ONSTAGE: Singer’s Health

A common misperception about singers is that all they have to do is open their mouths and beautiful sounds pour out. While there may exist some singers, especially when they are young for whom that is true. For the most part, singing is a physical activity that requires training, sacrifice, and forethought before and while engaging in it. Unlike instrumentalists, our bodies are our instruments. The good is that we always have our voices with us; we don’t have to worry about misplacing them. The bad is that our instruments depend on a healthy, well-rested state of being—something that can be hard to come by in our busy society. To give you some ideas about the balancing act required of singers, I intend to expose some of life’s challenges a singer must learn to negotiate in order to protect their voice.

A diagram of the anatomy of the human voice.
A diagram of the anatomy of the human voice.

We all are somewhat aware of the main keys to good health: getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet that gives us energy and sustains us, getting regular exercise to keep in shape, maintaining a positive outlook. Getting enough sleep is not as simple as it seems for performers who are often working late into the night and may have small children to care for. Just eating healthfully is not enough for singers with laryngeal or gastric reflux. When and what they eat can have a dramatic effect on their voice.

Some other internal influences that are key to singers’ functioning include the affects of body use and posture on the voice, keeping vocal folds hydrated is essential for healthy mucous membranes, and resting the voice to avoid damage that can come with overuse. Some singers study postural techniques and bodywork such as The Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, yoga, and Pilates in order to maximize the efficiency of their body when singing. Drinking water helps to keep singers vocal folds hydrated, but is slow acting. Sucking on lozenges, inhaling steam or moisture can be useful as well. The drying effects of alcohol and caffeine have been well studied and are frequently avoided around performances. Singers tend to be gregarious. Talking contributes to wear and tear on the voice. Singers with young children don’t have the luxury of resting their voices when they go home.

There are external factors too that can greatly affect la voce: humidity in the air, seasonal exposure to pollens and other allergens, exposure to airborne chemicals—especially on stage—in the form of visual effects such as smoke, from colleagues toiletries such as aftershave, hairspray, lotion… and dust from sets coming in and going out or grand costumes swirling around you.

It’s not enough for singers to have vocal talent and training. Because their instrument is part of them, they need to carefully negotiate the things within and around them that interfere with optimal functioning of their voices. It looks simple, just opening up your mouth and having beautiful sounds come out, but it’s far from easy!