The Care and Feeding of Your Voice

“Thou know’st the first time that we smell the air, we wawl and cry.”

King Lear IV, v, 181-2

A baby’s first vocalization, as Shakespeare saw fit to note, is a testament to the resilience of those delicate vocal folds that vibrate in the larynx to produce the inimical sound that is a human voice — your voice. Your unique, very particular voice that makes possible not merely speech, but also whispers, hums, songs, lamentations, screams, yodels, coughs, and more.

When your voice breaks

Your voice is a marvel of bioengineering — until it isn’t. Even the sturdiest voice can fail from misuse or overuse, and repeated neglect can lead to tissue damage that may permanently alter it. Julie Andrews, Adele, Elton John, Beyoncé, Freddie Mercury, Steven Tyler, Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti, not to mention most presidential hopefuls on the campaign trail, have sustained temporary or sometimes career-ending vocal trauma.

But not even that cavalcade of luminaries was solace to me when I suffered a ruptured blood vessel on my vocal cord during the run of Oh, God at Mosaic Theater in January. I was performing seven shows a week while also rehearsing my upcoming show, The Heiress, at Arena Stage six days a week. And despite a years-long regimen of vocal warm-ups, meticulous hydration, and saltwater gargling before bed and upon rising, my “Old Faithful” voice checked out on me when I hit the wall.

Protecting your instrument

I wanted to share some tips to keep your own voice in good working order as well as some therapies that may help if you do happen to lose it. My quandary was indeed temporary, but it served as a reminder that since I’ve built a career on verbal exchange, not just on the stage, but in the classroom, recording studio, coaching suite, and more, I need to be uber-vigilant about how I treat my instrument. Embrace the following practices as part of your regimen for overall well-being, and your voice will thank you for it:

  • Avoid exhaustion — 7-8 hours of sleep is a good goal, but do try to avoid a pattern of  shaving the hours of quality sleep that you allow your body.
  • Reduce stress — knowing how you best relax and recharge (yoga, exercise, meditation, cooking, gardening) will help to ensure that the voice does not respond to tension or anxiety.
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! The vocal folds will dry out if you don’t take in enough water, leaving them vulnerable to damage. Some experts recommend that you drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day.
  • Try to minimize time spent talking in extremely loud environments (restaurants, bars, concerts, construction sites, your favorite roller coaster ride) or other scenarios where you find yourself yelling or otherwise straining your voice.

Vocal rescue

And should you find yourself with a bout of laryngitis from too much vocal strain, try the following:

  • Vocal rest — this only works if you definitively and religiously stop making any sound whatsoever! Whispering is the worst thing you can do as it actually places more stress on the vocal folds. Get a pad and pen and commit to using it as your surrogate voice. A few days of this will probably restore most mild cases of lost or hoarse voice.
  • Steaming — the vocal folds love an environment of moist warmth. You can accomplish this by luxuriating in a hot shower, running a humidifier, making use of a personal steamer from the CVS, or even boiling a pot of water, removing it from the heat, and leaning over it with a towel over your head. Be careful that the air you breathe in is not uncomfortably hot. This is wonderful TLC for the voice!
  • Gentle gargling with salt water — this is especially therapeutic if your throat is a bit sore from vocal strain. Use 1/3 teaspoon of kosher salt in 8 ounces of water.
  • Castor oil throat wrap — I love this therapy! Before you go to bed, swathe your throat in castor oil and gently massage it into your skin. Then loosely wrap your throat in some soft fabric (an old cotton tee shirt or flannel cloth that you can sacrifice is good) and go to sleep.
  • Sip warm beverages — herbal tea that is not citrus-based with a dollop of honey is great.

Above all: listen

Finally, listen to your body. If the hoarseness or voice loss does not resolve in a week or so, seek out an ENT or otolaryngologist. Laryngoscopy, where a tiny flexible tube with a camera on the end allows a doctor to view your vocal folds in action, can record your phonation on video. You want to be sure that there are not other conditions, such as acid-reflux, thyroid malfunction, nodes or hemorrhages, responsible for your voice disorder.

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