Managing your vocal workload

Vocal Workload through Non-Singing Activities

Few words bring more dread to the performer than “vocal rest”. When I see a hemorrhage, laryngitis, or other problem and recommend voice rest, it is inevitably followed by questions of, “What counts as voice use”? Whether the singer is simply unsure about the answer or trying to negotiate upcoming vocal responsibilities, it is important to understand what does count so the singer can make an educated decision.

Whispering

We will start with the most controversial of all forms of voice use – the whisper.

Often cited as being worse than shouting, whispering is equally often described as a safe alternative to voice use. How can these polar opposites both be true? The variable that determines which camp your whisper falls into is simple: you. How you whisper—and for how long—determines whether or not it is injurious.

Whispering involves squeezing the false vocal folds towards the midline.

False vocal folds should be very relaxed in healthful voice use. Whispering allows true vocal folds to stay open by using false vocal fold movement to shape the sound wave. Although the true vocal folds themselves aren’t touching, whispering may become problematic in these scenarios:

  • Habitual false vocal fold use – If whispering for too long, false vocal fold engagement may become habitual. Reversing this erroneous muscular activation becomes very difficult for some people and may require the assistance of a vocal therapist. Until it is reversed, true vocal fold injury can occur.
  • Discomfort – Some people whisper in a way that results in pain. This is due to how their body produces a whisper. This can result in chronic ligament pain and muscular misalignment. Pain is a sign that the voice is being used incorrectly, regardless if it is to whisper or shout.
  • Incorrect technique – This is often referred to as the audible whisper. When whispering, it should be hard to hear the speaker. However, the frustrated artist may whisper at such a volume that vocal fold contact is inadvertently occurring. This negates the whole benefit of voice rest.

The essential point is to avoid whispering unless you know that you will not fall into any of the above scenarios. Since this is impossible for most voice users, common practice is to not whisper.

TalkingMB&S_VocalHealth_vocalworkload

This may be obvious but few singers realize the impact of their speaking voice on their singing voice. Most singers have reasonably good vocal technique when singing. However, when speaking, that technique goes out the window. I analogize speaking to walking. If you walk incorrectly all day, perhaps with a limp, and then try to run 5 miles at the end of that day, your leg muscles will be fatigued from a day’s worth of incorrect posturing. Running will be very difficult and probably painful. Similarly, speaking incorrectly will result in premature muscular fatigue so that singing becomes much more challenging. Injury also is more likely. The most common errors with speaking voice are:

  • Pressed phonation: This is difficult to identify to the untrained ear. Many women press their voices lower, using compensatory muscle, such as the tongue and strap muscles, to lower their pitch and sound more authoritative. This is subconscious and often leads to vocal fry and other injurious speaking patterns. Men may do this as well, particularly if their natural speaking voice is higher-pitched than they would like.
  • Rapid speech: The performer rarely stops performing when the lights go down. The artist’s animated speaking pattern usually leaves little time for an adequate breath. This means it is not supported and probably not healthy.
  • Frequent voice use: The same personality concept applies to frequency of speech. It is rare that performers shut down voice use when they are not singing. More often, they are on the phone, out with friends, or at a loud venue. This combination is a significant workload on the voice and fatigues the instrument before it has a chance to make music.

Coughing, Throat Clearing

These are well-appreciated no-no’s for the voice. The volume of a cough suggests that vocal fold contact is as forceful as shouting. Similarly, throat clearing results in a significant frictional contact of the vocal folds. The most important tip to resolving these problems is identifying why they are occurring. Common reasons include:

  • Allergies: post nasal drip from allergies will cause throat clearing
  • Illness: Most illnesses start in the nose, resulting in increased mucous production and postnasal drip.
  • Reflux: Far less commonly, acid from the stomach can regurgitate backwards and contact the larynx, producing inflammation and mucous resulting in throat clearing.
  • Vocal fold injury: Polyps, nodules, and other vocal fold growths will result in a sensation that makes the voice user want to clear their throat.

Videostroboscopy may be combined with flexible laryngoscopy (through the nose) to determine the cause of throat clearing.


“Just one…”

Just one song, voiceover recording, interview, and gig… the plea I hear most often from my singers on voice rest. The unfortunate reality is that be it one, or several “just ones”, each episode of voice use defies the recommendation of vocal rest. This puts them at risk for permanent injury if they are being placed on voice rest for a hemorrhage or laryngitis. How can you know if you are complying with voice rest? If I can hear you, you aren’t.

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Dr. Reena Gupta is the Director of the Division of Voice and Laryngology at the Osborne Head and Neck Institute (LA, California). She is a laryngologist/voice specialist who has devoted her career to caring for professional voice users. Dr. Gupta’s desire to care for voice patients stems from her passion for the vocal arts. She began singing in elementary school and continued through college and medical school, while pursuing her love for the art of medicine. She completed residency at New York University School of Medicine in Head and Neck Surgery and the prestigious fellowship in Laryngology and Care of the Professional Voice at Drexel University College of Medicine. Dr. Gupta strongly believes in advocating for performers and designs treatment plans that enable her patients to thrive in their careers.