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Archive for October, 2011


Instrument care – without the polish

Many moons ago, when I was in 6th grade, my folks went down and bought me a brand new, shiny saxophone.  I was finally old enough to take band in school.  I’ll never forget it – when I opened the case I was nearly blinded by its brilliance.  Polished brass, lacquered to a mirror shine.  The case was elegantly lined in a red velveteen fabric.  It even had that new-sax smell.  I took good care of that instrument; buffed all the fingerprints off after every practice, cleaned the mouthpiece as instructed, and always shrouded it in a soft cloth before putting it in its case.  It served me well, and, when I switched to trombone a year later, my folks got a nice trade in on it.

As a voice actor, though, I use a very different kind of instrument – my voice.  It’s not new…I started using it seconds after I was born!  It’s also not visible, at least not without special medical equipment.  And the kicker is, I only get one.  This is it.  As carefully as I pampered that saxophone, it was replaceable.  Not so with the pipes.

Caring for the vocal instrument is so vitally important for voice actors and singers, and yet so often it is neglected if not outright abused.  Sadly, this is often the result of simple ignorance.  This instrument is made of human tissue, which means it can suffer injury if not properly maintained.  It also means it can heal, though often slowly.  Some simple techniques and rules can help keep the vocal instrument as healthy as possible for a long life of quality service.

1) WARM-UP.  Warm-up exercises are so vitally important, and yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people just rip into singing or voicing – at full volume – with a totally cold voice.  Most people would never dare to lift weights without proper stretching, but for some reason, they just expect the voice to be ready all the time.  Neglecting to warm-up properly is playing with fire, and when your livelihood depends on your voice, you could really get burned.  There are dozens of easy and effective ways to properly warm-up for performance, and they are all available for free online.  Find a few that work for you and commit them to habit.

2) REST.  This means more than a good night sleep, which should be obvious.  Periodic rest for the voice during performance is critical as well.  This is especially true of long-form performers.  The body has a miraculous ability to heal itself, but a critical and inescapable ingredient is always rest.  Even 3 minutes of silence can do a world of good during a long performance.

3) WATER.  Or, as audiobook narrator extraordinaire Scott Brick says, “Hydrate or die!”  Many people walk around dehydrated most of the time and don’t even realize it.  When you use your voice, those tissues are constantly losing water.  64 ounces of drinking water is the daily minimum for most people.  I drink a good deal more.  Drink water before, during, and after performing.  Avoid cold water while performing.

4) DRINK SMART.  Water is always good, but anything with caffeine should be avoided if possible.  Same with alcohol.   Both are diuretics, which dry out your body.  Sugary drinks, carbonated beverages, and dairy can also adversely affect your instrument.  Some herbal “teas” are good.  I join many other performers in recommending this one.

5) EASY DOES IT.  We live in a loud world that gets louder by the day.  Be aware of your volume in everyday speech.  Use only the volume you need.  You’d be surprised how much a dinner conversation in a crowded restaurant can harm your voice.  Always be aware of how your instrument is being treated.  Recently I was at a rock concert, and about 15 minutes into it, realized with horror that I was shouting at the top of my lungs!  Not smart.

6) LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.  This is critical.  If at any time during a performance, you feel something “wrong,” STOP IMMEDIATELY.  It could be your body issuing a warning that a vocal injury is imminent.  Certainly if you become hoarse or experience tightness in your neck, stop!  Rest, hydrate, and play the quiet game for as long as you can.  NEVER be afraid to call it quits on a session if you are hurt.  It’s not worth it.  Take ownership of your instrument and insist on its care – remember, you only get one.

7) KNOW WHERE TO FIND HELP.  If you do experience a vocal injury that doesn’t seem to heal, get to a doctor right away.  Find a specialist.  It’s worth it.  There are some great clinics used by professional performers that can help you recover.  Some “extreme” performers, like touring musicians, will actually have their vocal instrument checked even if there isn’t evidence of a problem – just in case.  It’s smart insurance.

Finally, let me say with clarity that I am not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV.  I do have a lot of experience in this area, however – not all of it good.  I remember a time during my radio career when I was participating in an aggressive fund-raising event on the air that amounted to hours and hours of non-stop, amped-up talking.  In an effort to impress, I ignored my body as it screamed for rest, and the result was a total loss of vocal function.  I was terrified.  Was my career over?  What would I do if it was?  Thankfully, the doctor said it wasn’t serious but ordered 48 hours of complete silence as treatment.  The experience made a believer out of me.

I hope you, too, will take excellent care of your precious vocal instrument.  No polish needed.