Oct 07, 2016
Here are my tips--and some physical and vocal exercises--for preventing vocal strain.
Another blog post on this website entitled "Vocal Strain--What Do I Do When My Voice Isn't Working" (which was published in The Soul of the American Actor) discusses what to do after you are experiencing vocal strain.
Healthy habits to prevent vocal strain:
CULTIVATE HEALTHY PHYSICAL AND VOCAL HABITS EVERY DAY
Spending 15-20 minutes a day to check in with your body and voice can reinforce healthy habits and have a huge impact on the resilience and longevity of your voice. In the big scheme of things, it’s a small investment that reaps huge rewards. Incorporating daily habits of physical release and alignment into your everyday activities provides even more benefit. “Warming up” is really just reminding your mind and muscles what to do to fully support your voice throughout its range of pitches, volume, and intensity. “Cooling down” involves using sighing and gentle vocal sounds to relax and destress your voice after high-intensity vocal activities. I recommend a daily warm-up routine that involves what I call a “self-assessment” or “taking stock” of your body. Your vocal instrument is your whole body, and as vocalists we have the double responsibility of both creating and playing that instrument. We need to pay attention to how we are using our bodies to recognize--and release--habitually overworking muscles. The "Self-Assessment Exercise" below is a simplified version of the "Self-Assessment Sequence" that begins my instructional DVD, Voice at the Center.
In this exercise, you check in with your body to see where you may be holding tension and overworking, First, choose a “Physical Area to Assess” from the first list below and place your hands on that physical area. Notice how those muscles feel at rest. Then, with your hands remaining on that physical area, do the “Assessing Maneuvers” shown in the second list below. If you feel the muscles in these areas tighten and shorten against your hands as you breathe and speak, those muscles are overworking.
If any of these body areas are tense and overworking when you breathe and use your voice, the following release and alignment exercises will be helpful. However, if you are unable to keep the muscles from overworking, the vocal strain will return. Changing longstanding habits of overworking often requires the help of a voice professional.
Gently stretching the spine facilitates better breathing and helps support the voice. Please remember not to push! You want to release into length, not push. This exercise can be done from a standing or a seated position. In either case, if the muscles in the backs of your legs are very tight, you must accommodate them in order to find the spinal release we are looking for. In the standing version, bend your knees and create some space in the hip sockets. In the seated version, place a support (folded blanket or bolster) under your pelvis (sitting bones) and/or bend your knees. Standing version: Stand with your feet hip distance apart and parallel to each other. Take stock of your spine: does it feel long and released, or short and compressed? Very slowly, beginning with your head, at the top of the spine, bend over by rolling down through your spine, as if you were going to touch your toes. Move each vertebra consciously and separately. Let your arms hang at the sides of your body. Breathe slowly and easily. If the muscles in the backs of your legs are uncomfortably tight, bend your knees slightly. Sustain the feeling of your feet gently pressing into the floor and the top of your legs moving up into your pelvis as you roll down. (You can do this even if you are bending your knees.) When you are rolled over, remain there for a few moments, letting the weight of your head continue to create space between the vertebrae in your neck. Allow your shoulder girdle to release away from the ribcage, creating space in your shoulders. Breathe deeply, and feel the expansion into width in the back of the ribcage on the inhalation. Then roll up, slowly, again vertebra by vertebra, ending with your neck. Take stock again, noticing the increased length and release in your spine. Seated version: Sit on the floor with your feet extended in front of you. Take stock of your spine: does it feel long and released, or short and compressed? Allow the backs of your legs to release into length in both directions, both out through your feet and up into your pelvis. If the muscles in the backs of your legs are uncomfortably tight, bend your knees slightly. You can also place a folded blanket or bolster under your pelvis (sitting bones). Feel your sitting bones engage with the floor, and continue to send energy through them throughout the stretch. Fold your body over from the hips, keeping space in the hip sockets and without bending at the waist. Create space between the vertebrae in the neck, feeling the support for the head all the way through the spine down to the pelvis, where you still feel the sitting bones moving away from the head. Release the shoulder girdle away from the ribcage, creating space in the shoulders. Your breath should remain easy, and you should feel the breath expansion in the back of the ribcage. Keep the spine long as you move the torso toward the legs. Then roll up, slowly, keeping the spine released and long as you return to sitting. Take stock again, noticing the increased length and release in your spine.
The muscles that connect the ribs to each other are called the intercostals, and they are crucially important in breathing. Creating space between these muscles allows for a fuller, deeper, easier breath. Please remember not to push! You want to release into expansion, not push. Stand with your feet hip distance apart and parallel to each other. Take stock of how released your ribcage feels, particularly the spaces between the ribs. Raise your arms over your head, sliding your shoulder blades down your back as you move your arms, so that your shoulders don’t raise up toward your ears. Gently press your palms together. Keeping your shoulder blades comfortably low, extend energy up through your fingers and down through your feet. Keeping your left foot planted firmly in the floor, bend over to your right side. Keep creating space between the ribs on both the left and the right sides of your ribcage, so that both sides of your ribcage feel long. Don’t collapse on the right side of your body to bend. Keep breathing, creating more and more space between your ribs. Only bend as far as is comfortable, continuing to feel the stretch all the way from your feet to your fingers. Return to standing and repeat on the left side of the body. Return to standing and bend toward the back of your body, again creating space between the ribs both in the front and the back of the body. Return to standing and bend forward from the hips, allowing gravity to aid in creating space between the ribs. Return to standing and take stock again, noticing the increased space and breathing capacity in your ribcage.
Lie on your side, with your arms comfortably arranged to support your head (e.g., elbows bent and palms together under the side of your face, or head resting in the crook of your elbow, or use a small bolster or pillow to support your head, whatever feels comfortable to you). Allow your body to relax, especially the top and bottom of your spine (base of the skull, back of the pelvis). As you inhale, release any tension in the spine. Do not make the spine do anything on the inhalation; just relax and let your body breathe for you without holding. When you can feel this release happening on several inhalations in a row, continue that sensation of release on the exhalation. Let go of any tensions on the exhalation that interrupt or interfere with the natural lengthening of the spine. There is never a good time to shorten and compress the spine.Feel that the spine dynamically releases in both directions, into its opposition, on the exhalation. To the best of your ability, let go of “doing” and just “be.” This is a great exercise to do when you go to bed and again when upon waking. When we are asleep, we are in “being” mode, as in our sleep we are unable to “do.” When we are awake, we tend to be unconscious of “being” and go into “doing” mode. This exercise is a great way to transition between those two modes, or, even better, to find a balance of the two modes in our waking life. How we use our muscles has a great impact on our ability to breathe, and how we breathe has a great impact on our voices. When doing exercises in my workshops, I often remind participants to employ their muscles the way they would in a yoga stretch, not in the way they would to bench press their body weight. This spinal release breathing exercise is an important step in learning to use your whole body--with no muscle working past its natural capacity--to support your voice. I often say it takes your whole body to support your whole voice. I hope these tips and exercises help you find your way to a more integrated and balanced physical coordination, not only to protect you from vocal strain but to help you feel the delicious combination of ease and power that comes from speaking with your whole body.