General Care of the Speaking and Singing Voice
by Catherine Kasch
As a voice teacher for some twenty five years, teaching first high school age, then community college and finally, university level for 13 years (voice and pedagogy), vocal health is of the utmost importance and priority to me. Most career driven vocalists are striving to achieve a top 2 to 3% of elite vocalism. In order to attain this Olympian vocal ideal, the health and care of the instrument must be paramount. In actuality, when employing good technique at any skill, it should be performed in a hyper-efficient, uber-healthy manner.
Of consistent effect on the singing voice is the habitual use of the speaking voice. I hear it over and over again; a young freshman soprano, for instance, who opens her mouth with a beautiful “song bird-like” timbre, then asks a question in the next breath with a speaking emission more similar to a tired frog! The speaking voice of the elite singer MUST be hygienic; highly placed and highly formed, throat free of undue tension and most importantly, NEVER phonate (singing or speaking without moving air! The speaking voice should be naturally pitched and placed where one would offhandedly say “um-hmm”. Pitching the voice overly high and only in head register is undesirable, as is pitching it overly low and throaty in solely chest register or even vocal fry. The speaking emission must be firmly rooted and supported with aligned mixture of the chest and head. Employing the habit of speaking well keeps the voice, as a whole, in a readied, fresh state, free from undue fatigue.
Singers must take seriously affording themselves opportunities for vocal rest during the day. That means no singing or speaking. “Phonastenia or tired voice” is a problem in rigorous rehearsal schedules, academic settings, etc…. Repeated friction of long periods of singing is similar to any human tissue which wears, tires, blisters and callouses from overuse. Muscle requires rest to fire properly. What is known as the Lombard Effect; the tendency to raise vocal volume level to compete with background noise is also a tremendous challenge for of today’s singers. Situations ripe for this misuse are: concerts, restaurants, bars, airplanes, sporting events, parties, backstage greetings and singing in choirs. These noisy environments remind us that vocal health includes ear and hearing health. Exposure to high decibel noise levels, so prevalent in today’s society, poses risk to long term hearing. I own a hair dryer which I use every morning, right next to my ears. I keep a set of small earplugs in my vanity drawer nearby, sensing the high frequency and volume is not healthy on a regular basis. In fact, I have a few of these ear plugs stashed around my home for carpet cleaning, lawn mowing, etc… To be good guardians of our instruments we must be guardians of our most precious hearing. This is why I devote two class periods to the ear and hearing in my vocal pedagogy class.
Now, for hydration! The human vocal folds are amazing creations of nature. As human beings, we differ from the animal kingdom in the possession of a glossy, gorgeous outer covering of the vocal folds called the “squamous epithelium”. Dogs, for instance, do not possess this outer covering of the vocal folds, (having bio-chemical properties close to two bags of water) along with this smooth, wet outer layer, only require four centimeters of pressure to adduct or come together. Of course, the amazing Bernoulli Effect, the principle scientific theory behind aviation makes all that adduction possible! On the other hand, a dog’s vocal folds, lacking the squamous epithelium, require fourteen centimeters of pressure. Is it any wonder that a dog’s bark is so harsh and a human being is capable of gorgeous, beautiful resonances? However, the singer MUST keep these tissues moist and hydrated. It is generally accepted that one must drink half their body weight in ounces- daily. Avoid drying caffeinated beverages, alcoholic beverages, antihistamines and other dying medications and enjoy 35% percent humidity as much as possible, even if you have to use a humidifier. To check body hydration levels, one can follow the old singer’s adage; “if you wanna sing well, you gotta pee pale!” Urine should (unless you’ve recently taken a multivitamin) not be dark (indicating dehydration) nor should it be clear (indicating over hydration and loss of electrolytes). Urine should be pale yellow in color to reflect proper body hydration.
Another condition which can affect the voice significantly is reflux. Reflux is the phenomena of esophageal fluid washing over the crico-pharyngeus muscle. This fluid, highly acidic, burns the vocal folds. Symptoms of reflux often do not include actual heartburn, but can include: choking spells, prolonged vocal warm-up, water brash, frequent throat clearing, mump-like sensation, hoarseness, pain, and bad breath. The singer must consult their laryngologist and therapy often includes; medication, change in diet, raising the head of your bed, avoiding eating and drinking for several hours before bed, etc… Untreated, reflux can lead to chronic inflammatory tissue and granuloma.
Some singers encounter vocal problems when suffering from TMJD, Tempro Mandibular Joint Disorder. It is generally accepted that a normal joint is a quiet one. Symptoms to be aware of include; jawing popping or clicking, neck pain, headaches, throat burning or tingling, earaches, fullness, ringing, itching, buzzing in the ears, vertigo, dizziness, inability to open mouth, tightness or a locking of the jaw, clenching and grinding of the teeth. The face may also feel fatigue, pain or tension with normal chewing. Therapy for this disorder may include drugs to reduce swelling, jaw or dental surgery, retainer or orthodontics.
Care and knowledge using medications is vital, especially aspirin related products. Aleve, Naproxin, Ibuprofen all dilate blood vessels in the vocal folds rendering them vulnerable to vocal fold hemorrhage. Tylenol is safe for the singer for pain relief.
In summary, the singer should remember that the chief symptom of pathology in the voice is hoarseness. If it continues for over two weeks, see your laryngologist. Most vocal fold injuries occur when singers are recovering from a cold or virus and feel that pressure to get back to their “job”. There is only one opportunity to heal properly from a respiratory cold, virus or case of laryngitis. Mucous thinners become essential to thin secretions, not dry them out.
Serious singers adopt generally healthy lifestyles including moderate exercise, well rounded diets rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, complex carbohydrates, self governance in regard to social habits and patterns, respect for the importance of rest and sleep and an overall positive attitude due to the joy of doing something they truly love…transforming thought and emotion into the beauty of sound.
Catherine Kasch, soprano, holds a bachelor of music from the University of Colorado where she studied with acclaimed teachers, pedagogues and authors Dr. Barbara Doscher and Dr Berton Coffin. She holds a master of music, as well as a post-master’s artist’s certificate, from Northwestern University, Evanston. Ms. Kasch has completed all levels of study at the Contemporary Music Institute with renowned master teacher Jeanne Lovetri and has, herself, taught master classes at Northwestern College, Minnesota, the Sydney Conservatory of Music in Australia, the Amsterdam Conservatory and the Royal Conservatory of Music, Den Haag as well as with the International Opera Studio in Amsterdam. She has served as a guest teacher with the Perry Mansfield Institute in Steamboat Springs. Before joining the faculty at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, she was on the voice faculty at the University of Colorado. Previous teaching includes Triton College and the College of Lake County in Illinois.
In the Chicago area she performed with the Chicago Heights Symphony, North Shore Symphony, Bravura Opera Works and Chicago Light Opera Works. She recorded extensively with the Harold Flammer Series and Hope Publishing under the direction of John Wilson and sang, for six years, with the WTTW ‘Chicago Sunday Evening Club’ television program.
A former Miss Colorado in the 1978 Miss America Scholarship Pageant, Ms.Kasch performed extensively throughout the state of Colorado in that capacity. She has been a greater Denver area soprano soloist, having sung Bach’s St.John and St.Matthew Passions, the Messiah, the Vivaldi Gloria and Schubert’s Mass in C. She has performed works by David Amram, conducted by the composer, has appeared with Gabriel’s Dinner Theater as well as with the Colorado Summer Music Festival.
Equally at home with traditional classical training and the technical demands of both ‘legitimate’ and modern musical theater, Ms Kasch continues to study extensively to thoroughly present all lines of technique in both her studio work and in her capacity as undergraduate and graduate teacher of vocal pedagogy at the Lamont School of Music. Ms Kasch remains the central technical force throughout the career of her husband, tenor, Donald Kasch.