Health and Wellness
The body is the singer’s instrument. A healthy body does not necessarily mean a healthy voice; but a healthy voice depends on a healthy body. It is important that the entire instrument functions optimally for healthy efficient voicing to occur. As a singer, if you are not in the practice of being mindful of your body, wellness habits need to be adopted, if you plan a long and productive singing career. Vocal health depends on the interplay of four key areas: 1) Nutrition; 2) Physical activity; 3) Rest; 4) Social interaction.
Experts in the fields of biology, medicine, nutrition, and even psychology agree on the motto, you are what you eat. Food is fuel for the body at the cellular level. Singing—the entirety of that artistic pursuit—occurs at the cellular level. The proteins, vitamins, and nutrients needed for cell building and maintenance are found only in the food that is consumed. Empty calories (i.e., junk food) provide little, if any, physical benefit. Limit your intake of foods that offer little nutritive value. Smaller meals eaten throughout the day is more beneficial to your body than two or three large meals. The FDA website http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/dietaryguidance/myplatefood pyramid resources/usda my plate food pyramid resources is a good resource for nutritional advice. If food allergies limit your choices, find healthy alternatives. The health of your body has a direct impact on the health of the voice.
Adequate hydration is also an essential component for a healthy vocal instrument. The human body is inundated in water (75% in infants and 55% in senior adults). Adequate hydration allows the body to maintain these levels for optimal performance of the circulatory, digestive, endocrine, respiratory, and immune systems, and is also the primary factor in the process of thermoregulation. Contrariwise, lack of adequate hydration has a negative effect on each of these systems. Thirst is the brain’s signal that dehydration is already taking place. Since the daily intake of water differs from one individual to the next, a specific number of ounces per day may not be appropriate for everyone. One of the easiest indicators that the body’s hydration needs are being met is the color of urine. Dark amber or yellow urine indicates a lack of hydration. Clear or light yellow urine indicates that the body’s hydration needs are being met. When a body begins to dehydrate the brain begins a process of reallocating water to those body systems that require it for survival. Since vocal folds and mucous membranes are not essential to survival, water begins to be drawn away from these areas and redirected elsewhere. Without water, vocal fold ripple waving motion is impeded, the cushioning of the collisions between the folds is reduced, and the voice fatigues quickly and is prone to injury. Additionally, dehydration leads to thickened mucous; a perfect incubator for airborne viruses and bacteria causing illness and infection.
When food is ingested it functions as fuel for all of the body systems and for physical activity. The energy component of food (measured in calories) should be in balance with the body’s regulatory needs and activity levels. If caloric intake exceeds physical activity levels, the extra energy is stored as fat for later use. If caloric intake does not meet demands placed on the body, the calories are utilized completely and fat stores are burned to supplement caloric intake. If, however, fat stores have been fully expended, the body will then begin to burn muscle tissue and other tissues to meet survival needs. The key here is a conscious balance between caloric intake, the body’s regulation of its systems, and physical exertion.
The body’s requirement for regular periods of rest (sleep) cannot be overstated. Sleep is not the body’s way of going on break for 7 hours. Sleep is a very active part of the cycle of living during which old cells are replaced with new cells. Some cells are replaced overnight, while others may need three or four evenings of sleep for complete replacement. When a regular sleep routine is absent, the body is unable to restore necessary cells for the body to function optimally. Energy levels are reduced and the immune system is compromised leading to illness. Pulling all nighters, or even sleeping for only a few hours per night accomplishes little in the process of restoring cells. The human body generally needs between 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night to function at peak levels. The entire body is the instrument when it comes to voice. When the body is routinely rested, it is better able to meet the demands of all activities, including singing. For more on sleep, visit: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how sleep works/how much sleep do we really need. Rest also includes vocal rest. The ripple waving portion of the vocalise muscle is actually a very thin epithelial layer of cells. As phonation occurs (as when talking or singing easily), the opposing tissues collide thousands of times per second. During vigorous vocal use, the collision forces are greatly increased. As with any other tissue in the body, excessive overuse triggers the body’s injury response. Water levels are increased at the point of collision thickening the edges. We often hear this as hoarseness in the voice. Continued overuse can harden the surfaces making the voice unusable for a period of time. Regular vocal rest is imperative! While the human voice is resilient, it is not made of iron. If you have used the voice for an extended period, rest it. When you are resting the voice - rest it fully.
Thus far, the discussion of the healthy singing voice has been focused on those practices and habits that will sustain the healthy voice. There are other activities that can have a direct detrimental effect on the voice, and these should be avoided at all costs. They share similar effects on vocal fold tissue; swelling, hardening, and the eventual development of nodules on the surface of the vocalise muscle. These voicing activities include, but are not limited to:
- Yelling or screaming
- Inefficient belting
- Talking in noisy places (bus, cafeterias, etc.)
- Inadequate vocal rest
- Over practicing; over rehearsing
- A speaking pitch that is either too high or too low
- Habitual throat clearing
- GERD (acid reflux)
- Singing/talking during respiratory illness
- Vigorous voicing without a sufficient warm up period
- Sustained singing in extremes of vocal tessitura
Judy A. Guilbeaux-James, PhD