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"Hoarseness:
The Top 5 Causes & How to Avoid It"
by Tammy Frederick

Maybe you are like many singers who have experienced a dry, gravelly voice the morning after a hard night of singing. You may not be too concerned about this vocal roughness if you are able to rest your voice for a few days, but what if you have to perform again tonight? What if tonight’s performance has to be the best of your life? Now, the state of your voice becomes all consuming.

How can I fix it? Is there some miracle liquid I can drink? How much water can I drink before the show?

Although there are some tactics that will help ease hoarseness, curing chronic hoarseness permanently begins long before it even happens and it involves dealing with the number of factors that cause it.

Cause #1 - Poor Vocal Technique

The number one cause of hoarseness and vocal fatigue is poor vocal technique. If you find you get hoarse after performing or rehearsing it is very likely that you are singing with a high larynx. To make matters worse, you are probably forcing large amounts of air through this high larynx by shouting or singing loudly.

The larynx goes up when the throat muscles or swallowing muscles engage and yank it
up in their effort to help you reach those higher notes. When this occurs the larynx becomes unstable and tension sets in. Then, in your effort and determination to hit those high notes you force a lot of air through the larynx, increasing the volume, and essentially muscling your way through the range of the song. This sets you up for a prime case of hoarseness. All that pulling and pushing and forcing of air has fatigued
your vocal cords and they have swollen. When this happens the cords are no longer able to connect properly, affecting the quality of your sound and seriously hindering your vocal range.

Solution: Seek out competent vocal training. Competent training is key, since there are
many teachers out there who can do more harm than good. If you can’t afford training, try some practice techniques. Practice your songs quietly, but don’t hold your breath. Breathe while you sing. You will have more control over your sound if the vocal cords are able to adjust to the pitches you need without the extra-added musculature. Try singing other genres of music and songs that are not like your own. Think of it as cross
training for your voice. A more immediate solution would be to lower the keys of your songs so as to avoid having to push and strain for the top notes. If you take time to develop your instrument you can increase your range and up the key again later.


Cause #2 - Inadequate or No Vocal Warm-up

It is shocking to me how many singers come into my studio with the complaint of chronic hoarseness and when asked if they warm-up before performing the answer is no! Always, always, always warm up your instrument! How long would an athlete last if they did not warm up their body prior to competing? Singing through your songs ahead of time is not a sufficient warm-up. You need to vocalize beyond the range of your songs.

Solution: Warm up your instrument before any performance, recording or practice session. If you work with a vocal teacher you should already have a vocal warm up recorded. Otherwise, find a keyboard and run through some scales using liprolls or tongue trills and words such as “mum” and “woof”. The key to a good warm-up is to
make sure you are breathing and not straining. Also include a physical warm-up. Do some general stretching to loosen up your limbs. Despite what some people may think going on stage “raw” only makes for inconsistent performances. And in any business, not just music, consistency is what makes for a successful career.

Cause #3 - Smoking, Alcohol and Coffee

Smoking, alcohol and coffee all do the same thing to the body, they dehydrate it. In order to function optimally the vocal cords need a certain amount of lubrication. When the body is dehydrated the vocal cords can become irritated. More pecifically with smoking the heat from the smoke cause the cords to swell, the cords then become thicker, making it more difficult to hit higher notes. I have heard horror stories of people who have started smoking to increase their bottom range - thicker cords produce lower sounds (because of the swelling) but at what expense to the longevity of your vocal career, not to mention your overall health. Competent vocal training can also increase your range – healthfully. Even if you are a non-smoker but sing, reside, or work in a
smoky environment your vocal health will be compromised.

Solution: I know I may not be able to convince the smokers to quit but my general advice to all is to stay hydrated. Drink water throughout the day. Drinking only during a performance or recording session isn’t enough; your body needs to be hydrated long before you start singing. If you drink coffee and alcohol try to match your consumption,
drink for drink, with an equal amount of water. If you like to drink tea for your throat, keep it as natural as possible. I suggest licorice root steeped in hot water and then cooled to room temperature. Drinking liquids at either end of the extreme is not good for the voice so keep drinks as close to room temperature as tolerable.


Cause #4 - Excessive Throat Clearing

Excessive throat clearing can also cause hoarseness. When you clear your throat your
cords slam together. If done excessively they will swell and fatigue. The need to clear our throat is usually a result of excess phlegm or mucous sitting on the cords.

Solution: Avoid consuming phlegm-inducing foods such as dairy products, chocolate and orange juice. Try to avoid eating right before a erformance or practice session. After eating, extra mucous is produced making it hard for the vocal cords to perform optimally. However, it takes a lot of energy to sing, so singing with no fuel in your body can be equally detrimental. Eat a regular meal a few hours before you have to perform
and then eat a small snack about 45 minutes before you go on. If you need to clear your
throat, cough and swallow instead followed by a drink of water.

Cause #5 - Illness and Fatigue

It goes without saying that if you are sick with a cold or the flu you will not be able to sing at your optimum. In a case of laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx) your cords are not able to stay connected due to the excessive swelling caused by a bacteria infection. If you suffer from chronic sore throats or laryngitis it is safe to say that you are physically run down. Fatigue will take a toll on the body and prevent the body from being able to deal with the stresses faced throughout a day. Our bodies are exposed to bacteria and viruses on a daily basis and if we are well rested our body has the ability to fight it off, if however, we are fatigued, under nourished and dehydrated the body’s ability to fight off these invaders is diminished significantly.

Solution: The key to vocal health is overall health. It is imperative that you take care of yourself. Eat well, drink water, and definitely get an adequate amount of sleep. Even grabbing a quick nap can make a big difference in your body’s defense system. If you find yourself battling with a cold or flu remember to avoid singing with a sore throat.
Singing with a sore throat is like walking on a sprained ankle. Give yourself adequate
time to rest and recover.

It is completely possible to have a vocal career free of hoarseness but it takes time and care to eradicate it permanently. Take the time to adjust your vocal habits and you will be able to deliver a consistent performance every time you sing and if you take care of your vocal health, it will ultimately take care of you.

Reprinted with kind permission from Tammy Frederick, columnist for Canadian Musician Magazine and vocal teacher who offers private lessons and voice workshops through her studio Tammy Frederick's Voice Studio in Toronto, Ontario.

Visit her website at: www.tammyfrederick.com

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