Saturday, November 23, 2013

Vocal Hygiene for Singers and Speakers

You've heard of hygiene. Oral hygiene that your dental hygienist teaches you, kitchen cleanliness for safe food preparation, and other types of hygiene. No one ever talks about or even is aware about  hygiene for the voice. We barely realise that our voices exist inside our bodies and that it needs certain conditions to function optimally! We don't realize that the voice needs to be cared for, the way we realize we need to floss our teeth. It should be a daily habit just like that. But it rarely is. For example many consider getting hoarse a normal part of life. Hoarseness means that you have abused your voice and caused swelling in your voice box, or larynx.

Vocal injuries and problems are rampant in our culture due to the lack of awareness we have about our voices. According to ASHA:

"Voice disorders are characterized by the abnormal production and/or absence of vocal quality, pitch, loudness, resonance, and/or duration, given an individual's age and/or sex.

Epidemiologic studies of the prevalence and risk factors of voice disorders in the general adult population are rare. According to conservative estimates, approximately 28 million workers in the U.S. experience daily voice problems ; a second study estimates that 5% to 10% of the U.S. workforce would be classified as heavy occupational voice users.

According to one study, the lifetime prevalence of a voice disorder is almost 30%. Disorders also adversely impact job performance and attendance ."

Here are some guidelines for vocal hygiene that I explain to each new voice student at their first lesson:

1. Drink 8-10 glasses of pure water a day. Filtered tap water is preferred. Juice and soft drinks are not a substitute. Little sips all day is the preferred method. You know you're not dehydrated if your "pee" is pale.

2. Avoid or limit caffeine and alcohol as these are very drying to the voice and contribute to acid reflux.

3. This one is difficult but extremely important. Do not compete with background noise. That means for example, do not try to be heard when conversing in noisy restaurants, large parties, on a noisy bus or in a crowded bar. If you sing in a choir do not try to hear your own voice, but rather be more aware of the voices around you. Most of my sopranos in particular get hoarse from choral singing.

In a noisy environment I can teach easy ways to cut through noise (think of making your voice sound like the easy noisy sound of a "meow").  This one really works, but it's not a voice you'd ever normally use in a quiet environment. What's even better is to bring a writing pad with you and write notes, or go out into the hallway or where ever it's less noisy to speak.

4. Never scream. Learn to "call out" instead to get loud if you really have to. Think of the unemotional voice of authority calling out with a wide feeling in the throat calling to someone a block or two away "Hey you!"

I hope this was helpful to you. Little changes like these pay big dividends. Your voice will function better and you will protect yourself from voice injury. After all you use that same voice you sing with all day long. For more helpful free vocal tips visit my website!  Here's to healthy voices!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What to Look for (and Avoid) in a Voice Teacher

When looking for a voice teacher, especially if you are living near a major city, there are so many choices. With many singing teachers to choose from how can a singer make an intellegent decision? Lessons can be pricey and so we want to be able to make a quick but smart decision. It's not a good idea to work with a teacher for 6 months only to realise you've made no progress. It happens all too often!

I personally have studied or "tried out" over 30 teachers. Some of them were amazing and helped me beyond my expectations. Many however, did not. I am not alone in this experience, and I am not overly picky. My aim with voice lessons was to improve my singing voice and the specific vocal issues I had and to learn to express the music I loved with a free and healthy voice.

The problem with finding a good voice teacher is that anyone who simply wants to can call themselves a voice teacher. There is no licensing or criteria for teaching voice. It's really "buyer beware"!  Insane, isn't it?

Here is a quick list of what to look for and another quick list of what to avoid, that in my opinion will help you know what to look for and which questions to ask of your prospective teacher. Who you choose to work with is important. Great voice lessons are life-changing!

What to look for:

  • She/he understands the anatomy and physiology of the vocal tract.
  • He/she has studied vocal pedagogy (or how to teach voice -which would also include the above). This includes studying how to teach various vocal styles if they are taught.
  • He/she teaches breath support and body alignment and understands that singing includes the entire body.
  • Teacher helps free tensions in the body/throat which may affect vocal skill.
  • She/he is supportive, positive and patient
  • Teacher is available on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
  • Teacher has sung professionally and taken voice lessons.
  • You are encouraged to record your lessons.
  • You feel comfortable with the teacher's personality.

Things to avoid:

  • Terribly over-priced teachers. No one is worth $250.00+ an hour.
  • Inappropriate behavior which demonstrates a lack of personal boundaries. Sexually exploitative behavior (yes, this actually happens) is very unprofessional!
  • An overly critical and uncaring teacher.
  • On the other hand, a teacher that flatters you and offers no corrections is a red-flag.
  • A good pianist that doesn't work on how you use your voice.
  • If you feel hoarse/tired after lessons instead of warmed-up.
  • After 8 lessons you and/or others don't think your voice has improved.
  • Use of meaningless phrases such as "open your throat" (how? what does that mean?), or "sing from your diaphragm".  (how?)
  • Charismatic, self-serving and manipulative personalities.
  • If anything physically hurts or seems abusive during lessons. 

Both lists come directly from my own personal experience. I've experienced it all. I strive to be a good teacher and to earn the respect of each student. Ultimately I have learned from all these experiences.  I hope this list is helpful to you, and feel free to post comments! Good luck in your search.