Warming Up: 3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Own Voice

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Why do we warm up? Why bother? We use our voices all the time, after all – we’re always talking, moaning, grunting and humming our way through our day. So aren’t we ready to sing all the time?

Good lord, no. If you get up on stage without good preparation you’re done for. The singing muscles need warming up like everything else does – but there have been a lot of dodgy ideas taken on by the singing community as gospel. Some of the methods you swear by may in fact be damaging your voice. So here goes – the real reasons we warm up.

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Elocution Lessons London: Mucus

Mucus, baby! It’s the number one reason why we warm up. The vocal folds have a thin mucosal layer on them which acts as a lubricant. It means that when they vibrate together they don’t dry each other out by contact. But when you sleep, that water-thin mucosal layer gets all stodgy and thick. It turns into a kind of glue, sticking the vocal folds together in uncomfortable places. You might hear this as a kind of extra static-y sound in the voice, and often a diminished range in your head voice.

So, we need to get this mucus shifted. Take a strong ‘mm’ sound and vigorously move up and down the range, especially up at the top. This will stretch and unstretch the folds, dislodging that horrible mucus and getting your voice clean. I also like vocal fry (that creaky sound at the bottom of your voice) for getting rid of gunk.

Elocution Lessons London: Hydration

But once we’ve gotten rid of that thick mucus, how do we make sure that our voice stays lubricated properly? The answer is simple. Water. Water. And more water.

As part of my job, I teach 6-7 hours a day 5 days a week – and most of that time is spent either singing or speaking rather animatedly. So how do I keep my voice working? Contrary to popular belief, drinking water does not immediately make you sing better. It takes 3-4 hours for the water to be processed by the body, and then pumped by the glands into the mucosal layer of the vocal folds. So keeping yourself hydrated AT ALL TIMES, not just when you’re singing, is crucial to good performance. If I know I’m teaching or performing that day, I never leave the house without a bottle of water.

What happens if you get this wrong? Catastrophe. If the folds don’t have adequate hydration, they rub. And that rubbing causes blistering, which then leads to nodules and polyps. These can cancel tours, ruin singer’s voices permanently, or lead to a disastrous loss of confidence. So keep a bottle by your side.

In times of crisis, when 3-4 hours is too long to wait for good hydration, you can steam your voice using the steam from a kettle or a hot shower. This raises the humidity at vocal fold level, meaning that it hydrates them directly instead of the water being processed by the body. A neat trick in a hurry, but I prefer to rely on drinking water.

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Elocution Lessons London: Things To Avoid, Things To Embrace

There is a famous list of things to avoid before a big gig: Cheese, Yoghurt, Milk, Chocolate, Tea, Coffee, Ice Cream, Crisps, Biscuits, Lemons, Oranges, Pineapple… Basically, anything sticky, crumbly, or acidic is off the list. But why?

The dominant wisdom is that these things mess up the mucus – the sticky things make it too clumpy, the crumbly things make it too dry, the acidic things cause it to dry out faster.

As long as you’re staying hydrated, I wouldn’t worry too much. I have a yoghurt grenola every morning and my voice feels fine an hour later when I’ve shaken off the mucus and started teaching. If you’re really worried, or it’s a big gig, maybe stave off the list above for the 3-4 hours before showtime, to let the mucus refresh itself properly.

There is a second famous list – the performance enhancers: Take Lemon and Honey in water, gargle with TCP (bleugh!), drink Black Coffee… All of which are, to put it bluntly, are basically just placebo’s. They may feel as though they are working, but more likely they are effect-neutral and possibly harmful. When you’re prepping for a gig, think only about your mucus, and drink water, water, water.

The only real thing that I’ve felt work beyond simple hydration is VocalZone tablets – in times of crisis they seem to bring a better vocal fold closure and to act faster on the mucus than just drinking water. I used to use them when I was a busker and they saved my voice plenty of times on those long days. They’re especially useful when singing through a cold or when steaming isn’t an option.

No doubt I’ve stepped on some toes with this article – lemon and honey especially is particularly dear to many folks in the community. What method do you swear by?

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