What is Vocal Hygiene? How relevant is it for the singer? What is true and what is a myth?
Let’s begin by the word Hygiene. Hygiene is a term that means practices and routines with the end of maintaining good health. So no, it’s not about keeping your vocal folds “clean and shiny” and brushing your throat.
Vocal Hygiene, therefore, are the practices and habits we build in order to maintain good vocal health.
The first, and perhaps most important point on vocal hygiene is hydration. Yes, we have those rules about drinking 2 liters of water everyday, inhaling steam, and so on. Well that’s not really so relevant as it first looks. You see, the effect of the water is not to instantly heal your folds, although it does help in the process, what matters is how well hydrated you are during voice usage.
So, if you go through your whole day talking and talking on a dry ambient, without having a single drop of water, it does not matter if you get home and drink tons of water all at once or over 2 hours before sleep. Since during the day, when you were actually doing vocal effort and when you needed the benefit of the reduced effort that a good hydration would bring, you did not drink water at all.
The conclusion is this: Keep water near you, and consume it constantly. Small sips every now and then. Keep drinking water through the day. You are not a camel, you can not store water by drinking a huge ammount once a week.
Whenever you are using your voice, the vocal folds need to close, then air pressure is applied, and as the air pressure becomes high enough to break the resistance, a pulse of air is released. This means that they are opening and closing in a cycle.
Each time the vocal folds close, they are actually colliding with each other. And this collision, even if not forced or strained, will cause the tissue to fatigue. Let’s say that it’s a small, micro-bruise, that happens every time you say something. And it’s fine, because the tissue that covers the vocal folds is capable of healing and recovering.
That’s exactly why resting is so important. You see, to heal, the vocal folds need to be quiet, there can not be phonation. And in fact, most of this healing happens during our sleep. If you neglect your sleep, if you do not rest adequately, this small damage will amount over time, and this can result in vocal problems even if you do not abuse your voice in any significant way.
For a professional voice user, like a singer, this becomes a crucial matter. Because on high-level usage, even with a very good technical background and measures to reduce the stress, the amount of damage will be higher. Without adequate rest the performance quality itself will suffer, which can lead to forcing to compensate, increasing the damage.
So sleep well. How much is well? Sometimes is not about how much, but improving the quality of sleep. It’s not the purpose of this article to get into details about sleep quality. Bottom line is that you should feel well rested when you wake up.
Use your voice with comfort
This is a beast full of heads and eyes for singers and performers. There is a certain vanity about having excellent technique and never giving that you are performing outside your comfortable margin. A study made with singers and voice teachers revealed that a lot of teachers became LESS capable of evaluating their own effort levels and even had voice disorders that they ignored the existence.
So it’s very important to understand that if it does not feel right, if it feels forced, strained, and specially if it hurts, something is not right. Technique that does not result in comfortable singing is not technique.
For singers, this is where the importance of a good technical training comes in. Sounding good is not enough, you need to sound good, to be able to do so when you want, and to do so with comfort.
A small note about warm-up and warm-down routines. They are an accepted practice amongst both voice teachers and a number health professionals involved with human voice. But still a bit of controversy exists because research does not show great differences in the objective aspects of the voice prior and after the warm-ups.
In my opinion, they are a good idea, not for a physiological reason but to allow you to bring your voice “center” to a performance quality, otherwise you may find yourself forcing for no reason. However. They must be done correctly. Do not just go doing some lip bubbles or whatever other kind of exercise without orientation on how to do it properly because the effect can be very well the opposite of what you want.
Remember, comfort is the law. So it’s really not smart to use a warm up routine that hurts you or leave you uncomfortable after using it.
Check regularly with your doctor
If you use your voice professionally and depend on its quality to perform, it’s a good idea to check at least every year to see if everything is fine. A routine check.
Sprays, teas, ginger, garlic, alcohol, and other Magical Recipes and Potions
They have nothing to do with hygiene, if anything, it can have a detrimental effect.
Alcohol can dehydrate, and make you less sensitive to abuse. The same as foods, sprays and teas that have anesthetic effects.
No food will pass even close to your vocal folds. Should they get near the larynx, you will choke and cough in reflex to expel whatever it is. The movement of swallowing food may cause relaxation that is desirable, and it is possible to have placebo effect when consuming whatever you believe that works, but no magic will happen, unfortunately.
So don’t consume any of these expecting to sing better, or that it will “protect” your voice, “coat” your voice, “warm your voice”, or, whatever kind of magic. There are products made to exploit beliefs, some that even claim to “open resonators”, whatever that means. Don’t feed the industry of myths, don’t buy snake oil.
Oh but I hear that the singer John Mccarey from the Band Light O’Love drinks warm isopropyl alcohol with a dab of engine oil to keep his folds clean and loose, and he sings great. Well, good for him, however, I assure you that following any recipe will not produce any significant results on your singing, no matter how disgusting they are ;).
A bottle of water is your best friend. Have one near you.