A guide, with tips, for touring singers.
The voice is the primary means of communication for human beings. In music, the vocal performance often conveys the emotion of the song. You can replace broken instruments but a singing voice that has been damaged through overwork or abuse is difficult to repair. As the singer or vocalist, you owe it to yourself to take optimum care of your voice—it is your career and your livelihood. At the same time, touring is a relentless work out for a vocalist. You should be able to cope with the singing every night for a 2-week tour for instance, and it is the travel, lack of sleep, less than perfect nutrition, and experimentation with too much drink and drugs, that will contribute to a ruined voice and cancelled shows.
Most of the voice-related problems I have encountered whilst working with vocalists on-the-road are caused by the vocal folds (known as the vocal cords) being neglected and then overworked. Your vocal folds are two small muscles at the base of your throat that vibrate and create sound when controlled breath is passed through them. The vocal cords are usually smooth, with no irregularities on the vibrating borders. Causing the cords to vibrate too hard by shouting, speaking, or singing too much, causes friction, and a “bruise” will develop on the vibrating edge of the cords. Over time, fibrous tissue replaces the bruise, the tissue becomes larger and appears as a soft, or hard, white nodule.
The symptoms of these nodules, or nodes, include a quivering in the voice (in the higher registers), hoarseness, an inability to sing high notes, and a breathy or husky speaking voice. resting the voice for two to three weeks can correct the nodules and undertaking training and speech therapy to correct the vocal behaviour should prevent the nodules from re-appearing. However, surgery may be necessary for extreme circumstances.
A rough singing voice and the inability to sing high notes are not a problem—modern hard rock and heavy metal almost demand it. However, continuing to abuse your vocal cords by singing with nodules could lead to laryngeal cancer .
Bearing all this in mind, here are my tips to help maintain your voice (and your general health) when touring:
- Drink plenty of water. Water is good for the whole body, not just your vocal cords. (Health experts and doctors recommend you drink 8 large cups of water (2 litres) a day.) If you do not drink enough water your body will de-hydrate and your voice will suffer damage as the cords dry out.
- Warm up your body, including your voice, before a performance. You should have a set of warm-up exercises for your voice, and not just before a show, either. Warming up is also appropriate to sound checks in cold, empty venues. Ten to twenty minutes of breathing exercises, humming, and la-ing, before sound check and again before the show will keep your vocal folds and your neck muscles in great condition.
- Avoid air-conditioned environments. Avoiding a/c is difficult in summer and you can minimise your exposure (ha!) by switching off the A/C on the bus or in the van. Humidity also helps. Inhale steam in a non-humid environment. Portable steam inhalers are now available in any good department store or online. (This one by Vicks gets a lot of mentions from vocal coaches on the web.) If you cannot afford a steam inhaler , then boil a pot of water on the stove and remove it once boiled. Place your head over the steam and place a towel over your head and the pot. Breathe with the towel still over your head.
- Don’t smoke (anything). The middle of the lit cigarette can reach 700 deg C (or 1292 deg F); imagine what that temperature will do to your vocal cords.
- Avoid alcohol before singing. Although liquid in any form cannot contact your vocal cords, alcohol has a physical property that allows it to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin and mucosal membranes. The vocal cords absorb small amounts of alcohol through the surrounding tissue. The initial effect of the alcohol is to cause dilation of blood vessels in this tissue. An initial sensation of “clarity and control” in the throat is quickly replaced by a numbing of the network of tiny nerves that control the voice and other coordinated body movements. Ever hear a drunken person sing?
- Rest your voice as much as possible on the day of a performance. Limit all interviews and promotional activities to a total of 20 minutes per show day.
- Do not scream or shout during sound check.
- Work with your monitor engineer to get the best stage monitor sound possible. You are less likely to strain your voice if you can hear yourself and the other instruments on stage. Invest in an in-ear monitor (IEM) system as soon as you are able to afford to as this will help you get a good, clean, stage monitor sound.
- Don’t strain. Change the key of songs if necessary.
- Avoid all dairy products before a show, especially if you have a cold. Colds can produce an excess of mucus; experts say dairy foods produce extra mucus. The two together will have you sneezing, coughing, and spitting, in no time.
- Do not use over-the-counter sore-throat sprays. The common sore throat spray is for a condition called pharyngitis, which is an area far above the vocal cords. The spray has a numbing effect on the surrounding tissue so the pain temporarily goes away. You are still using your vocal cords – you just can’t feel the extra damage.
- Use one of the pre-cold treatments such as First Defence. They do stop you developing a full-blown cold. I know a scientist who works in a germ lab and she told me all her scientist colleagues use First Defence at the first sign of getting a cold – she is a scientist and would not put her trust in something unproven! (I believe you can only get in UK and Europe?)
There is a worrying trend upwards of shows being cancelled because of ‘illness’ and I can only suppose these illnesses are vocal-related. Don’t piss off your fans by cancelling shows because you can’t sing – look after your voice.
- I know this because a gentleman named Dean Colley wrote to me after the publication of my first book.
- I assume this is true because I read it on the internet. Google, ‘how hot is a cigarette’ to see for yourself.
- See 1 above
- A doctor in San Diego told me this. After my vocalist had been almost drinking the stuff every night of the tour.