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Vocal Hygiene in the Age of Teleconferencing

Vocal hygiene. . .it’s a phrase that sounds a little ominous, but vocal hygiene just means caring for your voice. For most folks, the only time to worry about your voice is when something goes wrong—a little hoarseness from a cold, a cough, or a night at the stadium. Yet for those of us who are professional voice users (singers, actors, or broadcasters), a lot is riding on vocal health to make sure every performance or gig is successful.

And here’s a COVID-19 kicker: More video conferencing and on-line meetings have the possibility of impacting vocal health in new ways—and making YOU into a professional voice user, like it or not.

General vocal hygiene recommendations from speech therapists include adequate hydration, avoiding overuse (e.g., yelling in a crowd at a sports game), avoiding spicy foods or dehydrating foods (coffee and alcohol), and last but not least— appropriate posture and breath support for healthy phonation. 

(Keeping a cup of water nearby is important— but remember the water moistens the tissue in your throat, it won’t immediately impact your vocal folds. Drinking water hydrates your body and the vocal folds themselves over time.)

Most of the above are easy to tick off in a list, but posture and breath support are potentially complex. Classical singers spend years training to have proper support and sometimes still need to review their technique. However, there are some basic tips that can help.

If you are teaching a class or conducting meetings via video conferencing, and you find yourself feeling hoarse, consider the following:

Are you sitting up straight?

Especially as a tall person, I find myself rolling my shoulders forward to look into my laptop screen. This effectively collapses your upper torso, and limits your lung expansion. Consider lifting your laptop up on some books or some other support. Would a pillow in your chair help support your lower back and keep you sitting up more easily?

Breath support is the power behind the voice.

When I teach breathing and posture to clients, I remind them of the old argument about where to squeeze the tube of toothpaste. Some folks like to squeeze in the middle, some at the end. But ultimately, if you want to use all the toothpaste, you gotta squeeze at the bottom. Similarly with the lungs, unless you are sitting up straight to allow full use of your lung volume and diaphragmatic support— you’ll never be able to use all the air. So start with sitting comfortably and upright.

Do you feel you are speaking with extra volume on video chats?

Perhaps in a normal classroom or lecture situation you would have a microphone or a room that’s acoustically friendly. Sometimes we feel we need to shout, due to the sensation that the sound has to “get into the computer”, or maybe there's a concern the wifi isn’t working right.

If so, take a moment to do a sound check with a friend or your students, and check volume levels. Just asking the question of your listeners can increase your awareness of whether or not you are shouting and potentially overusing your voice. Another option is to add a microphone or headset to your computer set up.

Be watchful of clearing your throat or a tickling cough.

Throat clearing and coughing can quickly cause vocal fatigue, and also can be a sign of other health issues. The culprit is often acid reflux. In some situations you may just need to take an antacid, or be careful of what you eat at lunch. Various factors (such as spicy food, carbonated drinks, poor posture) can contribute to the movement of stomach acid up into the esophagus. As the acid irritates the esophagus, it can also spread up and over into the voice box. When the vocal fold tissue senses to the acid, you feel the need to clear your throat.

For most of my life, I thought I couldn’t have acid reflux because I didn’t experience heartburn. From first hand experience, I learned that isn’t the case: laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) is often referred to as “silent” because heartburn is not a symptom. This type of reflux is usually treated with lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, change in diet, and reducing stress. It can also be a serious health risk over time, so it goes without saying— if you are having mysterious throat clearing, coughing, and/or hoarseness, please consult your physician. 

Do you have any other tips to share? Please feel free to add them in the comments.

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