Guides and Tips, Theatre

How to Make it Through Vocal Rest Successfully

If you’ve been experiencing serious voice problems, you may elect to go on or have an expert prescribe vocal rest. It’s exactly what it sounds like: resting the voice and resisting any urge to use it until the muscles have time to recover. Just like you need to rest an arm or leg after an injury, you need to rest your vocal folds and the other muscles involved in vocalizing if your voice starts to hurt. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of vocal rest, read my primer on the subject here to get a better understanding first.)

Vocal rest is a simple enough concept, but accomplishing it may prove daunting. Our society is not conducive to operating without a voice. You probably don’t realize how active your voice is throughout the day! Making it through days or even weeks without speaking is surprisingly difficult. A day at work or school typically requires a lot of talking, but even if you’re only resting at home, the urge to talk to friends, roommates, family, even pets or yourself can sometimes be overwhelming!

Operating daily in silence is not something most of us are used to. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some advice before you get started! 

If you’re embarking on a journey of vocal rest, here are some tips to help you stay silent and ensure a full recovery!

Find ways to stop yourself from vocalizing absent-mindedly.

Easier said than done! If you’re someone who likes to sing, hum, or talk to yourself, you’ll find that vocal rest can be very difficult to stick with. Keeping your brain and mouth busy are two key objectives: when your brain is occupied, you’ll be less likely to start vocalizing on autopilot, and even if that fails, keeping your mouth occupied will help stop autopilot from turning into a performance.

Here are a few tips for avoiding an accidental slip-up:

  • Try sucking on lozenges or hard candies, or chewing gum to keep the mouth and jaw busy.
  • Possibly rethink your music choices for the time being. Instead of listening to favorite songs, listen to albums you’ve never heard before. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of singing along to a song you know well, can hardly sing a piece you don’t know! Alternatively, ditch song altogether and try instrumental music or podcasts.
  • When listening to music, focus on the instruments behind the singer. Paying attention to the lyrics or sung melody may prove infectious. Listening intently to what’s happening in the music keeps your brain occupied with the interesting things the instruments are doing, and may help you understand the song better overall.
  • Consider silent singing. Instead of vocalizing, listen to a karaoke track of a song and sing the song in your mind. Imagine there’s a music player in your brain supplying the vocals– you should not be making any sound aloud! Try to get the rhythms and pitches as accurate as possible. This requires a lot of concentration, but can be almost as beneficial for learning or practicing a song as actually singing it aloud.

This may prove one of the most difficult parts of vocal rest. Stay mindful!

Explain what’s going on to friends and family.

Send out a mass text or email to coworkers, peers, teachers, and friends so everyone is in the loop. Let them know you have an injury that needs repair, requiring adequate rest— which can only happen with understanding from others! Remember that a vocal injury is nothing to be ashamed of, and anyone who shames you for needing to go on vocal rest not only doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but is also quite rude. (Vocal injuries are not necessarily the result of misusing the voice or of faulty technique. Typically they are the result of a “perfect storm” of bad conditions, including air moisture and quality, dehydration, illness, menstruation, stress, and possibly use, so there’s 0 reason for anyone to judge your technique or health.) 

Spread the message so others understand why you need to stay silent and can therefore work with and around your needs. Once people understand that it’s a health issue, most will happily work to assist in keeping you healthy. 

Use nonverbal methods of communication where possible.

Texts, emails, or handwritten notes can pick up slack where basic hand signals can’t quite do your thoughts justice. It may take you slightly longer to express yourself than you’re usually used to, but nonverbal communication is possible! If you want to be heard, you can use assistive apps on your phone to type messages and then read them out loud for you.

One of the very small halos of light around the horrible dark void that is COVID-19 is that it has become much easier to operate in society without having to interact with strangers. It’s much easier now to order groceries, meals, or other necessities online without ever having to speak. If you have errands that need done while you’re resting your voice, these options are a big help. 

If you know some form of sign language, this is a great time to use it! Unfortunately not everyone around you will be able to communicate in this way, but it can help in certain instances. 

If you absolutely must use your voice, use it with extreme caution.

If you’re in a position where you simply need to speak, try to choose your words efficiently and speak gently. Avoid whispering or shouting, as these are two extremes usages of the voice that are both stressful to your vocal folds. 

Ordinarily, it’s helpful to think of your vocal energy on any given day like a bucket of water— there’s only a limited amount of water in the bucket, and once it’s used up, it’s gone. While on vocal rest, your bucket is already gone. You have an emergency thimble should you absolutely need it. Don’t use up that thimble willy-nilly! 

If your doctor has expressly forbidden any vocalization, then forget what I’ve just said and avoid using the voice altogether!

Talk to your doctor about any special concerns.

A doctor who frequently works with singers will be every performer’s lifeline when something goes wrong with their instrument! If you have any serious performing aspirations, you should find a good fellowship-certified laryngologist or otolaryngologist to start building a professional relationship with ASAP. While resources on the internet like this article may be helpful (I sure hope this one is helpful), a doctor’s input will always be far more valuable!

If you have serious voice concerns, or if you’re unsure how to adapt a part of your life for vocal rest, ask your doctor about your options. They will be able to help you much more than any online resources can!

Be aware of what else could be damaging to your vocal folds.

Even if you’re not speaking or singing, other actions can put pressure on your vocal folds. Coughing and clearing your throat are big vocal stressors, so if you’re on vocal rest, you want to avoid these as much as possible. If you feel the urge to do either, try drinking water instead, or sucking on a hard candy. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to strain and tighten the throat during daily activities, including lifting heavy objects, stretching, playing certain wind instruments, or even straining in the bathroom. You’ll want to avoid these as you would avoid singing or talking. 

Also, if you haven’t figured it out yet, smoking is very bad for your voice. Your vocal injury may be an eye-opener when it comes to the need to quit. Smoking will undo any of the efforts you make during vocal rest, so it’s best to quit altogether. Easier said than done, of course, but it is crucial you avoid smoking at least until your voice has fully recovered, and make every effort to quit as quickly as possible so you don’t cause yourself further harm in the future. 

Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of rest, and eating plenty of good food.

Your body can only repair itself if you’ve taken care of your basic needs! Just as you wouldn’t expect to recover from a bad illness or bodily injury if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t expect your voice to get better without giving it what it needs to thrive. Even if you wouldn’t normally consider yourself an especially healthy person, now is a great time to fake it ‘till you make it. Act like you’ve got this healthy living thing down pat while you’re on vocal rest so you can recover. Afterwards, your less-than-desirable habits will be a little less high-stakes. 

Take note of the air quality in your home, workplace, and general environment.

Is the air you breathe daily very dry? Is it full of allergens or pollutants? If possible, you may want to take action to fix these problems. An air purifier and/or humidifier (or dehumidifier is moisture is a problem rather than a solution in your case) could help you in recovery, and might help maintain your health going forward. Dehydration can contribute to voice problems, so keeping the air at a comfortable level of humidity (around 50%) is beneficial. If you wake up with a very dry mouth, throat, eyes, or sinuses, that may be a sign your air is too dry or full of allergens.

Pro tip: The human nose is designed to help filter the air we breathe. If you have a habit of breathing through your mouth, you’re not letting the nose do its job and breathing allergens and pollutants right into the lungs! That’s a poor habit to kick ASAP.

Watch out for acid reflux. 

Acid reflux is a danger for the throat even when your voice is in good shape. When facing a voice injury, it poses an especial threat. Stomach acid creeping up the esophagus can irritate the throat and threaten recovery. As a singer, you should be taking steps to combat the causes of acid reflux already— but again, if this is an area where you typically struggle, vocal rest is a great time to simply play-act that you’ve gotten the healthy habits down. Avoid fatty and acidic foods, eat well before it’s time to sleep, and take antacid medications as needed. 

If vocal rest at work/school is impossible, consider taking some time off.

Though this of course isn’t possible for everyone, if you are able to take some sick or personal days to cover your rest period, you may find this to your advantage. Time off can also allow you extra time to sleep in and focus on health instead of other responsibilities! 

Remember what’s at stake.

You probably need no reminders, but it’s helpful to keep in mind what you’re going through all this hassle for. Stay mindful about the risks so you can reap the rewards! Failure to follow through with vocal rest can result in more serious injury that may require surgery to repair, or could permanently damage your voice. Don’t beat yourself up (excess stress is counterproductive for recovery), but keep your goals in mind when you’re struggling to make it work. 

Don’t forget to ease yourself back into singing GENTLY!

Once your prescribed period of vocal rest is over, that doesn’t mean your voice is necessarily fully recovered. Pay close attention to any signs of pain or fatigue as you resume vocalizing. Resume speaking and singing as if you’re an athlete going through physical therapy on an injured limb. Take it one step at a time, and don’t try to bite off more than you can chew!

Try warming up gently for 5-10 minutes on your first days off of vocal rest. If you notice any pain or fatigue, stop immediately. If you feel like you can keep going, then continue with caution, but don’t push it! You’ll need to adjust your concept of your vocal stamina, and it may take some time before you’re able to return to previous capabilities. This also goes for the tone and quality of your voice— you probably won’t sound exactly the same as before, and definitely not without some rehab! Take it slowly and don’t rush yourself, or else you may injure yourself all over again.

Final Thoughts

Vocal rest is a useful tool for performers, but it can be difficult to execute. Stay as silent as possible, and be mindful of your health. Now is the time to use every possible tool in your arsenal to make sure you come out healthy and happy!

I hope this article was helpful, though I ask you keep in mind that I’m not a doctor or voice expert– merely a hobbyist performer who loves to share her expertise where she can! This article shouldn’t replace medical advice. If you’re sincerely worried about a vocal injury, please refer to a doctor instead of this post!

If you have further questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments!