You’re a professional speaker/singer, just days away from a career changing speaking engagement or concert, when suddenly you find yourself battling vocal fatigue and hoarseness. Panic ensues as the clock ticks down, and you find yourself frantically trying every home remedy, vocal exercise and magical talisman you can get your hands on, hoping it will get your voice in good working order again. Terrifying, really, if you’ve ever found yourself in that situation. Well, today I’d like to suggest some very common sense steps that you can take to ensure vocal health, diminish the occurrence of these episodes, and quite possibly, eliminate altogether.
First, we have to understand that our vocal apparatus is mechanical, and like any mechanical device it requires certain things in order to be maintained. You wouldn’t think of running your vehicle without putting oil in it, would you? Of course not. Nor should you operate your voice without giving it what it needs.
So, what does the voice need? Six things really. Just six.
Breath is the fuel of the voice.
Ninety percent of great speaking and singing comes from Diaphragmatic Breathing and Breath Management. It is the means by which sound travels into the environment, but it is also one of the ways that the vocal cords receive moisture. Therefore breath serves not only to transport sound into the environment it also insulates the vocal folds from dryness.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the key. Oddly enough, this is how we breathe naturally, but for some strange reason when we are required, through the discipline of proper technique, to systematically employ it, our instinct is to shoulder breathe. Weird, right? Well, breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (thank God) otherwise we’d have to think in order to take every single breath, but because it is, we’ve never really paid attention to what happens when we DO take a breath. All we’re left with is our imaginings of what proper breathing looks like, and most often that leads to shoulder breathing.
To really understand and own ‘Natural Breathing’ start first, by lying on the floor. Now, as you breathe in, allow the pelvic floor to lower, and the low abs, oblique’s, and back muscles to expand out. This will allow the diaphragm to move down, making room for the lungs to fully inflate, and in doing so, it creates negative pressure in the chest cavity, drawing air into the lungs.
Now, obviously, you won’t be lying down when you speak or sing, so the next step is to convert your ability to diaphragmatically breathe, to a sitting and standing position. The mechanics are the same, the only difference being the change in gravity. To compensate for this change you need to employ good posture. Good posture will facilitate the same straight and unobstructed pathway for airflow, as when you were lying down.
What does good posture look like? It’s simple really…place your feet shoulder width apart, keep your knees soft (not locked). Locking the knees results in a curve in the low back that takes away from the straight line we’re trying to create. Tuck your butt under, keep your chest open, (like you are confidently walking into a meeting). Keep your head level, and your chin parallel to the ground. Remember the head will always follow the gaze of the eyes, so make sure you pick a point of focus that allows you to keep your head level.
Now, let’s talk about the release of breath. Here’s where the diaphragm plays such an important role. The diaphragm is the main muscle of inhalation, but it is also the muscle that allows us to control the rate, flow and intensity, or how much, how quickly and how strongly the air, we exhale, leaves our instrument. In this scenario the diaphragm actually works in opposition to the supports muscles (low abs, the oblique’s and back muscles) which, during exhalation, are squeezing in and pressing up on the diaphragm to move air to the cords. The diaphragm, (the main control muscle) in opposing them, sits on them creating resistance to keep air away from the cords. With these two opposite actions in place we end up with an even, manageable column of air being sent to the cords.
Here’s 3 very short videos to better illustrate and help you visualize the process.
What are the other 5 things the voice needs to stay healthy? Check back next week for my next installment of ‘The Care and Feeding of the Voice’