A quick guide to vocal health
Do you use your voice to make a living? Occupational voice users are individuals who rely heavily on vocal communication to do their jobs. Research reveals that approximately 60% of the individuals who seek treatment for voice disorders are occupational voice users. With a few simple steps, you can avoid damaging your voice and become a better communicator.
Occupational risk factors for vocal disorders include poor acoustic conditions for speech, heavy voice demand high exposure to viruses, inadequate vocal training, large class sizes, and escalating pressures from employers.
Voice problems are characterized by complaints of hoarseness, voice breaks, pain, tension, or effort during speech, change in pitch, and vocal weakness. Factors such as extensive voice use combined with noisy speaking environments, poor health, bad posture, inadequate vocal technique and the stresses of life that can lead to vocal problems. Get the best mileage from your voice by practicing good vocal hygiene.
Here are some tips to help you put your best voice forward.
- Don't cough or clear your throat habitually. Instead, sip some water, swallowing slowly, yawn to relax your throat, or hum, concentrating on resonance sensations.
- Don't yell, cheer or scream habitually.
- Avoid prolonged talking over long distances and outdoors. Move closer to be heard without yelling, or use a vocal amplification system. Learn good vocal projection techniques.
- Avoid talking in noisy situations, over loud music, office equipment, and noisy classrooms, in cars, buses and airplanes by reducing background noise when you speak. Always face the people you are speaking with and position yourself close to them.
- Don't try to address large audiences without proper vocal amplification. You should be able to lecture at a comfortable volume. Always use a high-quality vocal amplification system for public speaking and learn good microphone techniques.
- Don't vocalize or sing your beyond comfortable range. Know respect your vocal limits. Seek professional voice training.
- Avoid vocally abusive nervous habits during public speaking such as throat clearing, speaking quickly, breath holding, speaking on insufficient breath, speaking with a low and monotone pitch, and aggressive or low-pitched fillers like "umms" and "ahhs".
- Reduce vocal habits that detract from your presentation by learning strategies for effective public speaking. Prepare your presentation well so you can relax and pay attention to good vocal production.
- Don't speak extensively during strenuous physical exercise. Avoid grunting during intense physical activity and while lifting weights. After aerobic exercise, wait until you catch your breath and can accommodate relaxed voice production.
- Don't talk in a low-pitched monotone voice or allow your vocal energy to drop so low that the sound becomes rough and gravelly. Keep your voice powered by breath flow, so the tone carries, varies and rings.
- Don't hold your breath as you're planning what to say. Avoid tense voice onsets. Keep your throat relaxed when you speak and use the breathing muscles and airflow to start speech phrases.
- Don't speak beyond a natural breath cycle by squeezing out the last few words of a thought with insufficient breath power. Speak slowly, pausing at natural phrase boundaries, so your body can replenish air naturally, and without strain.
- Don't tighten your upper chest, shoulders, neck and throat to breathe in, or to push sound out. Allow your body to stay aligned and relaxed so that breathing is natural and your ribcage and abdomen move freely.
- Don't clench your teeth, or tense your jaw or tongue. Let your jaw move freely during speech.
- Avoid prolonged use of unconventional vocal sounds like whispering, growls, squeaks, imitating animal or machine noises. If you must use unconventional sounds for vocal performance, learn techniques that minimize muscle tension and vocal misuse.
- When you sing, don't force your voice to stay in a register beyond its comfortable range. Don't force your chest voice too high, or your head voice into your falsetto range. Allow vocal registers to change naturally with pitch. Consult a singing coach to learn techniques for smooth register transitions.
- Don't demand more of your voice than you would the rest of your body. Allow for several periods of voice rest throughout the day.
- Don't use your voice when it feels strained. Recognize the first signs of vocal fatigue: hoarseness, tension, dryness.
- Don't ignore prolonged symptoms of vocal strain including hoarseness, throat pain, fullness, heartburn, and allergies. Consult your doctor if you experience throat symptoms or voice change for more than a few days.
- Don't expose your voice to excessive pollution and dehydrating agents including cigarette smoke, chemical fumes, alcohol, caffeine, and dry air. Keep the air and your body clean and humid. Drink 8-10 cups of water daily. Don't smoke!
Most occupational voice users do not have voice training to prepare them for the heavy and difficult vocal demands of their jobs. Seek professional vocal training to help make you the best communicator you can be.
Use a good quality voice amplification system. Systems range in size from a small battery powered system you can wear around your waist to full size professional sound reinforcement systems. Consult a professional and reputable sound reinforcement engineer to find the system that's best suited to your needs. Find a high quality system with low distortion and good resistance to feedback. Use a wireless headset microphone system for best gain before feedback and vocal clarity. Do not use a lapel mic, which are very prone to feedback and very difficult to use in combination with an amplified sound system.
In spite of the challenges, there are resources available to help you to maintain your vocal health. Seek them out. Talk to your doctor. Find a good vocal coach.
Be aware of the environmental risks and take steps to minimize those you have control over and practice good vocal hygiene. It all adds up to taking care of yourself in order to put your best voice forward.
Kevin Dempsey is a professional audio engineer, sound technician and fitness buff. He is President and CEO of Fitness AV, The Fitness Audio Visual Experts, the leading supplier of sound and video systems to the fitness and recreation industry. Sign up for our monthly fitness instructor newsletter.
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