Keep your voice healthy today. But how about tomorrow?
Oct 06 2016
To keep your voice in shape, you stay well hydrated, avoid shouting in noisy locations, practice good oral hygiene (including refraining from smoking, etc.), and avoid environments and conditions that promote respiratory illnesses. But is that enough? No, because it’s not enough just to be concerned about your vocal health today. To enjoy a long – and healthy – VO career, it will be important to maintain your vocal health into your later years. Just as we’d all like to have as strong a body as possible as we get older, we want a strong voice. But, as with the rest of our body, that becomes more difficult as we age.
If you find yourself losing your voice, or experience rapid or undesirable changes, or loss of vocal control, see a voice expert – either a reputable voice coach or a medical practitioner specializing in voice (laryngologist). One may refer you to the other –perhaps for vocal exercises to tone laryngeal muscles and to use more effective vocal techniques, or because some vocal symptoms or changes have potentially serious medical causes.
The symptoms of vocal aging
It’s not surprising. The voice tends to suffer the same age-related effects as the rest of the body. As we get older, we lose muscle and strength. Fat accumulates and is harder to lose. And tissues simply deteriorate, being not so quick to regenerate and repair. In speech, the effects are manifested in a variety of ways:
- Our speech slows, as we’re less nimble in forming sounds.
- Shortness of breath causes us to pause more often for air.
- Pitch becomes lower at first, as laryngeal cartilage hardens and becomes less flexible. With further aging, as vocal folds become stiffer and thinner, pitch tends to rise in men (a woman’s voice might remain lower), and volume is reduced, with more breathiness.
- Tremors may occur – the voice wobbles the same as the hand wobbles when carrying a coffee cup.
- Diminished hearing capability may cause us to speak louder. Constantly speaking loudly also takes a toll on vocal health.
Not all these symptoms will be encountered in every person. And in men, a lower voice might even become a professional advantage – finally, you’re a goldenthroat! And we hasten to add that many people remain vocally strong and saleable. Consider that Tony Bennett still sings professionally at age 90, and Peter Thomas (who passed away last spring at age 91) narrated Forensic Files and remained vocally prolific to age 86 at least.
But everyone is likely to experience some of these changes at least to some extent, sooner or later.
Can you control how quickly your voice ages?
Yes, and that’s the good news. Eat properly, get proper rest, exercise and think good thoughts.(Really – a positive attitude works wonders … if only to keep you doing all this other stuff!)
As Voice Academy (a program designed for the vocal health of teachers) at the University of Iowa notes:
There is some evidence that an older, but healthy, person can have a stronger, better functioning voice than a younger, but less healthy, individual. Some of the ageing of the structures in the larynx aren’t necessarily detrimental. Remember that effective voicing isn’t dependent on brute force, but rather, a well-coordinated onset and offset of the laryngeal muscles. Some voice therapies may help to re-energize an ageing voice.
As with any physical training program, begin with a medical exam to verify that you’re healthy, and then work with a qualified trainer. In this case, a voice trainer, singing teacher or speech pathologist. Your goal – in our context anyway – is voice-over performance, so you and your trainer should realize that the objective is to strengthen your voice, to maintain vocal health and stamina, and to maximize your vocal capabilities (such as range of pitch). Although these may also improve your ability to speak in a stage voice (“full” voice), that is NOT your goal in voice-over.
Considering that most voice-over genres involve a conversational tone, focus on your everyday speaking voice, and use that voice in everyday conversation. Poor everyday technique can lead to problems such as nodules, polyps, cysts, or hemorrhage, resulting in hoarseness and worse.
A partial checklist
Here are some tips and things to watch for …
- Start each day with a program of approved vocal warms-ups that include relaxation of muscles associated with voice production, not just the vocal tract itself. They’re like stretching before you exercise. For example, when you’re young, you might get away with skiing downhill without stretching first. When you’re older, don’t be so cavalier.
- Cool-down exercises are also important. They help your muscles relax after long use. All these exercises should be as prescribed by a qualified coach. Don’t make them up yourself!
- Remain hydrated. Plain water is generally better than soda, sugary juices and caffeinated beverages. Keep it up – days before you perform vocally. And, since as a VO pro you probably work daily, this means you should always be well hydrated. (It also helps prevent subjecting your body to rapid changes in fluid content.). How much fluids per day? Ask your doctor. Over-hydration can also be unhealthy, especially in the case of various health disorders.
- Eat sensibly and take care to avoid or minimize reflux. “Reflux” is when stomach contents come up into the esophagus or even larynx, throat or nose. It happens a bit to everyone at times. You may recognize it as “heartburn.” But you can have reflux without experiencing the feeling of heartburn. Not a big deal? Consider that the stomach and lower esophagus are lined by several layers of cells designed to resist the effects of stomach acid. The larynx and upper tracts’ lining is only one cell deep. Repeated exposure takes a toll.
- Breathe with proper posture, a relaxed torso, and learn to use your diaphragm in three dimensions, not just up and down. A coach can help speed your learning about this. Meanwhile, lie down on your back and breath naturally, comfortably. That’s breathing from the diaphragm. You can’t perform like that, but it’s good to know the feeling.
- Avoid straining your voice. If you were shouting all evening in a loud bistro or party, you might find yourself with a nice “deep” voice the next morning. But it won’t last, and over time such habits can be damaging. Instead, pursue proper training in vocal development and practice a bit every day – the stronger voice will last, and you can call it up anytime you need it.
- Pay attention to your entire vocal system. It’s more than your voice box, more than your throat. By using your tongue, jaw and palate properly, you will take some of the load off your larynx, and in the process increase the range of sounds you can make, and your ability to speak clearly.
And if you can do that, while sounding “natural” in your manner, emotional expression, and other aspects of voice-over performance, you can handle a voice-over job at any age.