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Vocal Health for the Voice Teacher

Vocal health is very important, especially for people who use their voices for most of their day, such as teachers of singing who not only speak through lessons, but also sing to model for their students.

The voice can become a problem when pitch, volume or the tone of the voice begins to draw attention to itself rather than to what the speaker is talking about. Sometimes the voice can sound too high, too soft, too nasal or hoarse, or can even cause pain to the speaker or singer.  So how can the busy voice teacher continue singing, teaching, and modeling without putting undue stress of her voice?

Symptoms of vocal damage include:

It is important to know when the voice is not just tired, but may need medical attention.  If you experience breathiness, huskiness, hoarseness, loss of vocal power, monotone, sore or tense throat, loss of the voice, pitch breaks and easy vocal fatigue, it it time to consult an ENT (ear nose and throat doctor).

What about vocal nodules?

Vocal nodules are often caused by abuse of the voice and are indicated by some of the above symptoms. The vocal folds are generally smooth, white mucous covered surfaces without any ridges or blemishes. With vocal abuse a haematoma – or bruise – can appear on the vibrating edge of the vocal folds and over time, if this is not given adequate rest and healing, the haematoma can become more fibrous and form into soft or hard nodules on the vocal folds. Generally they appear in pairs, one per fold, and the combination of the two nodules meeting each other will not allow the vocal folds to meet cleanly and vibrate correctly, hence the often breathy or husky vocal tone that accompanies them.

Factors that contribute to voice problems:

  • Screaming – at sporting events, kids, parents, friends, pets, etc. Some singers scream when they sing, and this is very bad for long term vocal health.
  • Raising the  voice – talking or singing in competition to other noises like a noisy classroom or social situation.
  • Smoke – smoking is a big factor in vocal damage for many people and so is passive smoking. Frequenting smoky places, socially, or as a performer, can be very detrimental to vocal health.
  • Coughing – coughing and clearing the throat causes the vocal folds to be abrasively rubbed together and this is damaging with regularity.
  • Talking – just like any other muscles, excessive use of the voice by simply talking a lot tires the voice out.
  • Talking when stressed – emotional and physical tension will contribute to the voice being constricted and talking in this situation may lead to vocal fatigue.
  • Work – some jobs are dependent upon the voice, and overuse of the voice in work situations could lead to vocal health problems.

What can we do to help our voices?

The simplest remedy for vocal health is to look after our own overall health. If we get run down or ill, our voice will also be affected. Here are some other more specific ideas for vocal health.

  • Turn the TV or radio down – instead of talking over the top of them.
  • Give up smoking – This is the best thing you could do for yourself vocally (and health wise).
  • Drink lots of water – especially when talking or singing. Try to consume 7-9 glasses a day.  Teachers should have a bottle of water in class with them.
  • Take fresh air breaks – especially in smoky or noxious environments.
  • Warm up! – Before your first lesson of the day, or even at the beginning of the day, find 15-30 minutes to vocalize.  This will prepare you for the small bits of modeling you will do in the day, and also prepare your voice for the talking during lessons.
  • Rest your voice – especially after lots of singing or talking.
  • Pace your voice – don’t use it too much, too often. Have rest breaks in between periods of use.
  • Find alternatives to modeling – Play a recording of a famous singer singing their piece, explain what you are looking for musically in a particular phrase, or conduct the student as they sing.  Remember, you don’t have to model for every student every day.
  • Try whistling instead – there are many ways other than yelling to let your team know of your support.
  • Swallow – instead of clearing the throat or coughing all the time, try swallowing, it reduces the abrasion.
  • Avoid too much stress – this goes without saying! Stay relaxed and your voice will thank you.
  • Shhh…Don’t whisper – keep whispering to a minimum as it is quick to cause vocal fatigue.
  • Good posture – an upright, balanced posture is very helpful in reducing stress on the body and promoting optimum vocal tone.
  • Avoid drying out medications – like certain allergy medications, antihistamines, etc.

About the Author

Sarah Luebke
Nebraska native Sarah Luebke completed her MM in vocal performance at the University of Kentucky, and her BM in vocal performance at St. Olaf College. Recently she has been seen performing the female lead, Jane McDowell, in "The Stephen Foster Story" and the ensemble of "Big River" with Stephen Foster Productions. Other performances include the soprano soloist of Bach's St. John Passion, La Fee ... [Read more]

8 Comments

  1. Joan Barber

    Thanks Sarah for the helpful blog. I especially love/hate the picture of the nodules! I’ve frequently had to scare my students with photos like this. They are a good reminder for me on those especially stressful days with the steam heat blasting. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. Catherine K. Brown

    Thanks for the great advice, as always.

  3. Madoline

    Never mind scaring students. That photo scares me too, especially since I’ve just started singing after a long break. What a nice article though. I’m going to read more of your blog.

  4. Vocal Music Teacher

    Hey i really liked the tips that you have discussed in detail in your article. thanks a lot it is really helpful information

  5. haikz

    Thank you Sarah, Now I Know what to do in my Vocal nodules… May God Bless you

  6. reenie

    If vocal rest is recommended by an ENT, how can that be accomplished while teaching??

  7. Sarah Luebke

    Reenie- Some good tips to teach while on vocal rest are:

    1) Cut your teaching if you can. If you just need a week of vocal rest, e-mail or call your students to let them know of your illness and that this week will be made up at a date in the future.
    2) If you can’t cancel a whole week, cut your teaching load in half. Working for a half day can also be beneficial.
    3) Remember that your vocal rest includes time before and after teaching. Turn off your phone- change your VM message to let people know the best way to contact you this week is through e-mail. Avoid smoky, loud bars or restaurants. Drink some herbal tea, read a book, listen to music, but no singing or talking.
    4) In lessons, limit talking by writing instructions for your students. Use gestures to indicate more space, lower support, up and over, etc. Play the piano to demonstrate phrasing. Play a rare recording of your student’s piece to give them a unique perspective of the music. Use non-verbal communication here.

    Good luck!

  8. Jeff

    One of my professors has made it her goal to be able to teach entirely WITHOUT modeling. I say that this is an admirable goal. Students can be tempted to mimic their teacher’s voice after modeling and create sounds that aren’t “them” (especially when the teacher and student have similar voices). With verbal instruction, however, that risk is lower. Just something I’ve been thinking about.