Maintaining a healthy teaching voice
Vocal hygiene is not just for professional speakers, singers, or triple threats. Dance teachers and studio owners too need to take care of their voices. Vocal quality is important—it can be an asset or an off-putting liability.
Take the case of a teacher client who came to me one day complaining of jaw and neck pain accompanied by throat tightness. Having recently completed her annual rehearsal and performance run, she asked whether I thought she was merely tired. I asked how many years she had been running her studio. “Twelve,” she said in a hoarse whisper. It was clearly time for her to learn about vocal hygiene if she wanted to be there for another 12.
Teachers and school owners talk constantly, in classes (often loudly enough to be heard above music), rehearsals, meetings, fundraisers, speeches, and countless interactions. All that vocalizing is achieved by using the laryngeal muscles. In order to use these, you have to stabilize the neck. When the sound-making muscles get tight, so does the surrounding musculature. Additionally, people who haven’t been trained to use their voices efficiently often use the muscles of the neck rather than the diaphragm to project.
A few years ago, the Performing Arts Medicine Association presented a weekend workshop on vocal health at its annual conference. Here are some tips I took home that will help ensure the health of your vocal anatomy and longevity of your voice.
First and foremost, water is essential. Drinking plenty of water keeps the vocal cords moist, and well-hydrated vocal cords are less likely to be damaged during use. If you like to have a caffeinated beverage before you speak or teach to help you stay alert, be careful not to overdo it, since both tea and coffee are dehydrating. Energy drinks are worse, prolonging the caffeinated effect and possibly making your voice more tense and jittery.
Alcohol is also dehydrating. Fundraising and gala events where alcohol is served are also functions that may require you to do a good deal of talking. Go easy on alcoholic beverages to save your voice during these events.
Sleep helps to regenerate tissues, including vocal cord tissues. To maintain hydration during the night, drink a full cup of water before going to sleep. Drinking a full glass upon rising is also a habit worth acquiring.
At noisy parties or in places with harsh acoustics, you might strain your voice to be heard. To avoid having to talk loudly, find a wall to stand close to, or pull people aside for important conversations so you’re not trying to project. Enunciate your words well to avoid having to repeat yourself.
Stage fright can cause vocal tension, and it’s made worse by caffeine. To feel energized, try taking an Emergen-C vitamin C formula instead of gulping coffee before you speak.
Class and rehearsal
Spare your voice when you can. Don’t count over loud music for hours on end; instead, train your students to follow your hand gestures or body cues. Save detailed notes for breaks in the music.
Proper posture is also an important factor in maintaining vocal health. Keep the head over the pelvis, being careful not to jut the head forward to address the class.
Acoustics in the classroom are critical. Teaching in cement-block studios or other echoing environments will require you to speak more loudly to be heard. You can mitigate this by installing fabric-wrapped acoustical panels, curtains, or other sound-baffling materials. (See “Say What? Putting a halt to hearing loss,” January 2013.)
To help stretch the face, neck, and throat, try a version of the yoga pose called “the lion.” Press your tongue against the inside of the lower teeth. Smile and raise the eyebrows. Push the jaw in a forward motion, then bow the tongue outward. Breathe several times, then relax. Repeat.
Swallowing is a good exercise for the throat, as is making the sound “gah,” using the muscles of the diaphragm to push out the sound. Try to avoid repetitive clearing of the throat. If it becomes dry, try to swallow, sip some water, or yawn discreetly.
Be smart. Your voice is a terrific asset, whether you’re teaching, conducting business, or engaging in everyday social life.
I have faith in you.