“Vocal rest” is a familiar concept for seasoned performers. If you’re a newcomer to the theatre world, however, you may not have heard of it before. What exactly is it, and why do singers seem so obsessed with it?
Vocal Rest: a Basic Intro
Vocal rest is exactly what it sounds like: giving your voice a rest! Most people naturally rest their voice at intervals throughout the day, but making an active effort to rest it more may help if you’re experiencing vocal fatigue or worried about a vocal injury. It’s the same concept as an athlete staying off an injured leg in order to help it heal: you’ve worked your body past its limit, and now it needs time to recover.
Vocal rest can be partial (consisting of short periods or “breaks” of silence) or total (complete silence). For instance, for cases of vocal fatigue among non-singers, vocal rest in intervals throughout the day is commonly recommended— for example, if you speak for an hour, you could then rest your voice for 5-10 minutes. For singers, “vocal athletes” who use their voices in specialized ways, this probably won’t quite cut it.
When performers talk about vocal rest, they’re usually referring to silence for a matter of days to potentially weeks rather than minutes.
Resting the voice allows the vocal folds to “reset.” If you’re feeling strained or tired, chances are you’ve been overworking or possibly misusing the voice, or other factors are lowering your body’s typical maximum capacity of vocal energy. (More on that in a bit.)
Vocal rest is a pretty uncommon phenomenon outside of the performing arts realm, so many newcomers don’t fully understand it. Voice injuries are another “invisible” malady— like mental health problems or chronic pain disorders— that we as a society tend to overlook because they may not appear as debilitating as more physical injuries or illnesses. As a society, we have a tendency to mistreat our voices and simply expect them to bounce right back. However, the voice is made up of the same stuff as any other part of our bodies, and mistreating the voice regularly over time will diminish and eventually destroy its ability to “bounce back.” Ever screamed yourself hoarse at a concert? You may have recovered from it after one or two times, but if you continue to do this over the course of your life, your voice will be permanently damaged over time.
Simply put, resting the voice provides your muscles with the break they need to recover.
Resting to Prevent Injury
If you’re feeling stress or pain in your throat while singing, you may have injured your vocal folds, or be on your way to an injury unless you give yourself a break and assess your vocal habits. Vocal rest provides a safe environment for recovery, and is a preventative measure to ensure your injury or strain doesn’t get any worse.
Consider what happens when someone walks around on an injured ankle. Abusing an injured body part can cause it to heal incorrectly. In the case of your voice, persistent misuse can cause swelling, which can eventually result in blisters or callouses on the vocal folds called polyps or nodules, respectively. There are small differences between the two that aren’t crucial for the purposes of this article— if you’re interested, see this article from the American Speech-Language Association for a more in depth explanation. They both prevent the folds from vibrating properly, resulting in a changed vocal tone, decreased range, and pain. In serious cases of vocal trauma, the vocal folds can hemorrhage, which if left untreated can require surgery to resolve.
Vocal rest at the first sign of strain can help prevent these problems, and can also keep them from getting worse. Treatment for these problems also generally consists of resting the voice and proceeding with caution by adjusting singing and speaking habits.
When Should I go on Vocal Rest? And for how Long?
Any time you’re feeling strained or fatigued, vocal rest will help ensure you don’t hurt yourself further and will keep your voice in working condition. For instance, if you’re halfway through tech week and feeling exhausted vocally, you could opt to go on vocal rest during the day so you can preserve your voice for rehearsal or performance that night. Basically any time you feel tired, fatigued, hoarse, or strained, or feel any pain in your voice, vocal rest is the very first step you should take to prevent further injury. At the first instance of pain or fatigue, stop singing and let yourself rest! If the problem persists, you can continue vocal rest until you can see a doctor, or until the problem subsides.
If you’re concerned you have a voice injury (typically recognizable by a sudden change in vocal quality, prolonged hoarseness, and/or pain in the throat), start see a laryngologist ASAP. Note that a fellowship-trained laryngologist or otolaryngologist is very much preferable to an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist because the former will have access to technology and expertise the latter will not. A laryngologist with experience working with singers will be much more equipped to handle something as fragile and elaborate as your singing voice! Set up an appointment and then shut up until you can get there— try to go on vocal rest until you can verify what’s happening in your throat. The doctor may then prescribe vocal rest or other treatment as needed.
How do I go on Vocal Rest?
To go on vocal rest is as simple as not talking. Don’t use the voice at all during vocal rest! Don’t sing or talk, and avoid whispering, as it’s nearly as stressful for the voice as shouting. Also avoid coughing or clearing your throat, which cause the vocal folds to slam together and can exacerbate vocal problems. (If you feel the need to do either, try drinking water or sucking on hard candy to help the feeling dissipate.) In case of an absolute emergency, if you must speak, speak very gently and softly. Keep in mind that any amount of speaking could cause further— and potentially permanent— damage.
Sound easy enough? As you might expect, vocal rest is a concept easier grasped than executed. Of course all of this can be difficult to achieve over a matter of days!
One of the best ways to ensure success is to make sure those around you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Make sure your peers, coworkers, teachers, friends, and family understand that you’re tending to a health concern and you’ll need their cooperation to make it through your period of silence.
While on vocal rest, you’ll have to rely on nonverbal methods of communication. Thankfully, smart phones make this easier than ever— you can easily send texts or emails, or collaborate with coworkers in chatrooms. You can also make use of hand signals or sign language, or simply handwrite messages on a notepad. If all of this is totally impossible, you may want to try to take time off of work or school.
These tips should generally get you through. For more advice on surviving vocal rest, you can read my article “How to Make it Through Vocal Rest Successfully.”
Finishing a Period of Vocal Rest
Make sure to follow any doctor’s instructions you receive regarding vocal rest. Continue resting your voice for as long as a doctor prescribes! After this period ends (and your doctor clears you to begin using the voice again, if applicable), you can assess your voice and begin vocalizing again slowly and gently. The doctor may have specific instructions regarding rehabbing your voice— follow these instructions instead of those listed here if so!
If you’ve decided to go on vocal rest yourself, assess your voice over time. Once you stop noticing pain or other symptoms of vocal stress, you can begin vocalizing slowly as well.
When I say “begin vocalizing slowly,” I mean slowly. You’ll need to get a feel for how much your voice can handle, otherwise you may aggravate previous injuries and/or undo what progress towards recovery you’ve made. Start out only singing a few minutes each day. Continue to use the voice less, and use it gently while speaking. The idea is to not feel fatigued or strained again, so less is really more as you ease yourself out of vocal rest. If you start to feel pain, that’s an obvious sign to stop singing because you’ve hit the limit of capabilities— but you really want to stop before that point. You’ll want to work incrementally as you try to recover your previous vocal stamina. If you sing 5-10 minutes the first day, try working up to 15 the next day, and up to 20 the day after that. Continue working slowly in this way, assessing your voice as you go.
Don’t expect your voice to recover its full tone or range immediately, either. You may notice a difference in quality and capabilities that will hopefully diminish as you correct any errors of misuse and slowly find your new “groove.” Don’t push yourself just yet– take it slowly and allow your voice to flourish on whatever timetable feels most pain-free and healthy!
A Note on Vocal Injuries
Many performers feel embarrassed to talk about vocal health problems. Take a look at the rumors that popped up as soon as Adele sustained her injury, and you’ll understand why. News outlets that generally have no understanding of how the voice works beyond whatever they can dredge up on the internet were quick to announce that Adele’s injury came from bad technique. Thus began a cycle of merciless rumors declaring her a bad performer and a bad role model for singers everywhere.
Conveniently this narrative leaves out the fact that Adele was on tour and performing huge shows almost every single day. On tour, getting adequate vocal rest is almost impossible, as is keeping up with many of your physical needs, especially sleep. According to Dr. Reena Gupta, fellowship trained laryngologist and specialist in the professional voice, voice injuries are most commonly the result of a “perfect storm” of bad performing conditions: coughing, illness, acid reflux, poor sleep, exposure to allergens and pollutants, and possibly misuse of the voice brought on by inconsistent training or bad venue conditions (such as mold or smoke exposure, or poor monitors which encourage the performer to “push” to hear their own singing).
If you or anyone you know is dealing with a voice injury, it’s not anyone else’s place to tell them what they did wrong or how they should have prevented it— unless that person is a trained doctor or expert who is able to give certifiable advice. If you have to go on vocal rest, don’t feel ashamed to do so— it doesn’t necessarily indicate that you are doing something dangerously wrong. You should absolutely analyze your performing habits and hygiene so you can prevent further injury, but don’t take criticism from anyone you wouldn’t trust advice from!
To quickly summarize:
When you’re feeling strained or fatigued, or are concerned about a vocal injury, or simply feel the need to conserve vocal energy for an upcoming performance situation, going on vocal rest is a great way to let your voice recover and reset. It’s the same as not using a broken limb so that it can heal! Vocal rest can prevent injury in stressful situations, and can also be used to treat injury under the guidance of a doctor. Use your voice as minimally as possible during vocal rest— don’t use it at all unless it’s an absolute emergency— and try to keep up with other healthy habits that will help your voice heal, such as getting enough sleep and drinking plenty of water. Once you’ve rested as long as your doctor has prescribed, or once your symptoms go away, you can leave vocal rest and begin to carefully return to performing.
Remember that I’m not a doctor or voice professional— merely a hobbyist who likes to do my homework. While this guide can help you understand the basics, please don’t use this guide in lieu of actual medical advice. If you suspect a vocal injury, please go to a laryngologist ASAP. Ask your voice teacher or local performing arts friends for doctor recommendations in your area.
Hopefully this information helps!