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. You can read my article “How to Stop Yourself From Singing Accidentally During Vocal Rest” for more info! 

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! 

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 60%) 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!

Guides and Tips, Theatre

Do This, Not That: Tech Week Edition

As I’ve previously expressed on this blog, I love tech week. It’s a semi-sadistic challenge that I adore overcoming. Preparing for tech week and figuring out how to maximize my chances of survival gives me an admittedly silly thrill. If you’re anything like me, or just looking to help your chances of not dying before your show, this article should come in handy. Here are five common mistakes to avoid during tech week, and five alternatives to take instead that will keep you happy, healthy, and in better performing condition!

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Guides and Tips, Theatre

What Does Taking Care of Your Voice Actually Mean?

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.

In summary

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!