Last month we welcomed vocal health specialist and Discover Singing‘s Emma Torry to the Doremi Sofa. (Members: click here to view) Not a member? Don’t worry! Emma has written this great blog post so everyone can benefit.
As the new term approaches, you’ve got your new planner sorted, your timetable and you’re starting in on your lesson plans.
But have you thought about how you’re going to keep your voice working all the way until Christmas?
Many of us had disrupted school for the last eighteen months with lots of time teaching online, wearing masks, and little or no singing. This year, we’re being promised no shutdowns and at the moment, we’re all allowed to sing.
With five simple tips, you can get your voice functioning better than ever so you’ll still have a voice for the end of term carol concert.
Let’s start with something you probably already know. Hydration is essential for your voice to work well (like the rest of your body). Try to drink that two litres a day that’s recommended. More if you’re doing a lot of speaking and singing.
If you’re a classroom teacher, I know it can be tough to drink enough. Sometimes you have to make it through four hours of teaching before you have a chance to get to a loo! If this is you, make sure you drink plenty before and after school to make up for it.
For instrumental teachers, remember to schedule breaks throughout your day to refresh your drink and use the loo as well!
When you are drinking water during teaching, try to take small sips, rather than big glups. When we swallow, our larynx moves and that redistributes the mucous around our vocal folds. If you can’t drink a lot, this will still help you keep going until the end of the day. Our voice likes to be moist for good sound.
It doesn’t matter what you drink, so long as it’s not booze! If you love a special tea, keep drinking it. It’s not doing anything physical, but the mental comfort is still working – if you feel relaxed and happy, that’s going to be doing you good!
I bet you already knew this one too, and coming up with excuses. I know I am. It’s not easy to get enough sleep when you have an early start, lots of planning, and a family at home, but do try to get as close to the 7-8 hours mark as you can. Sleep is our body’s natural time for processing mentally and restoring physically. So often rest is all we need to wake up feeling more able to sing, talk and teach.
Good sleep is also underpinned by good general health. Eating well helps us sleep well and move well. Getting plenty of exercise also helps us fall asleep better and improves sleep quality.
Your mental health will have an impact on your sleep. I know when I am struggling, I want to sleep more, and other people I know find it hard to sleep at all. Exploring the things you need to keep mentally well is really important, and absolutely worth the time.
If you have sleep problems, or indeed any general physical or mental health problems, don’t be afraid to reach out to your GP for help. Many GPs now have a team of different professionals available to help, including specially trained nurses, physios, mental health professionals and sometimes even dieticians/nutritionists etc. And be persistent – you can request to see a different doctor or nurse if you don’t feel taken seriously.
We might get a little giggle at the comedy sketch showing “serious” performers communicating with only a whiteboard and pen, but there’s a truth right there. Just as if you’re a keen runner, you need rest days, so do our voices.
Plan in time when you aren’t talking. Maybe that means taking your coffee out of the staff room, locking your family out of the kitchen while you cook, turning off the music on your drive home or even planning quiet activities for your days off like a cinema trip. This one can take a bit of negotiation with your family too, if you have someone who is a bit of a chatterbox. Can you agree that it’s ok to nod and smile but not reply when you watch a TV show together?
Little bits of silence all add up too. Plan your lessons so you are alternating your talking and singing with the kids talking and singing. You don’t have to sing along with them every time! This can be especially challenging if you’re teaching online – the Zoom silence is weird! Try beating time or using handsigns to keep your class going.
Pacing your lessons so you have lots of voice breaks (and so your kids do too) will help your voice last longer.
What if it isn’t working? It’s been a disaster of a day, with lots of raised voices and then to top it all off you’ve had to lead a choir rehearsal or staff meeting. What do you do now?
This is the ultimate in voice user self-care. Find a good sized bowl or saucepan and a tea towel or hand towel. Fill your kettle to the brim and boil it. Then pour the boiling water into the bowl. Find somewhere safe and comfortable to sit with your bowl like at a dining table (use a mat if the table surface is delicate…!). Tell everyone to go away, set a timer for five minutes throw the towel over your head, and breathe.
Steam is the only way to get moisture directly onto your vocal folds. Warm, wet air will soothe a tired voice and help get it back to better function. Plus, you get five minutes of peace and quiet along with it.
It’s best not to add any essential oils to the water as at best they won’t do anything, and at worst, they can have an irritating effect. Of course, if you swear by a drop of peppermint or eucalyptus and you’re sure it doesn’t irritate you, there’s power in the placebo effect.
Steam can be used as often as needed (every day if you like), and the only risk is scalding yourself, so do be careful when carrying the bowl, watch out for pets and small children and wait a bit if the air if it feels too hot to be comfortable.
SOVT is an acronym for semi-occluded vocal tract. These are sounds that are especially effective for warming up, cooling down and massaging the voice.
SOVT sounds are any sounds that you make when your mouth is partially or fully closed. Partially closed sounds include consonants like zzz, vvv and jjj, as well as some vowels like oo and ee. Fully closed sounds are mainly those we make on m and n when we let the sound through the nose. Some other great sounds include a lip trill, a rolled r and that sound like a pidgeon coo or cat purr at the back of the mouth.
Why are they so great? These exercises equalise the pressure above and below the vocal folds which helps the folds work better. They are especially good for warm-ups and cool-downs because they’re really gentle on the voice – it’s hard to over do the sound!
The easiest way to use SOVT is to pick a sound like a hum, and start sliding up and down in your voice. Start with a small up and down close to your speaking pitch, then increase slowly until you’re going from the highest to lowest sounds.
SOVT is also great for massaging tired vocal folds, just as you might rub a sore muscle in your back or shoulders. For the massage effect, you’ll need to use something that creates vibration. Try a lip trill or a rolled r – it creates a vibration in your mouth that actually goes all the way back to the vocal folds and helps calm inflammation and release muscle tension.
My favourite SOVT is to use a straw. Straws are great because you can vary the length and diameter easily which gives fine control over the pressure you’re creating. Plus, you can use a straw in water, which is such a fun way to massage your voice! This is my go-to tool between classes. Just one or two minutes of singing into a straw in my waterbottle refreshes my voice for the next lesson.
So, when you’re packing for school this term, think wallet, keys, phone, straw!
This might be all you need – just a few simple techniques to keep your voice working. However, if you want to develop your voice more, consider finding a singing teacher. You will almost certainly be able to find one locally or many teachers have now moved to offering online lessons as well as in person so you don’t need to travel to take lessons with the teacher of your choice.
To learn more, check out the book Everyday Voice Care by Joanna Cazden. This is a great reference book with loads of helpful advice which you can come back to again and again.
I can’t recommend enough the Vocal Health First Aid course, if you want to learn more about caring for your voice and how you can help your colleagues look after their voices. The course covers basic anatomy, simple diagnostic exercises, general vocal health and much more. I hope one day there will be a Vocal Health First Aider in every school, college and university so everyone can have access to help.
Finally, if you are struggling day in day out with your voice or notice any changes that last two or three weeks or longer, speak to a medical professional. You can speak to your GP, or if you are a musician, you can also speak to BAPAM too. If you are a teacher, you are a professional voice user – make this clear to your GP, and they should be able to refer you to the local ENT voice clinic. It can be a bit of a wait, but it is worth it to get the help you need. The ENT team will be able to use a scope to look at your vocal folds, advise you on lifestyle or medication issues, and give you access to a speech and language therapist for specialist advice to help with any issues you have. Vocal Health Education also offer appointments with trainee Voice Habilitation Professionals at discounted rates, if you want to speak to a singing specialist.
Whatever you are doing, however it works out over this academic year, look after your voice! It’s specially, uniquely yours, and deserves love.
Emma Torry, Discover Singing