Treat the muscles of the vocal mechanism like any athletic mechanism
The analogy of the "vocal athlete" is commonly made when referring to professional voice users. Persons who use their voices extensively or who need highly detailed or exacting sounds place demands on their voice in much the same way as athletes place demands on their bodies. Although there is no bone in the larynx, the muscles, cartilages, and ligaments act like those elsewhere in the body.
However, it is important to remember that although muscles move the vocal folds, the part that vibrates is the mucosa, and most athletes don't have to think about their mucosal tissues. So, although it's helpful to think about the vocal muscles in the ways a runner thinks about leg muscles, it's important to think about the mucosa as well. Sometimes it's hard to separate the behavior of the muscle from the behavior of the mucosa. The more you understand the properties of each, the more you'll be able to understand how your own voice works, and how to keep it healthy.
By the way, most of what is described below is substantiated by high-quality, scientific research. We're keeping things simple and direct for you here so we won't get sidetracked explaining complex physiological principles. But that information is available for you. Check our Links page for good resources.
Fatigue is a problem for athletes, especially vocal athletes. Here’s an excellent resource on vocal fatigue, in this case for teachers.
Two kinds of fatigue in the larynx:
- Muscle fatigue: Muscles in the larynx (intrinsic laryngeal muscles) and muscles in the neck (extrinsic laryngeal muscles) can get tired just like muscles in your legs, arms, and abs. One of the problems with voices is that vocal muscles don't always let you know they're fatigued the way legs, arms, and abs do. If muscles in the larynx become fatigued, it's common to recruit the larger muscles of the neck for additional pressure and stabilization. You may or may not feel fatigue in your neck or throat until you have gotten into some bad vocal habits.
- Tissue (mucosal) fatigue: When the vocal fold mucosa starts to swell after extensive use, that's tissue fatigue. The vocal folds are stiffer when they are swollen and don't vibrate as evenly. The change in the vocal sound can range from slight airiness to extreme roughness, or inability to reach extremes of pitch or volume. You may also feel increased effort to produce voice. Those can also be symptoms of muscle fatigue.
So, vocal fatigue can come from (at least) two sources, which can be very hard to differentiate. Also, vocal fatigue can manifest itself differently for different individuals or circumstances.
At the Lions Voice Clinic we see many persons with vocal fatigue. Their symptoms vary widely, as do their treatment programs. Below are some concepts that our patênts have found useful. Again, they are aimed at singers but apply to all vocal athletes.
- Vocal muscles need to be warmed up before extensive use, just like you need to warm up your legs before you go running. Warm-ups should start gentle and become more vigorous, but shouldn't bring you to the point of fatigue.
- We differentiate between physiologic warm-up and vocalises.
- Physiologic warm-up brings blood to the muscles and synovial fluid to the joints, as well as helping coordinate the various components of voice (such as breathing, phonation, resonance, and thinking!).
- Vocalises are specific exercises that help train you to be a better singer, actor, or speaker. They require a more exacting coordination of all the components of voice.
- Just as Olympic runners move and stretch their legs before doing a race, you should do a few minutes of sirens, glides, easy humming, etc., before doing your scales and arpeggios. Think of doing GROSS MOTOR muscle activity before doing FINE MOTOR muscle activity.
- In the Lions Voice Clinic, we believe that vocal warm-ups should be paired with upper-body movement: gentle head rolls and shoulder rolls, back stretches, bending over, etc. This keeps the muscles of the shoulders, neck, and jaw from becoming tense, or inappropriately recruited, while using the voice.
- Muscles need to be trained carefully and gradually. You wouldn't start an exercise program by doing 500 sit-ups the first day. You should build up gradually to vocal use just as you work up to any physical activity.
- Fatigued muscles need rest and gradual return to activity. Muscles that frequently become fatigued need to be better conditioned. A regular program of voice exercises can do wonders for preventing fatigue. Optimal technique is also important.
- Voices that are occasionally used extensively may become fatigued in a manner similar to the "weekend warrior syndrome." This is especially common among church choir singers, or persons who lecture occasionally. If the vicious cycle of overuse-fatigue-recovery is a problem, it might be solved by doing vocal exercises every day, not just the days of voice use.
- Cool-down can be important for many vocal athletes in the same way that continuing leg movement is important after aerobic exercise in order to avoid blood pooling in the legs. After extensive voice use, especially at high volumes or the very top/bottom of your pitch range, bring your voice back to its default with 5-10 minutes of easy voice exercises, gradually returning to speaking pitch range.
- Muscles need to be trained for the “event” they are in. Figure skaters don’t train for speed skating, and vice versa. Opera singers use their vocal mechanism very differently from a singer who leads sing-alongs at a nursing home. It’s important to recognize the specific muscular demands for any kind of voice use you do, and train for it if it’s extensive, or causes you fatigue or discomfort. Sometimes we need a teacher or coach to help us learn the most efficient way of doing our “event.”
- Muscles learn best from interval training. Personal trainers often have their clients do “circuits” or “interval training,” in which they don’t necessarily bring the targeted muscles to local fatigue, but rather do groups of fewer repetitions, multiple times, with rests (or some other activity) in between. Research shows that learning tends to be better with short bursts of an activity, frequently throughout the day. While it’s not always possible to practice vocal exercises for a few minutes, many times a day, it is a more efficient way of training your voice. There’s an old saying that more singers have practiced themselves out of a career than into one. Practice that is too long or too hard can be more harmful than good.
- Mucosa must be kept healthy and lubricated.
- If swelling has occurred, impact to the mucosa must be reduced. This is not always possible in the life of a vocal athlete, which is why voice disorders may develop.
- It's not wise to use medications to reduce mucosal swelling. Some singers will take aspirin products to reduce the potential for swelling during extensive voice use. They're forgetting that these products are also blood-thinners, making them more susceptible to vocal fold hemorrhage (bursting a blood vessel) if there is a sudden impact to the mucosa, such as a yell or sudden loud note. Adding alcohol (which dilates the blood vessels) to aspirin products is even more dangerous. If you’re taking a blood thinning medication, try to avoid sudden loud voice use.
You Are An Evolving Athlete!
Words of Wisdom for Singers
There is no ONE magic ingredient that will work for you forever
- Go for the gestalt; integrate the magic ingredients
- Allow yourself some pendulum swings in your sensation of voice
Your speaking technique is just as important as your singing technique
- Your speaking voice is not necessarily dangerous
- Your speaking voice CAN get you into singing trouble
Many styles of music can be safe for your larynx
- You can train to safely execute styles that are more demanding
- Train for the event you’re in
- Understand the demands of the event
- You have to be in control of your technique at all times
Avoid superstitious behavior
- Question the weird stuff your friends tell you
Life is a rocky road
- It’s your technique that will get you through
If you have problems, help is available
- Having a problem with your voice has no relation to your talent
- There is no stigma
Even though there should be no stigma in having a voice problem, some professional voice users need to be careful about who is aware of their voice disorder. At the Lions Voice Clinic, we understand this, and are very careful to protect your privacy.