Welcome to Stage Door Shrink, a regular column aimed at helping performers chortle their way to a #win.
Last week, our Show Fit series commenced with advice from Josh Piterman at PitFit – Australia’s only functional fitness and training program aimed at the specific needs of performers at all levels.
This week, Rachel Cole showcases part two of our Show Fit series with expert advice from two of the country’s leaders in voice!
Looking after your voice is arguably the most important part of show fitness. If you let this go, not only will you not be able to get a job, you won’t be able to perform the work you have.
On the first flight of the Wicked tour, I genuinely wondered if Suzie Mathers (Glinda) was having chemo on the plane. Too polite to ask her what the little medical breathing pack she was sporting was, a fellow chemo patient in the ensemble informed me it was portable voice humidi-flyer… I had never seen such a thing. I owned and didn’t use a little green steamer, but this was next level. Suzie’s voice is incredible, so if it’s good enough for Suzie Mathers, it’s good enough for me. WWSD?
There are countless old wives tales about looking after your voice. Don’t drink milk, drink pineapple juice, tie a silk scarf around your neck, Pae Pa Kao, no cold water, no coffee, no wine, no fun, Cayenne pepper, apple cider vinegar, garlic suppository (a speech pathologist told me that one). A recent study of 400 singers found that the only thing that the majority of them agreed on (97%), is that warming up is essential. Everything else was personal preference. Unfortunately, singers don’t like science. They like experience, habits and superstition.
So here’s the science. Anatomically, nothing you eat or drink can touch your vocal folds. Vocal folds are just above the trachea or windpipe in the larynx, which is protected by the epiglottis. Every time we eat or drink the epiglottis covers the larynx so food and drink don’t go into our windpipe and kill us (or else your death notice would read ‘drowning by Throat Coat’). Any remedy ingested other than steam cannot touch the vocal cords. That Manuka honey is not coating your cords… unless you’re in the morgue. Similarly, I hunted through science journals on a university database and did not find a single paper that linked dairy to increased mucous production. Here we see a gap between science and art.
Advice from the gurus
My experts this week are Annie Strauch and Debbie Phyland.
Annie Strauch is a Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist who specialises in dance physio, sports physio and vocal unloading. Annie worked on the West End managing performers from over 30 productions. She works closely with ENTs and Speech Pathologists and runs her clinic Performance Medicine in Melbourne, which caters specifically for performers and singers.
Deb Phyland is a Speech Pathologist with 29 years experience and has a recent PhD in vocal load and fatigue among music theatre singers. She is a co-owner of the Melbourne Voice Analysis Centre, specializing in the analysis and treatment of voice problems. She is currently the voice consultant for Lion King, Les Misérables and will be Head of Voice on the upcoming Matilda The Musical. Their advice is summarized as follows.
[pull_left]90% of vocal injuries are caused by OVERUSE rather than misuse[/pull_left]
1. Respect your instrument
There is only so much load your voice can take before you risk injury. Doing 8 shows a week is hard work- you cannot party on Thursday and expect to sing well on Friday. Learn the difference between fatigue and injury. When you feel fatigued, don’t push on, but rest. Bear in mind that 90% of vocal injuries are caused by OVERUSE rather than misuse. This is also a good reason not to take any lozenges with menthol or anesthetic in them. They can mask any pain or fatigue in your voice, which is urging you to rest.
2. Warm up
Do a physical warm up before a vocal one every time you sing. It allows you to connect with your pelvic floor and diaphragm muscles, which are primary in singing sustainably. The TMJ, neck, shoulder blades and head position are directly connected to your larynx and require warm up too. A vocal warm up should be specific to your voice and prescribed by a singing teacher or speech pathologist who knows your specific vocal needs.
3. Know what works – Water, sleep and rest
There are only 2 well-proven vocal remedies- water and rest. If in doubt, rest your voice. Steaming creates a humidified environment for the cords to move within. It can be a remedy to compensate for a dry environment, rather than an everyday practice or your cords do not learn to adjust to dryness and become reliant.
4. Be wary of lozenges, honey, pain killers, menthol and Pae Pa Koa
Remember that nothing you eat or drink will touch your vocal cords. A lozenge may relax the surrounding muscles or anesthetize the throat, but some Lozenges, Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Pae Pa Kow and large quantities of Fish Oil will thin the blood and increase the risk of a laryngeal bleed. Menthol will dry and may numb the throat, which changes the nuances of you being able to use your voice property and could be dangerous. Honey can cause reflux, so is not healthy for the cords.
5. Check your singing posture
Sing with your shoulders back and your neck long – as if a ponytail is hanging you from the ceiling. This position ensures your cricothyroid joint in the larynx has the best chance of moving well to easily stretch the cords into the pitch you want. If you sing with incorrect posture, i.e. your neck is too far forward, the muscles surrounding will shorten and your larynx will be in an incorrect position. This decreases the ability of the vocal cords to vibrate, as efficiently as possible- you have to work harder to produce your voice. This creates a maladaptive voice cycle, which creates further tension.
6. Are you clenching or grinding your teeth
Over time, clenching and grinding shorten the muscles around your chin and tongue which elevate the larynx, making it harder to sing freely. Involuntary grinding, clenching or gnashing of teeth affects about half the population from time to time. Generally, it happens during sleep. Symptoms include: headache, jaw joint or ear pain, aching teeth, cracked or chipped teeth and loose teeth upon waking. To consciously relax your jaw, place the tip of your tongue on the back of your top teeth (in the ‘nn’ position) and you will automatically unclench. Visit your dentist if you are concerned and they can make you a plate or splint to help.
7. Don’t be scared of certain types of singing
All types of singing can be done safely including belting and heavy rock styles. Interestingly, Tenors and Sopranos are more likely to experience vocal problems than Altos and Baritones. That is, the higher the pitch you sing, the quicker you become fatigued and increase your chance of developing a problem.
8. Be wary of Steroids
Steroids should be used sparingly, as they are only effective for a fraction of vocal problems. Consider the negative side effects: decrease in immune response, making you sicker for longer, insomnia, increased reflux and the jitters. You should never take someone else’s prescription medication. Steroids are great for decreasing short-term swelling but you need to get to the bottom of why you need to take them rather than masking the problem.
9. Consider vocal unloading
Vocal unloading can be achieved a number of different ways including straw singing, lip trills and physiotherapy. These methods release muscle tension and balance the vocal fold vibration to make it more efficient and help recover from vocal fatigue. Vocal unloading with specialized physiotherapy works directly on the external muscles of the larynx and may indirectly improve vocal fold closure. It is not for everyone- but if you find you are unable to access upper registers anymore, feel tension and regularly sing in challenging costumes and wigs- it may be very helpful.
10. Alcohol in moderation in fine – smoking is not
Generally speaking, alcohol in moderation is safe for your voice. It is the disinhibiting properties that accompany alcohol consumption that are the problem- talking loudly over music in a bar, less and disjointed sleep, reflux and dehydration. Apart from the obvious dangers, smoking changes the integrity of the vocal cords, makes it hard to stretch them to sing high and is linked to laryngeal cancer.
Rachel Cole is a Research Psychologist masquerading as a Swing & Nessa Rose Understudy on the Australasian tour of WICKED. She likes to think about what makes people tick. She also likes: Podcasts, politics, pepperoni pizza, property, puns, puppies and cheap things. If you know of a political podcast full of puns we can listen over a cheap pepperoni pizza while we walk a cheap dog looking at cheap property, we might just be fast friends.