Vocal health tips for touring singers

“So, did you lose your voice on tour?!”

My music-store-owner friend, a passionate music enthusiast, was excitedly grilling me about my thirteen-night Northeast tour last August.

The answer was an emphatic NO!

I had not lost my voice at all; in fact, I came back feeling more vocally healthy than ever after singing for thirteen straight nights in a row.

I’m not sure why losing your voice has become some kind of badge of honor for touring musicians, but I know that I sure as hell want my voice working at top efficiency every single time I perform or record. My voice is how I make a living and I am very diligent about keeping it in good shape!

10 ways to keep your voice in top shape on the road

If you are like me and don’t want to lose your voice (your livelihood!), below are ten actions you can take to support your vocal and physical health as an artist. Besides being a touring artist, I apprentice with a brilliant NYC voice teacher and teach lessons to vocalists myself. These ten lessons that I’ve learned (and teach my students) help me keep my voice fresh night after night. Certainly, all of these things contributed to coming back from tour vocally strong.

1. Hydration

I can’t say enough about staying hydrated as a singer. It’s especially easy on tour to get dehydrated because of alcohol, coffee, long drives, dry air in the venues, climate change if you’re traveling far, etc etc etc.

I drink water obsessively, and for optimal vocal health, so should you. When water alone won’t cut it, I also take a shot-glass worth of Aloe Vera juice every day, which does the job of a few glasses of water. It is super-hydrating and helps clear any phlegm from your throat. I recommend Lily of the Desert aloe vera juice, which is sold on Amazon here. You can usually also find it in health food stores.

Certain fruits are also very hydrating, including watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe. Any of these can help clear phlegm from your throat as well.

2. Steaming

Steaming is an incredible help when hydration alone doesn’t do the job enough, especially touring in hot summer months or in cold months when dry heat is blasting. Breathing in steam thins mucous, clears away phlegm, and hydrates your vocal cords with direct contact hydration—the water vapor in the steam literally hydrates them immediately, which means it gets them ready for singing really quickly.

A glass of water takes 8 hours to get into your bloodstream. If I have to sing in an hour, a glass of water isn’t going to help me! I steam my cords for at least 15 minutes before and after every performance with a portable steam machine that I can plug in right at the venue.

You can also steam in a steam room, a shower, or with a pot of gently boiling water and a towel over your head, breathing in the steam. I recommend a steam machine over all the other options, because of its convenience and optimal effectiveness. I used to get dry and hoarse singing long outdoor gigs, but when I steam before and after I’m set to go. If you’re not convinced, I challenge you to try singing after steaming and hear the difference yourself!

3. Stretch/ Mobility

Your body literally IS your instrument. When you’re touring, you’re contorting and folding your body into all sorts of unnatural positions—crammed into a car or a van with a bunch of bandmates, crumpled on a couch you’re crashing on, etc. When you make time to stretch, you open your body and your voice will thank you. Here are three basic stretches that will help:

  1. Cat/Cow: a classic yoga movement that opens up your spine and ribcage. Get on all fours with hands under your shoulders and knees under your hip. Center your head in a neutral position and soften your gaze downward. Inhale as you drop your stomach towards the mat. Lift your chin and chest, and gaze up toward the ceiling. Broaden across your shoulder blades and draw your shoulders away from your ears. Next, move into Cat Pose: As you exhale, draw your belly to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling. The pose should look like a cat stretching its back. Release the crown of your head toward the floor, but don’t force your chin to your chest. Inhale, coming back into Cow Pose, and then exhale as you return to Cat Pose. Repeat this 5-20 times.
  2. Yoga forward fold with hands grasping opposite elbows: Begin standing up straight with your hands on your hips. Exhale as you bend forward at the hips, lengthening the front of your torso. Bend your elbows and hold on to each elbow with the opposite hand. Let the crown of your head hang down. Press your heels into the floor as you lift your sit bones toward the ceiling. Turn the tops of your thighs slightly inward. Do not lock your knees. Take several deep breaths while you’re in this pose. Release your hands, and come back up to standing, keeping your spine lengthened. Repeat several times.
  3. Long Spine Drill: This is a drill to help you stand up straight. Place an object on top of your head (a ball of any sort works well.) With your head, think of pushing the ball away, and with your feet, think of pushing the floor away. You can walk like this. It helps to have a buddy keep the object on top of your head so you can release your hands to your sides. If you don’t have a friend, using your own hands works as well.

4. Take a Deep Breath (Breath exercises)

We all know that breathing is extremely important for singing. But most people think “Big breath = Big Sound.” This definitely isn’t always the case. The diaphragm (the large muscle in your abdomen responsible for pulling open your lungs, which then suck in oxygen) is both a voluntary and involuntary muscle. The best way to breathe for singing is to stimulate the involuntary response in the muscle, so you don’t have to think about breath while you’re onstage (Because you likely won’t.) Also, getting the muscle to work more involuntarily will prevent you from hyperventilating and creating a more airy sound.

a.) Rhythmic Breath: Breathe in for two beats, out for eight beats through pursed lips, creating resistance, getting all the air out in those eight beats. Do ten reps of this at least. This is a great way to help calm yourself down and stimulate the involuntary diaphragm response. You can try this with a metronome app to keep the beats, or with the Breathe Deep app, which you can set with this configuration.

b.) Diaphragm reflex exercise: On a silent “ah” shape, squeeze literally every drop of air out of your lungs as fast as you can. When you’ve emptied your lungs completely, do not “take in” a breath, but rather, let the air “suck” back in when your lungs literally force you to. What you want to do is stimulate your body’s reflexive response to take in breath. By emptying your lungs completely, your breath will become more reflexive, which is optimal for singing.

c.) Paper Bag: Breathe in and out of a paper bag (Seal it around your mouth and nose) through your nose for a minute. This increases CO2 in your bloodstream, which is very helpful for optimal singing breath function. Increasing CO2 in your bloodstream is also very mentally calming, so this drill is excellent to do if you experience stage fright.

5. Warm Up!

You should be warming up your voice before every time you sing. If you were a marathon runner, you’d warm up and stretch before running a long distance, wouldn’t you? This is the same idea.

If you don’t know any vocal warm-up exercises, I have included a video of a few here for a variety of voice ranges to get you started. I also recommend seeing a voice teacher to help customize some exercises to your range and needs.

6. Cool Down

A vocal cool-down is really important when you’ve done some high intensity singing. A good cool-down helps ease blood out of your larynx (your voice box), so you don’t go from high level voice use to nothing too suddenly.

Singing on an “oo” vowel on a sliding down (descending) scale, or singing some gentle pitches with your lips closed around a plastic straw are two easy, quick ways to cool down. Steaming is also a great cool-down.

7. Sensory Input: Hearing

As singers and musicians in general, it’s important that our hearing be in tip-top shape. I highly recommend that you get a hearing test immediately, because if you’re a touring musician, it’s likely you may already have some hearing loss. I also recommend you wear earplugs in loud venues.

Lastly, there are some hearing exercises that can improve your ears’ functionality. Here’s one you can try with a friend:

  • Stand in a comfortable position with your eyes closed.
  • Cover your left ear.
  • The partner will snap three times somewhere in front of your right side and then leave their hand where they snapped.
  • Point to where you think the sound came from.
  • Once you’ve decided, open your eyes and see how close you were.
  • Repeat a few more times on that side, and then switch sides.

8. Sensory Input: Vision

How we see and experience the world has a huge impact on the vocal energy we exude. Many people are slightly eso- or exo-phoric, meaning their eyes turn slightly inwards or slightly outwards. If you are a person with low vocal energy and you frequently get asked to be louder, you might be eso-phoric. An easy exercise is to hold a finger arm’s distance in front of you, focusing your eyes on your finger, and then flicking your eyes up (without moving your head) to an object further away and up in the room. Do this for twenty repetitions and then sing. This exercise causes you to get your eyes more outwards and perceive the room as larger, causing your body to instinctively give more vocal energy.

The opposite is true if you are a singer who frequently has a pushing sound or loses their voice. You might be exo-phoric, perceiving the room as slightly larger, and therefore pushing your voice overboard. It might serve you to practice singing with your finger out in front of you, keeping your eyes on your finger. This can reduce pushing and help you bring your eyes slightly inwards.

9. Sensory Input: Touch/Vibration

Yes, massage vibrators like this one are used as sex toys, but they can also be used in a non-sexy way to help your singing. Human beings like vibration; it’s one of our deepest sensory experiences. There’s a reason why babies get lulled to sleep when you place their bassinets on a rumbling dryer. As humans, we go to hear live music because we like the feeling of vibration that we experience in our bodies when we’re that close to it. This is why live music will always thrive, no matter what technology develops. As a singer, I want to increase how much I’m creating vibration with my voice to increase the vibrational experience I’m sending to my audience! A vibrating massager can be placed anywhere on the cervical spine (the back of your neck), back, chest, and even face to increase vibration of your voice. I encourage you to experiment and see for yourself!

10. See a teacher!

If you try some of these on your own and feel you only can get so far, or if you are having problems with your voice, I definitely recommend you see a knowledgeable teacher. Many voice teachers only work with classical or operatic singers—these teachers probably aren’t a good fit for you if you’re reading this blog. I recommend you see someone who works regularly with contemporary styles (Rock, pop, etc.) A teacher who works with Broadway singers usually is willing to work with the broadest range of styles, since musical theatre singers need to be so stylistically versatile.

I hope you can use any and all of these information to help keep your touring singing voice as healthy as you can. Happy touring, and happy singing!