Protecting Your Voice as an Educator
Voice loss, vocal fatigue, and hoarseness are common complaints among educators and directors, and this is especially true during the first few weeks of the fall semester. This is a common theme in voice therapy this time of year, too. While all that downtime vocally over the summer is a much welcomed thing and provides needed vocal rest, it tends to make things a little more challenging at the start of the school year. Gaining back the vocal stamina, and endurance to teach without vocal fatigue is the priority. It’s important to have a plan to recondition the voice, and have reasonable expectations of your voice as you ease back into full-time vocal demands.
Will you experience a little hoarseness in the first few days and weeks? Probably. Will you notice vocal fatigue and tiredness? Almost certainly. Are these things normal and expected? Yes. With daily attention and a commitment to these components, you can reduce the effects of the increased voice use. Voice rest, hydration, adequate sleep and rest, and minimizing stress are also very important, but there’s no substitute for optimizing your voice each day.
In this article, we’ll cover what I consider the top 5 vocal tips for educators and choral directors as you manage those busy vocal demands returning to the classroom and rehearsal/performance spaces. These tips will help you to manage your overall vocal health and wellness, maintain vocal sustainability and consistency, combat early semester vocal fatigue and hoarseness, and build vocal stamina and endurance for the days, weeks and months ahead. I want you to have a vibrant voice that is strong and capable for your occupational voice demands.
Daily Morning Vocal Exercise/Warm-up
The first tip is doing some sort of vocal exercise and warm-up in the morning before teaching. This is non-negotiable. It can be as short as 5 to 10 minutes on the way to school in the car. It has to be done. My top three favorite components that need to be included in that are below. These can all be done on full range pitch gliding and short, simple musical patterns.
Various trill exercises that get airflow coordination going and begin to make the voice loose and flexible. I generally recommend using:
tongue trills (rolled r)
2. Non-Trill SOVTEs
Straw phonation (in or out of water)
Buzzy consonants like /v/ /wh/
Kazoo like sounds
3. Resonance and Speech Warm Up
humming, speaking exercises using words
Resonance and a speech warm-up. A favorite of mine is humming on /m/ while making a chewing motion. It's great for loosening up the jaw, the oral facial muscles, the tongue and gets the resonance moving around. That noise easily leads into speech exercises like practicing words that begin with /m/, like “mmmmoon,” “mmmmany,” and “mmmmmountain.” This type of exercise helps to bring the voice a little more into the front of the face with what we call forward resonance. An added helpful tip is to say the word “m-hm” right before words and counting. All of these can be heard in the video here.
Resetting the Voice
A vocal reset is the concept of using a vocal exercise, vocal warm-up, or a sound that feels really good to you. This can help bring the voice back to baseline or a sort of “home base” and reduce effort for speech and singing during busy vocal days. It can also help reduce vocal fatigue. This helps to gain more vocal sustainability and consistency throughout the week. I encourage you to reset the voice in between classes and rehearsals. This can be done with a simple, short exercise and used periodically throughout the day. Even 20-30 seconds can sometimes be enough to bring the vocal folds back to ideal shape and position for phonation. Some good examples of a reset would be any of our trills (as above), straw phonation, buzzy sounds that vibrate the lips like /v/, /m/, and or /wh/. I also find a simple speech warm-up using words that start with /m/ or /y/ work very well for a lot of my patients.
Self-Monitoring for Vocal Fold Swelling
Self-monitoring is one of the most important components of long-term vocal health and success. Understanding vocal overuse and being familiar with our own baseline and capabilities helps us to know when we’ve gone past our limits. I always say “Vibration is not infinite. It’s a biological thing that has limits.” The more we use our voices, the more we vibrate our vocal folds, which means the more likely we are to develop a little bit or sometimes a lot of swelling on the vibrating edge of the folds. Knowing what vocal fold injury sounds like, feels like, and how to monitor baseline vocal capabilities can help identify acute swelling. Vocal fold swelling almost always affects the voice “top down” meaning that the highest notes in our vocal range will become limited first. And believe it or not, sometimes the most subtle swelling may not even affect the voice until the very highest pitches in the range at very soft volume levels.
We can use singing in a light, high range head voice (or falsetto) to assess possible swelling from vocal overuse. I suggest using the first phrase of “happy birthday.” This is to be done before warm-up and the start of the teaching day. Get to know your typical baseline for this so that you can detect even minor changes in your voice. If you notice that your “ceiling” is lower than usual or if you have to get louder and use more effort to make it work, you need to do less vocally that day. How much rest does it take to get back to baseline?
To learn more about swelling and self monitoring check out our last blog post on Mucosal vs. Muscular Fatigue and keep an eye out for our upcoming blog All About Swelling!
Relative Voice Rest
Absolute voice rest (complete silence) is not necessary in most cases of vocal overuse. The exception would be severe voice loss and hoarseness or something we call aphonia which is complete voice loss. Relative voice rest simply means reducing your overall normal voice use or in extreme cases only using your voice when necessary. This type of voice rest is ideal for those of us who live very busy vocal lifestyles. You should use relative voice rest if you notice your baseline is different (or lower) on a given day. Taking short vocal naps off and on throughout the day for 20-30 minutes can go a long way towards maintaining your vocal health and baseline. Some techniques and tactics to incorporate relative voice rest are below:
Reduce demonstrating for students and singers
Consider silent rehearsal
Schedule at least 2 days per week with a lower vocal load
Pace yourself vocally with fewer commitments daily
Personal Voice Amplification System
Use of a personal voice amplification device can significantly reduce vocal volume, effort, fatigue and help your voice use each day “cost less.” These devices are easy to find online for reasonable prices and are surprisingly very powerful. I typically suggest splurging for a wireless option, but even a wired one that is less expensive is better than not using one at all. Classroom acoustics are generally poor and noise levels are high which make us feel the need to speak louder and use more effort.
Occasionally, I get feedback from music teachers who are concerned about how using a device will make them be perceived by others. As if needing one suggests that they don’t have a healthy voice or that they don’t use good enough technique. My pushback is this - using one shows that you take your vocal health and wellness seriously. That you want to make sure you have a clear, strong, healthy voice to use each day so that you can do your job effectively without struggling. Children and students with hearing loss and auditory processing disorders will be able to hear you better. In fact, all of your students will hear you better and likely be more efficient in their work because of that. There are many studies behind this topic.
Don’t wait for your voice loss to become more severe before taking action. Developing strong awareness skills around the more subtle changes our voices go through can help us maintain our very best baseline. And optimizing our daily voice use as above goes a long way towards ensuring that we have a strong, capable voice to support us even on the busiest of days.
If you are finding vocal fatigue and pain is causing you to struggle in your workplace or personal life know that there’s hope. Consider reaching out to a voice SLP or an ENT to talk about your symptoms. You don’t have to have an active voice disorder to work with Sonnenberg Voice. You can book a session to get personalized tools and advice for your voice and how you use it.