As a singer, actor, speaker or entertainer (excluding mime artists of course) you will know the important role your voice plays in your performance. A croaky voice or worse still the loss of your voice can have a devastating effect. A prolonged voice problem can become a very costly experience when your livelihood depends on being able to sing or speak clearly. So let’s have a look at what the voice is and how to protect it.
Where does your voice come from?
The larynx, or voice box as it is commonly known, is a cartilage tube located in the throat. Across this tube are stretched your vocal cords also known as vocal folds. The larynx sits at the top of the trachea (wind pipe). Air is pushed from the lungs through the larynx causing the vocal cords to vibrate. This vibration creates the sound of our voice which is further modified by mouth, tongue, nasal passages and lips.
Why does the voice sometimes fail?
Problems occur when the vocal folds become inflamed and swollen. This prevents the proper vibration of the folds and so creates the hoarse sound we all know or the loss of voice in more extreme cases. Another cause of a distorted and raspy voice is nodules or nodes which can be described as calluses on the vocal cords. Voice problems can also be caused by paralysis and tumours.
What can be done to prevent and treat problems?
To work efficiently the vocal folds need to be kept well hydrated so drinking plenty of water is the first thing to do. Some pundits advise cutting down on caffeinated drinks as they can have a dehydrating effect but I’ve heard other experts claim the hydrating effect of these drinks outweigh any dehydration.
Viral infection is the biggest cause of laryngitis so it’s hard to take preventative measures against this form of acute laryngitis. There are common-sense things you should do such as avoid people that have colds, coughs and flu and making sure you observe good rules of hygiene such as washing your hands before eating.
Treatment for inflamed and swollen vocal folds caused by a virus is thin on the ground and once viral laryngitis strikes there is very little that can be done other than to rest your voice and wait it out. The vast majority of acute laryngitis from a viral infection, such as a cold, normally passes within a week. If the problem persists then you should see your doctor.
Other ways of warding off laryngitis is to not smoke and to avoid smoky atmospheres and other irritants. Smoking can cause long term swelling and ultimately laryngeal cancer.
Alcohol contains many things that can irritate the larynx so it a good idea not to overdo it. Alcohol intake should be limited.
Try not to clear your throat as this can be rather brutal on vocal cords causing them to slap together quite violently. Instead try swallowing or sipping water. Excessive throat clearing can cause damage and hoarseness.
The back-flow of stomach acid and enzymes, into the larynx, is another cause of laryngitis. This can occur while sleeping.
Acid reflux can happen without warning and cause irritation to the larynx. This can happen without any accompanying heartburn and can cause hoarseness, sore throat and the feeling of having a lump in your throat.
Another tell-tale sign is the need to frequently clear your throat.
Avoiding acidic drinks such as orange juice and late night spicy foods may help. Also limiting alcohol intake can be beneficial. Sleeping with your head raised is another thing to try. If this is a recurring problem, your doctor may be able to prescribe something to inhibit your stomach’s production of gastric acids.
There is also fungal laryngitis. It is sometimes accompanied by an itching in the throat as well as soreness and a hoarse voice. It can be caused by inhalers of the type used by asthmatics. If you use an inhaler and develop fungal laryngitis your doctor can help.
There is also mechanical laryngitis which is caused by overuse or misuse of the voice. Shouting, screaming, talking loudly for long periods and bad vocal technique are all causes of mechanical laryngitis.
Nodes are also caused by violent use or overuse of the voice. With nodes a callus is formed at the point where the two vocal folds are in contact the most. The more the voice is used the more the callus grows until eventually it prevents the vocals folds from closing properly. This causes a raspy voice and instead of one clear note being produced two frequencies can result as air pushes past each side of the callus or nodule that has formed.
Good vocal technique is the best way to avoid these problems. Working with a singing teacher or a vocal coach will help you with your technique and so help to circumvent mechanical damage.
To boil it all down
- Keep hydrated
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid people with colds, flu and coughs
- Adopt good rules of hygiene
- Limit alcohol intake
- Try not to eat or drink spicy or acidic things late at night
- Improve vocal technique with the aid of a coach.
The Whispering Myth
Should you suffer from vocal problems the best thing for it, in most cases, is rest. This mean not using your voice. If you have to speak it’s better to speak softly than to whisper as whispering causes more trauma to the vocal cords.
Warming up your voice before a show is good practice. A search on YouTube will return a number of videos showing how to warm up your voice. This is one of them picked at random that shows one of the exercises you can do. Its called the lip trill:
Subject – How To Look After Your Voice
Written – 18 Jul 2012
Updated – October 2018
Copyright – Al Best
This article is copyright of Al Best @ folkrootslist.co.uk
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