lubricates your vocal folds.

If we become dehydrated, the watery mucous that lines our vocal tract can become thick and give us the sensation of phlegm or gunk in our throat. This in turn causes needing to clear our throats.

If you’d like to know more about keeping yourself hydrated as a singer, check out my YouTube video on hydration tip for singers

Mistake #9: Too Irritating

The most sensible way you can take care of your voice is to avoid anything known to be irritating or abrasive to the voice.

This applies especially to anything you inhale, since air that enters your lungs first washes over the vocal folds. Smoking pipes, cigars, e-cigarettes (or vaping) carries with it many health risks. Aside from this, smoke particles are particularly damaging to your voice. The burning end of a cigarette is more than 200 degrees Celsius. By the time the air and burning embers travel down your throat, it has cooled only a little and they will directly burn and irritate your vocal folds. Also, the tar and other chemicals in cigarette smoke causes swelling and excess mucus. This applies also to second-hand or passive smoking.

Environments that are dry, smoky, or excessively air-conditioned can also irritate your voice and reduce your vocal stamina. For the stage performer costumes, wigs, makeup, sets, paint, and materials used to produce special effects on stage can all be a source of inhaled irritants.

A common way that people irritate the vocal folds is through clearing the throat. That “ahem” sound is actually the grinding of the edges of your vocal folds against each other which causes swelling and irritation. Doing it once in a while is probably not going to cause you too many problems.

However, people can quickly get into a bad habit of clearing their throat repeatedly and that’s where the problems start.

As much as it feels like you are “clearing” mucous or gunk off your vocal folds, all you’re actually doing is moving it to one side. That mucous eventually makes its way back to the vibratory edge. This begins the vicious cycle of constant throat clearing.

There are better alternatives to clearing away the excess mucous:

  • sip water
  • use the silent cough swallow method demonstrated on the video

Mistake #10: Too Acidic

One of the most irritating of all substances for your voice comes from within! Your stomach secretes acid and enzymes to help you digest your food.

 

If the valve at the top of your stomach malfunctions, those digestive fluids can flow backwards and into the food pipe causing a condition known as Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD), heart burn, or simply, Acid reflux. 

 

Acid reflux can cause major problems for singers. Stomach acid is very corrosive. If it rises further up and come into contact with the throat or the vocal folds, it is called Laryngopharyngeal reflux.  

Acid Reflux can cause a variety of unwanted vocal symptoms including a hoarse voice, laryngitis, vocal fatigue, feeling like there is a lump or excess mucus in your throat, postnasal drip, burning, sour taste in the mouth or general discomfort. It can also slow down the healing of other vocal injuries. If reflux persists for a long period, more serious conditions such as growths and cancers can emerge.

 

Acid reflux can also be a problem when obvious heartburn symptoms are not present, and this condition is sometimes known by the term “silent” reflux

 

Reflux can be caused by lifestyle factors such as eating too much, various food sensitivities, eating spicy foods, or eating too late at night before bed. Also stress and anxiety are a factor.

 

Even if you have never experienced symptoms of reflux, your need to be aware of it as a potential problem. One poorly timed episode of reflux before a performance or audition can have a big impact on your voice quality. Also, when reflux is combined with some of the other factors mentioned in this video – too loud, too high, too long…. It c

 

If you suspect you are suffering from reflux, you should speak to your GP or family doctor, who is best placed to give you medical treatment.

Conclusion

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. The human voice is extremely resilient and resistant to injury. Never-the-less, injuries do occur at times. Being a singer who is serious about your vocal development means you need to – know how to take care of your instrument – sometimes we have to go to extra lengths The extra lengths I’ve described for you today involve avoiding the extremes – too loud/too soft – too long/too short – too low/too high
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