How to Avoid Vocal Strain for Singing and Speaking

Updated on June 18, 2019
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Respected vocal coach, Audrey Hunt lays it on the line when it comes to the responsibility of singing, performing, and avoiding vocal strain

Author, Audrey Hunt, preparing singers for recording sessions.
Author, Audrey Hunt, preparing singers for recording sessions. | Source

Ten Leading Causes of Vocal Strain

We are born to sing without flaws or defects. Our body houses all the tools that are used in singing. Various influences, such as habits we develop as we grow, cause us to develop certain faults. Most vocal strain is initiated by using poor vocal technique, but don't worry because I'm here to help you find your way to a healthy voice.

The best way to avoid straining your voice is through prevention. The main factors that cause vocal strain are:

  1. Yelling or screaming.
  2. Singing or speaking without proper breath support.
  3. Trying to sing too high or too low.
  4. Forcing the voice.
  5. Over-singing or speaking.
  6. Failing to warm up the voice before speaking or singing.
  7. Carrying too much tension in the neck and shoulder area. Tension is the enemy to all performers, especially singers and public speakers.
  8. Vocalizing out of your natural range.
  9. Smoking
  10. Coughing

Vocal strain causes the vocal cords to become inflamed and irritated. In time, you may be at risk for developing vocal nodules or calluses which form on the vocal cords. Obviously, you want to avoid this which brings me to the reason I'm writing this article.

As a vocal instructor, I feel that I have a responsibility to help you protect your voice, keep it healthy, and ready for your next song or speech.

Yelling or Screaming Will Damage Your Voice

Yelling or screaming causes hoarseness.  If done repeatedly, it can damage the voice and in time create vocal nodules on the vocal cords..
Yelling or screaming causes hoarseness. If done repeatedly, it can damage the voice and in time create vocal nodules on the vocal cords.. | Source

Avoid Yelling and Screaming

It's natural to want to yell or scream with excitement for your favorite sports team while attending a game. But too much screaming can change the quality of your voice as well as leaving you hoarse for a few days.

According to the National Institute of Health, close to eight million people have vocal problems. This includes teachers, lawyers, singers, actors. and other professionals.

Use a Mirror to Check For Tension in Key Areas

Tension in the neck, jaw and even at times, the tongue, can sometimes cause vocal strain.

One of the best ways to make sure you're body is doing what its suppose to do when you sing is to watch yourself in the mirror. You can see exactly where you may be holding too much tension found in the neck and jaw.

When tension is found in these areas, it can creep into the tone. The singer must be free of tension throughout the entire song. With this freedom, the singing voice will flow with beauty and fullness.

The Human Voice is the most perfect instrument of all” –Arvo Pärt. ...

Ten Ways to Eliminate Bad Vocal Behavior

You can still root for your favorite team by using good breathing techniques. The reason the air we take in is important is that as we sing or speak, our sound is supported by air. Without air, we would not be able to utter a word. Visualize the sound you make as it 'rides on air' which is a natural 'cushion' for singing and speaking.

Here are ten additional important habits for preventing vocal problems:

  • Keep your throat well hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Make sure your water is room temperature as cold will restrict the vocal cords.
  • Slow down on caffeine and alcohol consumption. Limit your servings to two servings per day. If you're going to be singing, avoid caffeine and alcohol completely the day of the performance. The vocal cords need moisture. Alcohol, caffeine, and antihistamines are drying to the vocal bands.
  • If you're going to be a good singer, do not smoke. Smoking is irritating to the vocal cords.
  • Warm up your voice before singing, acting, and public speaking to maximize your vocal potential.
  • Release tension in the neck, shoulders, and face by doing relaxation exercises prior to singing.
  • Sing songs within your vocal range. Trying to sing to high or too low is a major cause of vocal damage and strain.
  • Do not force your voice to be heard or to reach a high note. Correct breath support will supply you with the energy needed to project your sound along with using the proper resonating chambers.
  • Avoid clearing your throat. This can be damaging to the vocal cords. A better way to clear your throat is to simply swallow a few times.


Don't Drink Alcohol During Rehearsals

Author, Audrey Hunt, rehearsing for her gig.  No alcohol permitted!
Author, Audrey Hunt, rehearsing for her gig. No alcohol permitted! | Source

Avoid Alcohol When Singing

Some performers think that drinking alcohol will help them relax and overcome the jitters associated with stage-fright. I can think of two reasons why entertainers are better off without it:

  1. Alcohol impairs muscle coordination and reduces physical efficiency of your vocal folds. Even losing just a slight amount of muscle coordination can cause you to compromise your pitch resulting in singing off-key.
  2. Alcohol irritates and dehydrates the vocal folds as well as the rest of the body. When this happens, the blood thins and comes to the surface, which makes you more susceptible to a hemorrhage on your vocal cords.

During my years, as a professional singer, it has been the custom for happy fans to order alcoholic beverages for me as a way of saying "thank you." I don't drink alcohol at all. My solution was to alert the bartender to give me only sparkling water. The result was a clear head during the entire performance and plenty of water to keep my throat well hydrated.

Although we can look at our vocal cords through a laryngoscope and chart the various formants of acoustical sound, we cannot chart the effects of body, mind, and heart on the voice -- and those things are as much a part of the instrument as are the vocal folds themselves. Because our entire person is our instrument, everything about us -- our physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual state of being -- affects the physical and acoustical aspects of singing.

W Stephen Smith

Television's American Idol Finalist

American Idol finalist, Kristin McNamara, met with me regularly to develop good vocal technique and avoid vocal strain.
American Idol finalist, Kristin McNamara, met with me regularly to develop good vocal technique and avoid vocal strain. | Source
Symptons of Vocal Strain
Cause
Solution
Sore throat or hoarseness
Yelling, overuse, singing too high
Avoid screaming, take vocal breaks, sing within your natural range
Tightness in the throat
Tension, insufficient breath
Release face and neck tension before singing or speaking. Breathe from the belly.
Dry throat
Smoking, caffeine, alcohol, antihistamines and medications
Increase water intake, avoid smoking, alcohole and certain medications
Vocal polyps
Any type of vocal strain including excessive speaking without proper breathing techniques
Learn and use diaphragmatic breathing for singing, acting and speaking.
Aching in the throat during or after vocalizing
Vocalizing too long.
The muscles of the throat and larynx can become tired and start to ache, especially for beginners. Limit your practice time to 20 minutes, 2-3 times a day.
No amount of "trying" to sing can compensate for developing good vocal technique.

One Last Word

I strongly urge you to work on becoming well-equipped with proper vocal technique. This will set your voice free each time you sing or speak. Understand, that we don't sing the same way we speak. Specific skills are required such as:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Ear-training.
  • Sight-singing.
  • Music Fundamentals.
  • Interpretation.
  • Diction.
  • Posture
  • Resonance
  • Rhythm
  • Tone beautification

Don't let the word "technique" scare you. This is your insurance policy designed to protect your voice and guide you on the right path to beautiful singing and speaking.

A Teacher's Reward

My passion for teaching the art of singing has been rewarded in countless ways. I'm not just referring to seeing a student of mine on a television show, performing a lead role in a Broadway Musical, or being invited to their first record release party.

Don't get me wrong - I'm proud of these hard-working, dedicated musicians. I'm talking about how good it feels when I witness a student who has lost all hope of ever singing, rise like a Pheonix from the ashes of doubt and fear to a confident, beautiful, vocal sound.

I'm also talking about the times I've held back tears of joy watching old folks confined to hospitals and assisted living homes to forget about their loneliness and disabilities as they watch my young vocal students perform songs from "their day."

And how about that sweet elderly man confined to his wheelchair, who didn't utter a word, until my children's chorus entertained him with their sweet voices. It was when they sang a favorite hit from the 1930's "Let Me Call You Sweetheart", that he began singing along, surprising the nurses and staff at the nursing home.

I have hundreds of stories like these - a treasure trove of memories. These are my rewards for having dedicated fifty years to teaching others to discover their voices.

Audrey with one of her young, dedicated students.
Audrey with one of her young, dedicated students. | Source

Good singing doesn't have an expiration date.

Audrey Hunt

Are You a Singer or Speaker?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Audrey Hunt

    Comments

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      • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

        Audrey Hunt 

        10 days ago from Idyllwild Ca.

        Genna

        How blessed I am to receive such comments from you. You are a talent within yourself! I often reflect on my good fortune which has led me to a life of service. My mother instilled in me the love of music. She was my number one fan and I wish her life could have lasted long enough to share my experiences with music.

        Thank you, my friend.

      • Genna East profile image

        Genna East 

        12 days ago from Massachusetts, USA

        What a wonderful career you have had, Audrey. To "witness a student who has lost all hope of ever singing, rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of doubt and fear to a confident, beautiful, vocal sound" is a testament to your talent. .And how marvelous that you were Kristen's vocal coach. Reading your articles is a privilege. Thank you for sharing with us.

      • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

        Audrey Hunt 

        3 weeks ago from Idyllwild Ca.

        Liz

        Julie's vocal nodules were not caused by alcohol, but by over-use. I, too, love the opening scene of the Sound of Music. It is unforgettable!

        prasetio30

        I remember how much you love to sing. Wonderful! Very glad this article was helpful and thank you.

      • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

        Audrey Hunt 

        3 weeks ago from Idyllwild Ca.

        Dora,

        Thank you. Kristen was completely open to learning new vocal technique which served her well. So nice to see you.

        Hi Flourish,

        Generally speaking, your vocal range is the lowest note you can sing to the highest note you can sing. When you try to sing out of your normal range, you may experience a tightening or gripping, aching feeling in the throat.

        Vocal range plays such an important role in classifying singing voices into voice types that sometimes the two terms are confused with one another. A voice type is a particular kind of human singing voice perceived as having certain identifying qualities or characteristics;

        The range is only one of those characteristics. Other factors are vocal weight, vocal tessitura, vocal timbre, vocal transition points,

        All of these factors combined are used to categorize a

        singer’s voice into a particular kind of singing voice or voice type.

        I hope my explanation isn't too confusing. I'll gladly help you to identify your vocal range if you like. Thanks.

      • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

        Audrey Hunt 

        3 weeks ago from Idyllwild Ca.

        Marlene

        Thank you for your comments. You have confirmed what I've written here, and because you're a professional and use these techniques, others will be more prone to start incorporating them too.

        Hello, Linda

        My life has been filled with so many "singing and teaching" experiences that I actually forget about them until I start writing. Just one more good reason to write - right?

      • prasetio30 profile image

        prasetio30 

        3 weeks ago from malang-indonesia

        I like singing, and I get valuable information here. Thanks for sharing, Audrey. Good job!

      • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

        Audrey Hunt 

        3 weeks ago from Idyllwild Ca.

        Chitrangada

        Thank you, my friend, for being here. What would we do without our voices? Whether singing or daily speaking, knowing how to avoid straining the voice is important. I appreciate your kind comments.

        Blessings,

        Audrey

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        3 weeks ago from UK

        I didn't realise that Julie Andrews' problems were caused by alcohol. I thought it was something to do with nodules on her vocal chords. Fortunately she has had acting roles to fall back on. I still think of the opening scenes of The Sound of Music as some of the most stunning even after all these years. The swooping aerial view of Austria leading into her opening song are fantastic, especially on the big screen.

      • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

        Audrey Hunt 

        3 weeks ago from Idyllwild Ca.

        Pamela

        Singing well involves the use of the entire body. The key to developing the singing voice is to learn proper vocal technique. Anyone can sing and sound good once the right skills are applied to the voice. It's pretty amazing. Thanks, Pamela.

        Liz

        Eventually, alcohol takes a toll on even the best singers. We rarely hear about it. Even Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music) suffered vocal damage and stopped singing

        Bill

        Aw, gee whiz, thank you, dear Bill. This means everything to me!

        love,

        audrey

        Linda

        Yes, dairy products can cause phlegm (mucus) and usually does. It's best to avoid dairy when singing. Thanks, so much.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 weeks ago from USA

        This was excellent. Congratulations on your work with the artists mentioned. It was touching to heat about the elderly man’s reaction to hearing a song from his youth. You mention not singing outside your natural range. Can you describe how you know what that is for you individually?

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        4 weeks ago from The Caribbean

        Congratulations on your payoff with Kristin McNamara! I always learn from your articles. The effect of alcohol on the vocals, as you describe, is alarming. Thanks for your wise counsel.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for sharing the tips, Audrey. Your advice sounds excellent. I enjoyed learning about some of your experiences as a singer and a teacher as well.

      • MarleneB profile image

        Marlene Bertrand 

        4 weeks ago from USA

        About 8 years ago, I woke up and decided to earn a living by using what the good Lord gave me - my voice. I'm a voice actor. I don't get the BIG gigs, but I am happy with what I have. Truthfully, a lot of what you teach here has helped me take care of and refine my voice talent. So, I thank you very much for the valuable lessons you share here.

      • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

        Chitrangada Sharan 

        4 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

        Excellent article about, how to avoid vocal strain, so much important for the singers.

        I agree with you that speaking loudly or yelling, can damage the voice. Other reasons that you have mentioned are equally important.

        Thanks for sharing this well written article. A great helpful guide for the singers, whether new or the established ones.

        You look great in all your pictures. Thank You and good day.

      • Carb Diva profile image

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Audrey, this is a great article. I wonder how the singers in bands can continue night after night in an atmosphere with smoke (and I'll bet they don't abstain from alcohol).

        Years ago a choir director cautioned us to not eat dairy products (especially drinking milk) before performing because it would produce mucus. True?

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        You are one talented lady, my friend. It is an honor to call you a dear friend.

        love,

        bill

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        4 weeks ago from UK

        You give some interesting and valuable tips. The alcohol-fuelled singing sessions that we hear of with big names of the past clearly were not a good idea.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        I never thought about all the things that go into being a good singer. Unfortunately, I do not have a good singing voice, but I appreciate those that do. I have done some speaking, so i appreciate this well-written article.

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