Ever have one of those “What the hell is up with my voice?” days?
I know I have. Whether it’s high notes that disappear, suddenly sounding like Tom Waits on the bottom, flipping and cracking through the middle, pitchiness, or a myriad of other problems, I can assure you, we have all been there, even (or maybe especially) the pros.
So, what gives?
No, it is NOT that you suck! (And yes, I’ve been there too, thanks for asking.) The fact is, as singers WE ARE the instrument, which means anything that affects our bodies, minds, and spirits is going to affect our sound as well.
A lot of us are aware that things like aging, air quality, diet, and emotional distress can affect the voice. But here are a few that you may not have considered:
For humans of all gender expressions, hormones can be a big cause of inconsistency in the voice. For people who menstruate, it’s very common for hormonal changes to cause inflammation in various parts of the body just before your period. Well, the same thing happens in the vocal cords! And when the vocal cords swell, it’s harder to tune the voice, smooth the bridge between chest and head registers, reach high notes with ease… you get the picture. Similarly, hormonal changes during the approach to menopause can cause inflammation, dryness, and discomfort in the vocal cords.
Testosterone tends to make vocal cords thicker, which results in a lower voice. Rising or inconsistent testosterone levels can create cracking, hoarseness, or instability in the voice, particularly in adolescent boys and trans individuals undergoing hormone therapy. These effects typically fade once the transition is complete, but working with a voice teacher or SLP (Speech Language Pathologist) can help make the transition easier.
Most of us think of reflux as pain in the upper stomach or heart area, a burning sensation in the esophagus, and acid in the mouth. But did you know about silent reflux? In this form of reflux, the body produces a mucus layer at the top of the esophagus. This mucus does a great job of keeping acid from rising into the mouth, but guess what is at the top of the esophagus? Correct, my friends, the vocal cords! And mucus on the vocal cords can wreak vocal havoc, including flips and cracks in the middle, a gravelly sound, and areas of the voice that feel stuck or don’t produce sound at all.
If you experience chronic phlegm, feel like you are always clearing your throat, or wake up with frequent sore throats, you may want to consider getting evaluated by an ENT to see if you have silent reflux. To learn more about identifying and healing reflux, Dropping Acid by Jamie Koufman is a great place to start.
We’ve all sat through those commercials where they spend 20 seconds talking about how great a medication is, and another 2 minutes listing all the horrible side effects that can happen to you if you take it. If you are taking prescription meds, consider that some of these side effects, most notably dryness and inflammation, can affect the singing voice in negative ways. Dryness can cause hoarseness or even pain when singing as the vocal cords don’t have the lubrication they need to move fluidly, and you can read about the effects of inflammation above.
It's always great to check the side effects of any medications you might be taking to see if, among other things, they could be causing the changes in your voice that are bumming you out.
So, what to do?
For some things, getting to the root of the problem can resolve your vocal problems completely (like switching to a non-drying medication).
For others, it’s a work in progress. A lot of practical, easy things can help re-balance the voice, including these tips about vocal care. Feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to learn some vocal rehabilitation exercises that can reduce inflammation and promote healing. Finally, patience, self-love, and a sense of humor will help you hang in there until things shift again. Which, you can trust, they always do.