(5-minute read time)
Me: “How are you today?”
Singer: “I’m well, but my voice is a little off.”
(Indeed it was…I could hear a lower-than-normal speaking pitch and some huskiness. I decided to keep him talking a little longer to gauge the nature of the problem and decide what to do about it.)
Me: “Ok, well what has your vocal load been like in the last 1-2 days?”
Singer: “Oh, pretty normal. Nothing unusual….except…,” looks down at feet awkwardly, shuffles slightly, then grins and looks up at me with a twinkle in their eye, “….except I was singing American Idiot pretty loudly in the car last night… that wouldn’t be the problem would it?”
Me: “….well….it’s possible that could account for the changes I hear in your voice today…let’s explore it some more…”
*paraphrase of actual conversations with clients, used with their permission
Actually, let me do my own awkward foot shuffle and confess that what I should say first is “honestly, I TOTALLY understand. I’ve done that before too AND I FULLY UNDERSTAND HOW GREAT THIS FELT.” Haven’t we all? And yet we often experience vocal regret afterwards.
The conversation above is a fictional paraphrase of a real-life situation. Within a matter of days, two of my students, who are both preparing to audition for the musical American Idiot soon, displayed very similar vocal damage. Their joy of unpacking this Green Day-soaked Broadway cast album was so great, they had to crank up the volume and sing and sing and sing. I mean – it’s research, right?
The heart wants what the heart wants. And is there anything better than singing your emotions out at the top of your lungs to four-on-the-floor grooves and distorted guitar…while you’re driving? In the moment, it seems like there is nothing better and there would be no consequences. That’s why it is so devastating that the voice dislikes something that the heart and mind enjoys SO MUCH!
However, in these isolated cases, these singers had a singing lesson the next day and ongoing rehearsal/performance commitments.
WHAT WAS THE EVIDENCE?
- First, we ruled out viruses, allergies and other health related possibilities.
- Remembering that the larynx does not contain the type of nerve endings that transmit pain messages, we assessed the SOUND of the voice. Here are the signs that suggested swelling to the vocal folds:
- Lower than normal speaking pitch
- Slight huskiness in the singing tone
- Inability to produce a high, soft tone
- Lack of flexibility through the passaggio and especially into falsetto
- Absence of a feeling of being in control of what they wanted to produce.
- We are more readily aware of the way our throat FEELS…so what did they sense was hurting?
- Mild-moderate discomfort in swallowing.
- The degree of damage was framed by what they could achieve:
- More volume/power improved the sound and the closure of the vocal folds
- This masked the underlying swelling
- They tired quickly and had to accept range limitations.
In this Green Day scenario, it didn’t take long in our diagnostic process to identify that the culprit was singing loud, high and mindlessly while driving.
WHAT WERE THE CONSEQUENCES?
- Impairment to practice plans
- Need for vocal rest affecting work and rehearsals
- Alteration to what was planned for their singing lesson
- Frustration in having to work with a smaller vocal budget for a day or three
- Uncertainty about lasting damage
There is no point me only nagging people about the perils of this singing environment. That would be naïve of me. So here are some ideas on how you might try to have your cake and eat it too…
TIPS ON SINGING WHILE DRIVING
- Warm up first
- Build a regular warm up into your morning routine so the voice is somewhat prepared for the day’s spontaneous, unregulated singing whenever it occurs
- Optimise body alignment
- Two hands on the wheel
- Sit tall
- Head over spine
- Ribs free to open
- Monitor the volume of the stereo
- You should be able to hear the traffic around you
- You particularly should be able to hear emergency vehicles from a distance
- Protect your hearing – once damaged it cannot be restored
- When you do turn it up loud – limit yourself to only one song
- Keep your voice under the volume of the stereo
- The acoustic properties of your vehicle are not conducive to you hearing yourself well
- It is alarmingly easy to strain your voice
- Try not to compete with the lead singer on the album you have playing
- Don’t neglect vehicle safety
- Your primary job in the car is to get from A to B without harm to yourself or drivers around you
- If you find yourself unaware of whether that set of lights you just drove through was actually green or red, the music is taking over and you are not driving safely
- Be alert to situations around you and be ready to turn the stereo off quickly if necessary
- Loud, uptempo music is likely to make you speed
Singing with vocal strain or misuse to even one very loud song
is more than enough to cause permanent damage
if the wrong ducks are in a row.
HOW TO COOL DOWN AFTER A BIG SING IN THE CAR
The best gift you can give yourself after a loud car singing session is a decent cool down before you go to bed – whether you feel like you strained your voice or not. Your goal is to release the workload in the muscles around the larynx and reduce the inflammation in the vocal folds themselves.
Try this routine and modify it to your preferences:
- Descending slides on ng – working from the top of your range downwards, like you are gradually bringing it in to land
- Lip trills on descending 5ths – slide as much as possible
- Humming – inhale slowly through your nose, pick a single note just above your speaking pitch and hum at soft volume for as long as your breath allows
- Straw bubbles – repeat the humming exercise on straw bubbles
- Steam for 5 minutes
- Vocal rest for 12 hours
WHAT TO DO IF YOU WENT TOO FAR
Compare vocal fold swelling to a sprained ankle. Change your demands of it until the swelling goes down and its functional capacity returns.
- Monitor the quality of your vocal tone separate from the sensation of throat discomfort – learn to identify when it is altered
- Change your vocal demands for a couple of days and give the voice a chance to rest
- Use mental practice while you recover
- Gentle straw bubbling, steaming and gargling – do one of these every hour for 2-5 minutes
- Accept the pace of recovery – you might have injured it quickly, but it will be rehabilitated slowly
- Learn more about your vocal health and how to care for it
Pause and reflect…
Was that indulgent car singing session worth this inconvenience and possible training set back?
How might I do it differently next time my heart wants that free and loud singing moment?
WHAT TO DO IF YOU REALLY HURT YOUR VOICE
- If your vocal changes persist for more than two weeks, you will need to get it examined by an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT).
- Talk to your vocal coach for advice on going to your GP and getting a referral to an ENT who has experience with voices.
- Develop a program of reduced vocal use with your vocal coach while you wait for the ENT appointment.
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