Performers hear about it all the time— the importance of “taking good care of your voice.” For actors and singers, the voice is a crucial part of making a living. Protecting it is therefore paramount.
But what exactly is involved in “taking care” of a voice? That phrase can mean a lot of things, after all. One takes care of a baby much differently than one takes care of a car, for instance. If you throw around this phrase without understanding fully what it means, we’re likely to miss a few steps. Unfortunately, just as in taking care of a baby, missing a few steps when caring for your voice can turn dire. So what does “taking care of your voice” actually mean?
Taking care of your voice means…
Getting to know your voice
You cannot care for your voice if you do not understand what a voice is. Even worse, if you don’t know what your voice is.
Developing an understanding of how the voice works is crucial, but even before you do that, it would benefit you to focus on getting to know your own voice. Your voice is a part of you, a complicated mixture of genes, anatomy, history, habits, culture, and education. You’ve been using it since you were born, so even without understanding the complicated workings of vocal anatomy and physiology, you know instinctively how your voice should feel and function. You know what feels natural for you, what feels uncomfortable, and what hurts. This is important feedback from your body that you should always listen to.
Exercise your voice regularly and develop a sense of where your personal quirks, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses lie. How does your voice feel at its best? Where does your range naturally lie, and what color or sound does your voice naturally tend towards? How long can you sing before you feel fatigued? What warmup routine makes your voice feel best, and how does that change day by day? How do things like allergies, tiredness, stress, or emotions manifest in your voice? Do any foods or medications invoke any changes?
Spend mindful time exploring how your voice feels. This is a necessary baseline for any vocal training you wish to pursue. You must become tuned-in to the messages your voice sends you while singing.
Listening to what your voice and body tell you
Once you understand how to listen to your voice, you must, of course, listen to your voice.
It’s fairly easy to tell when a particular technique, practice, or situation isn’t working. Your body tells you! If something hurts or feels uncomfortable, try to avoid it. If your voice feels fatigued, listen to this message and give it a rest.
If you were taking care of a particularly cute puppy, and they didn’t seem to like something, you’d probably avoid making them do or put up with that thing. Treat your voice with the same tenderness.
Becoming a lifelong student of proper vocal technique
A professional well-versed in the best way to use the voice is a mandatory part of your voice’s care team. Think of them like the trainer for your particularly cute puppy: You want both your trainer and puppy to be well-trained and excellent at what they do!
Although everyone is naturally equipped with a voice, we often develop harmful habits in using it. These “blockages” are often hard to recognize on your own. Therefore, voice teachers and therapists are crucial to developing the voice. Learning the most efficient way to use your voice when speaking and singing is a must, and they can help you get there.
Vocal technique involves learning to coordinate the muscles in the body to breathe and create sound in a comfortable, unrestrained way. Mastering vocal technique will free your voice from damaging learned habits and behaviors.
Many performers forget that there is more to vocal technique than singing. Learning to use your voice well while simply speaking and projecting on stage is also necessary. In addition to a singing teacher, look for an acting coach who can help you train your speaking voice.
Using your voice properly in EVERY situation
Remember that the voice is not only used in singing or projecting, and therefore vocal technique applies to more than just performance. In other words, you must care for your voice whenever it is used.
Take care of your voice in your daily life. Extremes like shouting and whispering are damaging. Avoid these and anything else that causes pain. This may mean altering habits at school or work. If you often end the day with a sore, fatigued throat, you are likely overusing your voice, or using it in injurious ways. This is a sign that voice training or therapy will be beneficial!
Understanding your limits
Imagine you lived a sedentary lifestyle and then suddenly decided to become a runner. You probably wouldn’t start by trying to run a 5k. In fact, you’d probably struggle to run more than a few minutes at a time to begin with. You’d simply have to understand that your abilities are limited by genes, experience, muscularity, and stamina.
Training your voice is much the same. Regardless of what training you may have received, every performer has personal limits to contend with. For instance, if you don’t use your voice frequently, you’ll probably lack the stamina to sing for long periods. If you regularly sing and speak in the low parts of your range, it will likely take some time and exercise to strengthen the top parts of your range. If you normally sing in a “legit” style, you’ll need to spend some time learning the rules and techniques of a pop-rock style before becoming comfortable with it.
You may be able to surpass all limits with training, but understanding where the limits are to begin with is necessary for reaching such a point. Respect your limits, and avoid pushing yourself to dangerous extremes! Otherwise, you’ll fatigue yourself and possibly injure yourself before you get very far.
Understanding the risks
An important part of taking care of your voice is understanding exactly what will happen if you don’t.
Failure to preserve and protect your voice can result in strain and injury. Educate yourself about what vocal injuries look and feel like. Understand what causes them, what you can do to prevent them, and what options you have for treatment should they arise.
It’s especially useful to listen to the stories of performers who have injured their voices and made full recoveries! Too often performers are bombarded by worst-case scenarios and fear-mongering. Understanding what treatment and recovery look like is as important as understanding what leads to needing treatment. Natalie Weiss talks about her injury and recovery in this video from her YouTube channel, and here’s an excellent interview about Telly Leung’s survery and treatment. Here’s another great article about the realities of vocal injury on Broadway.
Learn about the risks not to scare yourself, but to understand that injuries happen and with the right intervention, recovery happens, too.
If you want to learn more about vocal injury and recovery, I heartily recommend The Vocal Pitstop by Adam Rubin, which you can purchase (while benefitting an indie bookstore!) by using my bookshop.org affiliate link here!
Seeking medical intervention when you need it
If you believed your particularly cute puppy was getting sick, would you just hope it got better, or would you take it to the vet?
Don’t hesitate to seek out professional medical advice and intervention when it comes to your voice. It’s better to be safe than sorry! If you have pain, recognize a marked change in your sound, or if something just feels “off”, go to the doctor and see what’s up.
If you understand the risks, you understand how important medical intervention can be. Don’t shy away from it, or you may ruin your voice beyond repair.
Maintaining your performance health
Keep up with all the little habits your teachers and directors encourage— there’s a reason they’re encouraged. During the rehearsal process and performance, maintain adequate hydration, ensure you warm up and down properly, and take time to stretch. Avoid foods that might inhibit performance. Get enough sleep, while you’re at it.
While performing, your body and voice are under a lot of duress. Therefore, it’s important to pay your health a little extra attention. The stress and strain of performing can easily make you more susceptible to injury, accident, or illness, so be diligent in your prevention efforts.
Maintaining your full-body health
Your voice is not just limited to your vocal folds, nor only to your throat or lungs. Singing depends upon the work of many muscles and organs throughout your entire body. You simply cannot achieve your full performing potential if other health and lifestyle matters are holding you back.
Basic health necessities are also basic necessities for success in performance. Eating properly, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep will have an impact on your performing capabilities. They’ll also help you avoid vocal injury and illness. When injury and illness arise, following up with medical intervention as needed is also important.
Maintaining your mental health
Your voice is not just a product of your muscles. Your voice is a mechanism for communication and has evolved through millennia to suit that purpose. When you’re feeling stressed, tired, or upset, it’s no evolutionary mistake that it often comes through in your voice.
It’s difficult to perform or sing well when your mental health and emotional faculties haven’t been properly cared for. Mental health problems can pose a real issue for the stamina and resiliency required in performing. Just as it’s important to have a team of health professionals and trainers to care for your developing voice, it’s important to have a team of friends, confidants, doctors, and therapists to see to your mental health. Once again, don’t resist professional intervention when you feel you need it. It can make a world of difference.
To summarize, taking care of your voice means getting to know your voice, listening to what your body and voice tell you, becoming a lifelong student of proper vocal technique, seeking and keeping up with excellent training, using your voice properly in EVERY situation, understanding your limits, understanding the risks, seeking medical intervention when you need it, maintaining your performance health, maintaining your full-body health, and maintaining your mental health.
Your voice is a complex entity that requires careful care and attention. Treat it well, and it will flourish!