How to recognise voice problems
by Helen Astrid, Dip. RAM, Choir Leader | Workshop facilitator | Speaker
The voice is our main form of communication, though very few people apart from singers and actors, receive any training. In addition, there is a lack of awareness about the proper care and maintenance of this most precious commodity; our voice. Having essential voice tips at your disposal is vital.
Most of all, teachers and professional voice users place more strain on the vocal mechanism than other professionals. Yet they are rarely given training in this area. Unfortunately, they are likely to be ill-equipped to recognise voice problems in themselves or their pupils. Vocal health, including practical work, should be on the syllabus at every teacher training college. Education authorities should include it in their programming.
Signs of trouble
As a result, there is significant concern within the teaching profession about vocal health. Everyone knows about the music teacher who loses his or her voice before the Christmas concert. Most teachers don’t stop work to rest the voice. They go on regardless in an effort to satisfy the demands of the job. With time, this type of vocal abuse will exact a price.
Constant abuse of the voice results in a loss of range, hoarseness, soreness and a lack of resonance!
These symptoms may go away during the holiday times and then reappear during term-time. Laryngitis or hoarseness is often pain-free so teachers soldier on. The problem however, is still there. To misuse your voice for long enough can result in the permanent loss of voice. Furthermore, it can isolating and debilitate us. Most of all, we can prevent this if we recognise the danger signs early.
Here’s what to look out for
Persistent hoarseness | loss of range or volume | pain in the neck or throat |recurring loss of voice.
Case scenario: the student’s story
“When I was at University, I was an enthusiastic student who wanted to participate in everything. I was in the opera productions, singing in workshops, having lessons and attending lectures and studying. I also sang in chamber choirs and appeared with a folk-rock band! Nobody suggested I was doing too much. Consequently, I got into serious vocal trouble.
The first sign was when I began to need extra muscular force to make a sound. Gradually, my range began to go, especially the upper register. I therefore went to a laryngologist who identified a nodule on a vocal cord. A nodule eventually turns into a callus. I did not sing or speak for three months. I was warned that if I didn’t do this, the nodule wouldn’t go away. Consequently, I followed the instructions meticulously. I didn’t speak, I carried a notepad with me, took cool mist inhalation treatments, drank lots of water and took medication for the swelling.
After this isolating period, I gradually resumed my singing with a new routine in vocal care. This involved silent periods if I felt stressed. I stopped singing in the band because I wasn’t using my technique properly. That was 20 years ago. I’ve since enjoyed a professional singing and teacher career.”
Case scenario: the teacher’s story
“I’m an experienced primary school teacher. My problem began four years ago when I became ill with a viral infection. The result was I lost my voice! I went to see my GP who put me on antibiotics.
After some time, it didn’t improve. I therefore went back to my GP who suggested I rest my voice and then visit a consultant. The consultant told me my cords were inflamed and recommended complete vocal rest. He also referred me to a speech therapist who helped me to become aware when I was forcing my voice. Along with the illness, this created a serious vocal problem.
I was given exercises on how to relax, breathe deeply and use my resonances e.g. humming. Finally, I returned to work and took care to rest my voice at the end of each teaching day. My voice now sounds healthy, vibrant and expressive. Having essential voice tips and good vocal training at the beginning of my career would probably have speeded my recovery.”
What Helen suggests for professional voice users*
Drink plenty of water, at least two litres a day.
Enjoy quiet times. If you teach, find a new strategy to get the attention of your pupils without using your voice. For example, clap, blow a whistle, or tap a teaspoon against a cup.
Avoid shouting. If available, use a microphone or megaphone.
If you are unwell take time off!
Humidify the rehearsal space or classroom. Central heating and air conditioning are very drying on the voice. Place wet towels on radiators. Another suggestion is to keep the space well ventilated.
Most of all, don’t smoke or allow anyone to smoke near you.
Over-the-counter cold remedies dry the voice. So increase your intake of water or fresh juices.
Keep fit; swimming, yoga and Pilates are especially good for your breathing mechanism.
Avoid noisy gatherings if you have a sore throat or are in need of a rest.
Inhale steam at least twice a day for no less than 5 minutes. Check out Dr. Nelson’s inhaler, available from John Bell & Croydon, 50-54 Wigmore Street, London W1U 2AU.
Finally, if vocal problems persist, see your GP and ask to be referred to a laryngologist.
5 Essential Voice Tips for good maintenance
- Stretch and yawn before a rehearsal or teaching session.
- Reach up to the ceiling then bend over keeping your knees bent and letting the air out.
- Place your hand on your tummy; be aware of the action to control your breathing. The tummy expands on inhalation and contracts on exhalation.
- With this awareness, inhale and hum on the exhalation; try shhhh or zzzzz.
- Sing on the vowels and do not overemphasise the consonants. Singing in other languages helps to bring this to your awareness.
Your most precious resource is your voice. Don’t take it for granted. Care for and nurture your voice.
Everyone can benefit from vocal training to ensure a long and healthy professional life. Good luck and remember, there’s always help out there if you need it.
*Tips taken from Singing Tips at your Fingertips by Helen Astrid, available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.