Back in my high school years, my choir director told me—with a tinge of envy—that I had “cords of steel.” I wore that label like a badge of honor, and prided myself on the fact that I was rarely put out of commission by a cold, fatigue, or overuse. Even in college, despite using my voice far more frequently, it seemed that I had merited such a label.
Then I started teaching.
On top of constant illnesses that I picked up from my students my first year in the classroom, I was singing in two choirs and spending my entire day either speaking or singing. Determined to carry on like I always had, I didn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) listen to the warning signs that my voice and body were giving me. While I finally sought medical advice from my ENT and had a laryngoscope done to confirm that my stubbornness hadn’t done any serious damage, I wish I had taken steps to honestly self-assess my own vocal health.
Outlined below are some warning signs and symptoms to watch out for.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor - I’m sharing these warning signs and tips for decoding your body’s signals based on my own experiences. If you feel that your voice isn’t functioning properly, seek medical advice from your friendly, neighborhood ENT.
Warning Signs that Your Vocal Health is in Danger
1. Fatigue After Singing
“Well of course I’m going to be tired after singing when rehearsal lasts for three hours!”
Generally, yes. It’s normal to need to rest the voice after a rigorous rehearsal, but are you still feeling vocally exhausted the next day?
Most voice-experts recommend 10 minutes of rest for every 90 minutes of vocal use. Yet vocal tissue damage can be caused by both overuse and improper use. If you are giving yourself plenty of rest, perhaps you need to assess how you are producing sound. Are you using your breath to support your tone? Are you singing pitches that are outside your tessitura? Is your throat relaxed as you sing? The next time you sing (and speak), pay close attention to how you are producing sound.
2. Change in Tone
For those of you that have seen videos of the vocal cords during singing (like this one), you know that the vocal mechanism consists of two vocal folds creating a delicate closure as they allow air to pass through them as they vibrate. If the vocal folds aren’t properly sealing, air can escape during sound production, resulting in a breathy or raspy tone.
Anyone who’s ever seen Pitch Perfect knows what I’m about to invoke: nodes.
Nodules (“Nodes”) are a type of lesion on the vocal folds similar to a callus. Other kinds of lesions include polyps and cysts, all of which interfere with the proper closure of the vocal folds and cause hoarseness. Beyond a breathy or raspy tone, they can also interfere with your natural vibrato and your range (particularly at the upper half), cause unusual voice breaks or gaps, and make it difficult to produce a quiet tone. While all of these areas can be attributed to improper sound production or technique, they can also signal something internal, particularly if they were not something you struggled with previously.
3. Pain or Discomfort
Beyond general fatigue after singing, if you feel like you have to exert yourself to produce your voice, that is not normal. Our vocal folds don’t actually have any nerve endings, which makes it harder to pinpoint what exactly we’re feeling. That said, the other muscles and tissue in your throat do have nerve endings. If your voice is injured or mistreated, other parts of your neck and throat will carry the burden until the true problem is resolved.
If you feel a lump in your throat, constantly need to clear your throat, or experience a tight, strained feeling around the throat (either inside or out) that’s not the best sign. Pain is designed to tell you something, so don’t push through it and ignore your body. Listen to it!
At the end of the day, all of these warning signs are just that: warnings. They don’t reveal exactly what’s wrong with your voice, or how to fix it. But to ignore them is to risk your entire instrument.
Questions to Ask Yourself Upon Experiencing any Vocal Warning Signs
1. Am I singing the correct voice part? Have I spoken to my director about switching?
Many singers naturally have a lower voice with a wider vibrato as they age. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you can really hurt yourself over time if you don’t acknowledge those changes.
2. Is this something that’s only happened once, or is it a consistent problem?
Vocal rest can do a world of good, but sometimes it is only a treatment and not a cure.
3. Have I changed something about my daily routine? Am I getting enough sleep? When is my voice bothering me most?
It’s important to think outside of the rehearsal room to assess what might be making vocal production a challenge.
4. Have I started taking any new medication? Have I been around smoke or smokers?
Certain drugs, like antihistamines, can cause dryness while battling allergy symptoms. Smoking and secondhand smoke, as you can imagine, is terrible for your voice.
5. Do I have bad heartburn? Do I eat within an hour of going to bed?
Acid reflux is bad for your vocal folds, and it’s not always something singers associate with vocal health. If you think you might be suffering from this, try avoiding food before bed and lay off the ghost pepper hot sauce.
In the end, you and you alone know your voice best. If you’re having complications, ask yourself these questions to begin to understand what could be causing your difficulties, and then get thee to a doctor!
Jennie Weyman is the Managing Director of the Friday Morning Music Club in Washington, D.C. She is also an active member of both the Capitol Hill Chorale, serving on the Board of Directors since 2015, and the Washington Revels. She has previously worked with both The Washington Chorus and Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Jennie taught elementary music for two years, and continues to teach musical theater workshops in her spare time. When not working, Jennie freelances as a graphic designer, reads terrible mystery novels, and makes Airbnb wishlists. Go Hufflepuff!