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Caring for your voice in poor air quality

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

It happened again.

Another student showed up for her lesson, almost in tears, saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with my voice! I could sing this song last week, but now it’s like I’m right back where I started a month ago! My voice feels dry and crackly, I don’t like the sound I’m getting… what is wrong with me?”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. And nothing is wrong with you. There are lots of reasons that we can have good voice days and bad voice days (a topic I want to explore in more depth in a future blog) but a big one these days, especially if you live in Colorado or California, is poor air quality.

The good news is, there are lots of easy things you can do to help minimize the effects! Even if you are not a “singer” (I happen to believe that we are ALL singers, but I will save that rant for a different day), you can still use these suggestions to keep your speaking voice, vocal tract, and lungs in great health. And if you are lucky enough to live in an area where air quality is not an issue, keep reading because you can use these tips anytime to take excellent care of your voice.

1. Get a personal steamer. I recently bought this one, and it is like a warm hug for my lungs. In addition to increasing hydration, the warmth reduces swelling in the vocal folds and calms irritation. You can put your head over a pot of boiling water and get the same effect, but I do love the ease of this one: just fill it up, plug it in, wait a few minutes, and you’re good to go! Recommended use: twice a day, 10 minutes at a time. It’s best to rest the voice for about 20 minutes after steaming, and avoid steaming for 4 hours before a performance, recording session, rehearsal, or voice lesson.

2. Use a neti pot. Be sure to use either distilled or boiled water (cooled to body temperature) and the recommended amount of salt for the size neti pot you are using. You will be amazed at the grossness that comes out of those nasal passages, and also how much better you feel afterwards! Clearing away excess mucous and hydrating the nasal passages results in smoother, freer breath and, therefore, more supported singing.

3. Hydrate. Drink lots of water! Enough said.

4. Get enough sleep. Did you know that sleep can affect the voice? When we sleep, a hormone is released that boosts muscle mass and repairs cells, including those of the vocal tract. When we don’t get enough sleep and attempt to sing or speak when tired, we tend to breathe more shallowly and pay less attention to how we are supporting our voice, leading to vocal strain.

5. Use your voice. A common myth is that if you are having trouble with your voice, complete vocal rest is the answer. While this might be true in some extreme situations, current research indicates that most of the time it is actually better to exercise the voice gently. Think about it, if you are rehabilitating from an injury, the best thing to do is to move the muscle gently in ways that create balance and facilitate healing. Same with the voice. Gentle humming, “zzz’s” or “nnn’s” are all good choices that help the vocal chords find their natural balance and reduce swelling. Making these sounds while sliding between pitches all throughout your range can help you see which areas of your voice may need some extra love and attention.

6. Watch what you eat. I’m sorry to be a buzzkill, but you might consider cutting down on or eliminating caffeine and alcohol, which have a drying effect on the voice. You might also pay attention to how your body reacts to dairy (I know, but cheese!! Just hear me out though.) Plenty of people do fine with dairy, but for many of us, it creates excess mucous, which leads to excess throat clearing, which leads to irritation of the vocal folds. Excess mucous also makes it more difficult to breathe which in turn makes it more difficult to fully support the voice.

7. Be kind to yourself. Keep in mind that our voices are delicate creatures that are deeply affected by physical, mental, and emotional stressors. When your voice isn’t there in the way you are expecting, instead of getting hard on yourself, see if you can ask, “What does my voice need right now to feel more balanced?” “What does it need right now to feel safe and at peace?” Allow the answer to emerge: Steam? Water? A nap? Time to just explore and play? Gentle sounds instead of big ones? Care for your voice the way you would care for a young child, and notice if things begin to shift.

As always, please let me know how it is going for you, and let me know how I can help you find balance and peace in YOUR voice!



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