How To Prevent Vocal Strain

“There is one thing I should say, and it’s important: Young Broadway singers and anybody who is an orator of any kind – lawyers who have to speak in court or pastors or anyone who has a lot of stress on their vocal cords: You should do the maintenance. You should do whatever it takes to feel fresh and good.”

   – Julie Andrews, Actress & Singer


Each time you use your voice, you place strain on your body. This is something you should take into consideration before giving a lengthy speech or singing. It is highly recommended that you properly and completely warm up your voice before any performance or singing! At Crescendo Music Studios, at least five minutes of every voice lesson will include a thorough vocal warm-up. Not only is this a great way to exercise and stretch your voice to become a better vocalist, but it will help to protect you from vocal harm. Remember, when practicing at home you should also be warming up!


Why We Should Warm Up Our Bodies:

Did you know…our vocal cords aren’t the only part of our body that gets a workout when we sing?  The intense vibration that comes from singing has an impact on many other parts of the body. This is one of the reasons why our bodies need to be warmed up and prepared before we can begin singing. When we warm up the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (the many different muscle groups that run between the ribs), we can avoid injury AND we can improve our projection and power by supporting the breath.  Proper breath support does include muscle support! 


A Few Body Warm-Ups To Try: 

  • Try bending and stretching to your toes, doing gentle twists of your torso and finding a neutral position that feels comfortable and supported. It is important to find our “neutral position” for proper support. Try finding some quality yoga exercises on youtube — these can be a wonderful way to both relax AND warm up!
  • Activate your facial muscles! Practice making big faces and then small faces. Stretched faces and squishy faces.  Try smiling big then frowning, lifting eyebrows and relaxing. Try making a really loud gum chewing sound and massaging the jaw muscle with the palm of your hand (nice and flat).  It may feel a little silly but it does help you to prepare ALL your muscles for vocal and facial expression!
  • Activate your lungs and RELAX your face muscles. Try breathing deeply for 4 beats, then hissing out for 8 beats. Move to 8 in and 16 out, then 16 in and 32 out, and so on. 
  • Try breathing slowly through your nose while lifting your arms out at your sides, and then hissing out slowly while lowering your arms.
  • Try reaching as far in the air as you can while “climbing a ladder” like a monkey, left then right, then left then right.


Diaphragm Exercises and Speech Warm-Ups:

Now that our bodies and lungs are warm, we need to warm up our tongue and lips! This will allow us to enunciate our words clearer…Here are a few great suggestions for getting your mouth and tongue muscles moving:

  • Try tongue twisters… start slow and speed up! A few favourites are: “Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Purple Pickled Peppers” or “She Sells Sea Shells By The Sea Shore” or “Betty Botter Bought a Bit of Bitter Butter”
  • You can also say individual letters with a LOT of annunciation. Try “St-CK-A-P-F-CH” and then speed it up. Additionally, you can try saying consonants paired with vowels: ‘me, may, mah, mo, moo’ or ‘de, da, di, do, du’ etc. while keeping your jaw relaxed and shoulders down!
  • Do some lip trills… relax your lips/mouth and blow out air on a “hmmm” to make a lip trill. This takes some practice. Remember to keep your lips relaxed! Go from low to high on your humming! Your nose might itch… that’s OKAY! If you can’t make a lip trill, you can also say “brrrr” or “zzzz” moving up and down. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to WARM UP YOUR SINGING VOICE. Use the warm-ups your teacher has taught you. You may have some recorded on a device that you brought to lessons, OR you can check out Crescendo’s youtube for our vocal warm-up playlists here

Some other excellent warmups to do when you don’t have an instrument or a device handy are:

  • Sirens from low to high on vowel sounds such as; oo, ee, ah.
  • Moose calls (lips closed and teeth open) on mmm (low to high).  
  • Tongue Twisters on consistent one pitch, then moving up by one semi-tone and repeating. 
  • Lip trills up and down such as; zz or mm.


Preventing Vocal Strain and Injury:

We know that warming is important and now we have a few ideas regarding how to warm up. But what else can help us to prevent vocal damage and vocal fry?

  • STAY HYDRATED. We know drinking lots of water is healthy for us, but it can also help prevent damage to our vocal folds! Try to drink at least 6 glasses of water a day! 
  • AVOID CERTAIN FOODS.  Avoid caffeine, chocolate and dairy products before using your voice extensively! Try to avoid spicy foods that may cause acid buildup or acid reflux. Beverages and food that may contain alcohol or caffeine can dehydrate us, which can make our vocal folds dry and more irritated. 
  • OTHER WAYS TO HYDRATE.  Invest in a humidifier in your home. Alberta is an especially dry climate so this is definitely a wise investment!   
  • MEDICATIONS.  Try to avoid medications that may dry out vocal folds; generally, allergy and cold medications can cause vocal irritation and dryness! Try to avoid decongestants and antihistamines on the days you sing, if at all possible.
  • OVERALL HEALTHY LIVING.  Maintain a healthy lifestyle. A low-fat and low-carb diet is great for overall health.  Regular exercise will help build your lung capacity and help you to maintain good, overall health.  And don’t forget…we ALL need plenty of sleep and plenty of exercise! 
  • AVOID SMOKING.  Enough said!
  • VOCAL FATIGUE.  Absolutely no yelling, screaming, or whispering! Even quiet whispers can cause strain on your vocal folds!  Rest your voice when it is tired and drink plenty of non-caffeinated tea with honey.
  • BREATH SUPPORT.  Support your singing and talking with good breath support. Breathe deeply from your chest while extending your belly and ribs with your breath. Don’t rely on breathing from your throat and shoulders – this puts a lot of strain on your voice. 


Vocal Therapy Ideas:

Damage to our vocal cords is sometimes difficult to diagnose. Does your voice feel tired, sore, or achy? Do you find that you can’t hit higher notes anymore, or has your voice suddenly become much lower in pitch?  These questions can help us to know if we have vocal damage. If you have experienced any of these symptoms and think you may have vocal damage, you should speak to your doctor and they can refer you to an otolaryngologist (ear nose and throat doctor, specializing in the voice).  In the meantime, here are a few tips and tricks to help heal your voice. REMEMBER… although these will help, the best medicine is to rest your voice and consult a physician! 

  • Try to speak familiar patterns at a comfortable pitch. You may find that your voice has deepened with damage and continuing to speak at a lower pitch can cause more harm. Find a gentle soothing tone….mimic an ‘Eeyore’ voice (from Winnie the Pooh). Practice common phrases that you say in this tone… for example: “Good Morning” or “Dinner is ready”, etc.
  • Straw Exercises. Start with a straw in a cup half full with water and blow a full breath gently and slowly into the water through the straw to create bubbles. The more water in the cup the more difficult this exercise is, so START with a small amount. As you improve your control, you can start “humming” a pitch into your straw. You can also slide across pitches as you hum into your straw. The feedback pressure from ‘singing’ or ‘speaking’ into the water places pressure on the vocal folds, reducing some of the tension we may be experiencing! 
  • Use a decibel meter on your phone or computer to monitor the ‘loudness’ of your voice. Try to speak at around 60-70 dB (this will vary based on the noise of the space you are in); i.e. in a silent library, 30dB is an acceptable volume to speak at. Monitor your volume to see if you are continuously putting strain on your voice by speaking too loudly! Adjust your speech to maintain a “safe volume” level.

Vocal health is an important aspect of all music education, and at Crescendo we strive to include learning regarding this topic with every student! Keeping your voice healthy, safe, and warm will help you ensure that your voice will remain beautiful for your entire life!