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Published on May 15th, 2010 | by Hugh Hession

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Five ways to improve and protect your voice

1. Exercise your cords daily

As a vocal instructor, it’s a common misconception that taking voice lessons will automatically improve vocal ability. One may hear Simon on American Idol or perhaps a teacher at school recommending vocal lessons. There is definitely validity in this, however you have to put forth the effort! Merely singing along to your favorite songs won’t do it.

I get the question all the time. “How can I improve my voice?”  My answer is always this: EXERCISE! If you want to become a stronger vocalist, increase your range and have more control, you have to exercise your voice daily. Your vocal cords are a muscle. Like any other muscle in your body, you will not gain strength and stamina if you do not work them out.

The vocal cords are a unique instrument.  Unlike a guitar or piano where you merely have to strum or strike a key to get sound, YOU have to create that sound yourself by working and manipulating your vocal folds. If you don’t exercise your vocal cords properly, then you will ultimately have trouble creating that sound. I recommend working out your voice at least 20 minutes daily (at minimum). Just work it into you schedule and it will start to become habit.  As time goes by, you may want to increase your time; maybe 40 minutes to an hour.

2. Keep your cords lubricated

Your vocal cords live for water. They need to be wet to function properly. Lack of lubrication will lead to irritation. You need to get in the habit of drinking water not just at your gigs, but throughout the entire day.

I was reading somewhere that 75% of Americans are dehydrated. It can have a multitude of effects on the body, including fatigue, lack of concentration, and overall lower circulation of blood. Believe it or not, if you are having problems with your vocals, some of it (or much of it) could be attributed to dehydration.

So how do know if you are dehydrated?  An obvious is if you are continually thirsty throughout the day and/or you mouth is dry. Another indicator is your pee. Someone who stays hydrated has clear urine. Conversely – yellow urine indicates that you need more water!

Remember, alcohol and caffeine are diuretics. They aid dehydration.  If you find yourself drinking those two beverages the most, you probably have a dehydration problem.

3. Stop straining

Vocal strain comes from overextending the vocal cords by forcing your chest voice to go higher than it should.  This places tremendous stress on your vocal folds and can create problems such as vocal nodules.

Breathing and vocal strain go hand in hand. If you have too much or too little air pressure, you create strain.  Improper breathing technique causes the muscles outside of the larynx to tighten.

If you want to expand your range, your cords need to shorten as you go up.  This is where your vocal cords zip up, or what is technically called voice adduction.  The problem with untrained singers, is that when they rely on those outside muscles of the larynx; the tension becomes so extreme that the vocal cords break apart.  At this point, the falsetto voice takes over.  However, where damage occurs, is when vocalists push the larynx up and ignore the bridge or break.  Now, they are shouting rather than singing.

So the question is, how do all those vocalists who sound like they are just shredding their voice, survive? The answer is by singing correctly.  You actually can manipulate voice to get that gravel and also, have a “screaming” vocal IF you utilize proper technique. It’s all in the way you sing.

4. Don’t downplay sleep

Musicians are notorious for their nocturnal lifestyle.  Even so, you have to get the right amount of sleep. This is the only way your voice can become properly replenished.  Not getting enough sleep will make your vocal chords susceptible to damage, because they are weak.  If you find that your voice is fried from a few shows – choose sleep over partying.

5. Stay away from “bad singing” foods/drinks

There are a few foods to watch out for, especially before performing. Not saying to stop eating them all together, but it’s good to stay away from these before performances:

-Spicy Food. Irritates voice and can create the need to clear the throat. Clearing the throat is NOT good and will put immense stress on your vocal cords.

-Dairy Products. Creates a layer of flem or mucous on the cords. Again, creates a need to clear the throat, and also inhibits vocal control.

-Cold Drinks. If you are performing, it’s best to drink room temperature water. Cold water tightens your cords.

-Alcohol. Restricts vocal control. Also causes dehydration.

-Caffeine. Causes dehydration.

BONUS: Don’t use sore throat spray

I often see singers using OTC sore throat sprays. This is not good, as most of these have a numbing agents like Phenol or Benzocaine that give the illusion that you can sing with ease when in fact, you are probably straining your vocal chords. It’s the equivalent of a football player injecting Toradol to kill the pain and then go back out on the field. It can cause major damage.

If you want something that can really help, as a vocalist, I use and recommend Vocal-Eze. Extensive touring and performing can take a toll on your voice no matter how much you take care of it.  This stuff has literally helped me out on many nights! It is used widely by many major recording artists including Tim McGraw, Rob Thomas, Joss Stone and many more.

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About the Author

owns and operates Emerging Artists Entertainment Marketing & Consulting, LLC - a company devoted to cultivating aspiring music artists, He is also the head of Hession Entertainment Group, LLC (artist management) and the Music Industry Liaison for the artist discovery site, TalentWatch (www.talentwatch.net). He has over 25 years experience in the music business as a performer, composer, producer and artist manager. Hugh holds a BA in Marketing and is a professional member of NARIP and a voting member of The Recording Academy. He often speaks at seminars and workshops on artist development.



23 Responses to Five ways to improve and protect your voice

  1. voice lessons that also teaches proper breathing is the best, breathing and singing always go hand in hand ~

  2. Isaac Smith says:

    Hi Hugh. Can you send me an email. I have been singing since april last year and I went for an audition in december and I do musical theatre. They said my voice has improved since they last saw me. But, since september I have had chest infections (I’m asthmatic) and have had no chance to properly practice due to being on antibiotics. Could this be the reason that my voice feels different, weaker, has less soul and it sounds awful when I sing! Also I’ve lost my voice several times including this january, september and late december. Can you help me? I wanted to go for the x factor but I will not humiliate myself if my voice isn’t up to scratch. How long should I start repracticing for??? I need help with that. I like soulful singers ie Alexandra Burke, Leona lewis etc. I have a voice tutor. I think I can’t sing but she says I really can, I just don’t know how. Can she be right. I sound awful on the lesson recordings but she goes yes…good…that’s it…keep going etc. But I think its sounds awful.

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hello Isaac. Getting sick in general, will weaken your voice, especially chest infections. Asthma can also make things rough. I would have to know a little more about your situation. I’ll catch up with you via email. Thanks for reading.

  3. Amanda Parkerson says:

    Hi Hugh!

    I want to improve my voice and learn proper breathing techniques- should I try voice lesson? Will lessons teach me notes as well?? How do I know the lessons are effective?

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hi Amanda. Thanks for visiting! Getting voice lessons can greatly improve your voice…breathing, notes, tone, you name it. You just have to be selective in who you choose. As with anything, not all instructors are equal. Unfortunately, some just merely sing songs at lessons and teach pitch. That is merely a segment of vocal instruction.

      You will be able to tell if the lessons are effective by your vocal quality, particularly in pitch, strength and tone. There are definitely other variables as well, depending upon your objectives.

      Just remember, even the best instructors can’t do magic. There needs to be some talent there to begin with, and the student must be motivated to practice and follow through with what is being taught. If not, lessons will be useless.

      Check out my post on breathing when you get a chance. Should give you a better understanding of that process.

  4. Hannah says:

    Hugh! I’ve been singing my entire life (I’m still in high school) and lately what I’ve noticed is that I’ve developed a lot of bad singing habits. It seems as though when I sing, it either is effortless and sounds awesome or it causes immense straining and I have no idea how to fix it. I’ve practiced breathing and the likes but I’m still not sure how to fix it. Could you offer any advice?

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hi Hannah. Thanks for stopping by! Wow. There are so many variables that play into this. It’s tough to really troubleshoot these issues you are having, without really hearing and seeing you sing. Straining can happen for various reasons. For instance, when your voice is tired, its strength diminishes, causing you to sing harder, and ultimately, will wear you out more! Another issue is not warming up your voice properly and using your belt voice right out of the gate. This can create hoarseness and fatigue. Straining can be caused by singing at the top end of your chest voice register. This is typical in rock and pop, but it’s best to learn how to transition properly into you head voice when needed, and/or learn how to effectively use your mixed voice. Though you sing higher, with the head register, it’s actually easier! This is because your cords adduct and zip up. You don’t need as much air.

      Also, don’t know how you are practicing breathing. Are you sure you are singing from your diaphragm and lower abdominal region rather than using shallow breaths from your upper part of your body? Watch yourself sing in a mirror. Are you shoulders rising when you take breaths? This is an indication that you are breathing improperly. Perhaps sometimes you are truly singing from your diaphragm, and other times, when you run out of breath, you may resort to using your throat? This is common. Are you sustaining your breath properly over phrases? Are you relaxing? Also, at the times you sing effortless…what register are you in? Meaning, are you in a higher falsetto or head voice range? Are you singing with a pianissimo dynamic (very soft), or are you belting? As you can see…many questions as well as variables!

      Thanks for your question :)
      Hugh

  5. Avery Henry says:

    I used to perform with an ensemble several years ago where I was under the instruction of a vocal coach. But I’m starting to think that I’ve lost some of the finer techniques I learned then. I’m constantly playing guitar and singing (http://www.youtube.com/averyhenrymusic) do you guys think that I should invest the time to get vocal lessons? I think it might help fine tune, but I’m not entirely sure I need them.

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hi Avery. Thanks for your post, bro! I’m checking out your vids right now. I will get back to you through your YouTube account. We’ll talk soon.

      -Hugh

  6. jade says:

    hi hugh, iv been singing for about 6 years now and im coming up 21 and i have come to point were all of a sudden when im performing especially in front of an audiance i tend to get a huge cause of stage fright :/ … i dont know why.. but it seems i cant get my best potential out of my voice in front of audiences i tend to shut down. and then become very disopointed in my self. could you give me a few tips please on how to get the best ability out of my vocal cord’s on a performing day =)

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hi Jade. Stage fright is very common. I find, that much of it is mental – by thinking too much of how the audience will perceive you, often before you hit the stage! One of the best ways to combat stage fright is being 100% prepared. If you know the songs you are singing, front and back, then you don’t have to place so much concentration on that – it becomes automatic. That way, you can place more emphasis on performance. This is often known as “muscle memory,” something you develop by doing the same things over and over again, until they are hard-wired into your long-term memory, managed by a part of your brain called the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor-control and procedural activity. It’s function deals with coordination, precision and accuracy. As a result, what you do becomes “automatic.” This in turn, gives you more confidence.

      Mentally, I never “overthink” performances. No need for that. This is why being prepared is so crucial. Stage fright often results when there is too much “chatter” in your mind – mostly about “what happens if I forget my words,” “what happens if I hit a wrong note,” and most of all – “what will people think of me?” The mental game is everything. You have to switch gears on your attitude. If you are prepared, then you know you have the performance down. Now, the rest is just inaccurate thinking and misplaced fear. Something that helps is playing the scene of a SUCCESSFUL performance, BEFORE you go out there. What would make the show wild successfully? Hear the audience clapping and screaming with approval, see the smiles on the faces on their face. See yourself confident and hear yourself nailing every note with power! Make it vivid – see it in your minds eye, and more importantly, put yourself in the scene, rather than as an onlooker (That disassociates yourself from the event, which is what you don’t want).

      Lastly, always warm up before you go on stage. You NEVER want to go into a performance cold. Other things, include what you eat and drink. Stay away from dairy food and caffeine before you perform!

      I could write volumes on this, but hopefully, this gives you some tips you can start to try. Good luck!

  7. Great article Hugh, and it was way helpful reading through other people’s questions and your responses. I am glad you generally recommend vocal instruction, I am surprised at the amateur and semi-professional singers I see performing, who have some obvious issues that could be fixed with great results.

    On Jade’s stage fright concerns, that was all good stuff, like Be Totally Prepared. For the visualization exercise, I go one step farther;
    • Put yourself RIGHT AFTER the gig that was a huge success, thinking about it a week or more beforehand. Then work backward from that visualized point you put yourself in:
    “This gig went SO WELL, partly because I made sure to master all the material; and because I checked over all the sidemen’s music charts so no songs got messed up by bad sheet music; and I got 8 hours of sleep for like the 5 days beforehand; I connected with the audience by pretending to be more confident than I really was, by PERFORMING more than reading off lyrics; I tried drinking room temperature water instead of beer…”
    • Gather up that list of Things You did That Made the Gig go So Well;
    • THERE’S your To-Do List!!

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Thanks Frank. Great tips! I hear ya. I know so many “good” singers who could be “great” with vocal instruction. Sometimes, it’s a matter of making a couple adjustments in technique, breathing etc. Appreciate you stopping by:)
      Hugh

  8. Shina says:

    Hey Hugh,
    Thanks for writing all these excellent tips! I have been singing since I was 4 (my mom told me that) and sang strong all the way up until the age of 18. My parents went through a divorce and I lost my voice, so to speak. I tried picking it up again every so often, but my dad and I lived in an apartment so I was getting complaints. I stopped again. Years went by without my singing voice and now I’m getting more and more serious about it. It’s to the point where I want a part of myself back. Music has been such a huge part of my life, I’ve even taught a friend how to sing properly so he and his band could record songs.

    I think I’m actually afraid of my voice. I know that sounds ridiculous and funny, but I remember how good I sounded when my parents were together. People actually came up to me and said I sound like someone on a CD. When I remember those things, I know I can get there again. I have the talent, passion and motivation, but at the same time I’m scared.

    How on earth do I get past this?

  9. uche says:

    Thanks Hugh.i’v been singing for quite some time now and m planning to it professionally but I need help wen it comes to singing high notes.I sound husky and tend to hit some flat notes.can u help me with vocal exercises to help sing high notes effortlessly,espcially after modulating

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hey. Thanks for stopping by. Although it’s tough to know without really seeing you in action, when you say “husky,” that tends to tell me that you are trying to hit the higher notes with your chest voice. Now, regarding when you go flat – that could be a breathing issue, where you not getting enough air to sustain the notes you are singing. Ironically, if you were accessing your head voice, then you’d really need less air, because the folds shorten and adduct.

      First of all, check out my post Three Exercises to Expand Your Vocal Range It’s by far the most popular post on my blog, and it gives you tips and downloadable exercises on increasing your range.

      If you want to expand your range, you need to compress your vocal folds. The best way to do this, is to mimic a cartoon voice, such as Sponge Bob, Patrick, or even various characters that Jim Carrey tends do to (The Mask etc). You will notice if you do it properly, that the resonance will be felt in the back of your palate. Once you get used to this (it’s pretty easy), then do a 5 note scale, singing “mum” in that same cartoon voice. This is one of the best ways to train your voice to get into that head voice register. Everyone wants to know how to do it. It’s all about switching gears, and this helps you to get there.

      Regarding your notes that are flat, again, hard to say why that is happening. It also could be due to you hitting your bridge and your voice is a bit confused about which way to go! But, in general, work on your breathing. Best breathing exercise I do, is over a chromatic scale. You can choose anything to sing, “Ma” is always a good bet. Practice sustaining your breath over those notes. The key is to not let your breath out all at the same time. Work that diaphragm!

  10. Dan E Watson says:

    I’m a singer-songwriter/ MC
    I feel like I need to clear my throat, a lot
    Smoking as a kid .
    Please help .ty

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hi. Thanks for the question, and sorry for the delayed response. 2014 has been a busy year for me and my artist management company which has unfortunately taken me away from this site. That is going to change however, in 2015!

      Obviously not telling you anything you don’t know – but smoking does have that effect ;). Clearing your throat is not good for the vocal cords and puts unnecessary strain on them. Besides telling you the obvious (quit smoking), keep your voice hydrated and stay away from diuretics. You should notice a difference. Also, your diet can have impact on feeling like you have to clear your throat. Dairy products particularly. It’s also something that can become a habit. I’ve known many people to clear their throat unconsciously after doing it so much!

      Thanks! Here’s to a productive 2015! Hit me up if you have any other questions.
      Hugh

  11. Pooja Bhatt says:

    Hi, I used to sing pretty well till few years though I am not a professional singer. Due to work pressures etc. I have stopped singing and now I realise that I have a hoarse voice while singing, can’t sing on high pitch and voice modulation is becoming difficult. How can I reduce hoarseness?

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hi! Sorry for the delayed response. I’ve been crazy busy in 2014 with my artist management company which has kept me away from Making it in Music. That’s going to change in 2015, however :)

      More than likely, it’s probably just due to inactivity. The voice is a muscle and without continual use, it gets weak :) It will come back with some consistent vocal exercises and singing. The hoarseness is just due to fatigue. Just like someone who goes out jogging for the first time in 6 months. Same effect. Get the right amount of sleep and stay hydrated. Also, when your voice gets hoarse. Slow down and rest. Take a couple days off.

      Thanks!
      Hugh

  12. Deborah Seun says:

    Hi hugh, I’ve been singing for quite a while now , I can sing for hours non-stop and sing high pitch also. But about a month ago, my voice seem to go off easily and I get tired of singing, sometimes I pant and get out of breath and sometimes, it looks like I’m screaming, even going flat. Please can you help me with tips on how to gain the clear voice I once had and how to hit higher notes effortlessly. Thanks.

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hello Deborah. My apologies for answering so late! My artist management and consultation companies have kept me very busy throughout 2014. But, I’ll be back in the saddle come 2015.

      It’s difficult to assess your situation without further info. From a general perspective, often the culprit lies in unnecessary strain on the cords due to improper technique. Over time, vocal wear (and vocal damage…for ex. nodes) can occur/develop. What happened to John Mayer a few years ago is a perfect example of this.

      Other causes? Diet and sleep can play a huge role! Another issue is humidity levels. For instance, the air in Vegas or Arizona can actually dry out your voice. Regardless, you always want to stay hydrated and stay away from caffeine or other diuretics. Also, sit in a steam room. It does wonders!

      I’d love to help, but again, just limited info.

      Thanks!
      Hugh

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