It’s no surprise that a professional singer’s livelihood requires vocal warm-ups, days off, and soothing beverages to protect the vocal instrument from injury. Yet, teachers, athletics coaches, fitness instructors, announcers, and sales and customer service representatives also rely on the health and strength of their voices.
Professional voice users shouldn’t ignore changes in their vocal quality, clarity, or comfort, such as a raspy or hoarse voice, pain in the throat or neck, the feeling of a lump in the throat, difficulty projecting the voice, or if the voice tires out more easily over the course of a day.
“While these qualities can be part of everyday wear and tear for people who have vocally demanding jobs, they should generally resolve with time and rest,” says Dr. David Rosow, a laryngology specialist with the University of Miami Health System. “If these kinds of voice changes last for longer than three weeks, it’s very important to see an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist).”
With an accurate diagnosis, professional voice therapy can determine the right exercises to relieve symptoms and encourage recovery.
“While voice therapy may be obscure to many, think of it in terms of physical therapy,” said Michelle Bretl, MS, CF-SLP, a speech-language pathology fellow with UHealth. “A physical therapist helps clients determine areas of the body that need to be targeted with specific stretches and exercises. Voice therapists play a very similar role but focus on the parts of the body affecting the voice. They ensure patients can complete the voice exercises with ease and understand the implications of the exercises on voice improvement.”
While working with a voice therapist is necessary to learn the appropriate way to complete exercises, home exercise programs can help in your recovery. Regularly practicing proper breathing techniques and warm-up and recovery exercises can enable you to maintain your vocal health over time.
Vocal exercises for warming up and recovering.
“Depending on your profession, you may need to warm up your voice through a small or large pitch range, and at soft and/or louder volumes,” says Bretl. “The goal is to learn efficient voice production and carry that into your voice use at work. Vocal exercises done as part of a warm up should never feel fatiguing or effortful.”
7 minutes to vocal freedom.
“The following exercises are meant to help set yourself up for relaxed voicing and to help restore your voice to a more relaxed state after heavy voice usage,” said Adam Lloyd, MM, MA, CCC-SLP, a voice pathologist with UHealth.
This exercises series, performed before and after intense voice usage, can help you prevent, and recover from vocal strain faster.
Relaxed breathing (2 minutes): Close your eyes and breathe naturally. Notice any tight spots you feel in your body. Every exhale is an opportunity to relax and release tension. If you’re relaxed, your abdomen and the lower part of your ribcage will expand out during inhalation and gently contact in during exhalation.
Yawn-sigh (1 minute): Take a relaxed, deep breath in through your nose and then allow your mouth to open and your jaw and tongue to relax as you exhale through your mouth. There should be space between your teeth, but not so much that it feels like you’re forcing open your mouth. Repeat this process a few times then add sound as you exhale. This is called a “yawn-sigh.” The sound should be in a comfortable range and produced at a soft volume.
Massage your throat (2 minutes): To help reduce tension in and around the throat, begin with your mouth in the “yawn-sigh” position. Using one hand, place your thumb near the area underneath your ear. Place your index and middle fingers on the opposite side under your ear. In a slow, circular motion, gently massage the muscles of your neck, slowly working down your neck in a “V” (wide at the top and narrower at the bottom). Avoid pressing hard on your throat/neck. If you feel lightheaded or pulsing in your neck or fingers, reposition or stop the exercise. Repeat this a few times. In the same position, glide down smoothly. Exhale as you glide down, allowing your mouth to be in the “yawn-sigh” position.
Got vibration? (2 minutes): These options can help you isolate and identify the sensations of vibration, which will help you know if you’re producing your voice in a healthy way.
Option 1: Gently inhale through your mouth or nose. Using a normal-sized drinking straw, gently exhale the air through the straw, and repeat this a few times. You can put your fingers a few inches in front of the straw to feel the flow of air. Next, add sound at a comfortable pitch (for five seconds). Ensure that air is still flowing through the straw as you make sound. Do you feel vibration in the straw or at the front of your mouth?
Option 2: Gently inhale through your mouth or nose. With your lips in an “ooh” position, gently exhale the air through your lips. Repeat this a few times. You can put your fingers a few inches in front of your mouth to feel the flow of air. Add sound at a comfortable pitch for about five seconds. Ensure that air is still flowing through your lips as you make sound. Do you feel vibration around your lips or in front of the mouth?
Option 3: Gently inhale and exhale through your nose. Repeat this a few times. You can put your fingers an inch below your nose to feel the flow of air. With a “yawn-sigh” relaxed jaw and throat, allow your lips to gently close. As you exhale, add sound at a comfortable pitch for about five seconds. Ensure that air is still flowing through your nose as you make sound. Do you feel vibration around your lips, in front of the mouth, or in the nose?
With each of these three exercise options, work toward maintaining a relaxed throat and a steady flow of exhaled air. Repeat the exercise as you glide up and down in pitch, remaining in a comfortable range, and focusing on relaxation. Notice the sensation of vibration in or around the front of your mouth/face. You should not feel effort or strain in the throat.
Don’t force your voice.
“If you often speak to large audiences or need to project your voice, rely on voice amplification, such as a microphone or megaphone,” said Jennylee Diaz, MS, CCC-SLP, a voice pathologist with UHealth. “And remember to breathe in a relaxed manner, speak with airflow, feel the vibration, and avoid muscle strain in and around the throat,” said Lloyd.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.