Vocal Health for Young Performers
The vocal mechanism is extremely delicate and can be easily injured. Frequent yelling or shouting, poor singing or speaking habits, excessive throat clearing, and many other behaviors can lead to voice problems. This is especially true for young singers. For example, cheerleaders are often asked to cheer as loudly as possible, and are often hoarse after a practice or game. Trying to speak over loud music (at rock concerts, for example), can also hurt the voice. It's never too early to learn the importance of treating the voice with care.
Voice problems are not always due to vocal abuse; illness can also lead to hoarseness or loss of voice. If a voice is hoarse or raspy, seeing a doctor is always a good idea, especially if there are other symptoms, or a performance coming up. Many people are unaware that their general practitioner usually does not see the vocal cords during a normal medical examination. Viewing and treating the vocal cords is a medical specialty, and an otolaryngologist treats diseases of the ear, nose, and throat (ENT). If you plan to use your voice professionally, singers of all ages should have a good ENT physician on their medical team.
In any case, make sure you drink plenty of water and get enough rest. Keeping the throat moist will help minimize coughing and throat clearing, which in fact is the banging together of your vocal cords.
Singers should be aware of the basics of vocal production, especially the workings of the vocal cords (sometimes referred to as "vocal folds"). The vocal folds in humans are muscles located within the larynx (sometimes known as the voice box). The larynx has two main functions in the body, sound production and air flow. It also serves to prevent food and liquid from passing into the lungs. When air is passed between the vocal folds, the folds vibrate, producing sound.
If you pluck a rubber band, the pitch rises as the band is stretched, and lowers as there is less tension. The vocal folds behave in a similar way: the thinner and longer they are, the higher the pitch. When the folds are thick and short, they produce a pitch that is lower. Minimizing tension in the throat should be one of the main focuses of voice lessons. In addition, when singing it's important to have a sufficient flow of air through the vocal folds.
The word nodule (or node) refers to a callus on the vocals folds, somewhat like scar tissue on skin after a cut is healed. The nodule prevents the vocal folds from completely coming together, resulting in a voice with an airy and/or raspy quality. The cords are often thickened as well, which makes it difficult or impossible to sing well. A course of treatment needs to be implemented by your ENT doctor, which might include voice rest, speech therapy, voice lessons, and medication.
Voice changes typically occur during puberty. It's not only males who experience a change in voice, but the female voice change is not as radical. Male vocal folds may increase by over two times that of the female, resulting in a singing voice a full octave lower than prior to the voice change. Some boys experience a slow, gradual change, and others have a drastic, abrupt change. Only nature determines how quickly the voice changes, and compensatory key adjustments to songs may need to be made to repertoire as needed.
Tips for Protecting the Voice
• Get plenty of rest
• Avoid yelling and shouting
• Avoid loud and/or prolonged talking
• Avoid unnecessary coughing and/or throat clearing
• Drink plenty of water
• Sing in the proper keys
• Make sure there's adequate breath support for your vocal phrases
• Speak at the proper pitch for your voice
• See an ear, nose and throat specialist if vocal problems persist
(Special thanks to Gwen Korovin MD for her valuable medical proofreading.)