You might call it a hoarse voice, a raspy voice, rough voice, vocal fry, or you might even call it laryngitis. Vocal fatigue is the umbrella term for all of the above. Just about 100% of all singers have experienced vocal fatigue and have been made miserable because of it. Many singers suffer from the kind of vocal fatigue that keeps coming back. Time for real solutions!
This post is all about preventing and treating vocal fatigue, so you can be free to sing your best.
Let’s first explore the causes and the troubling effects of vocal fatigue. We can get clear about when it is necessary to be examined by a doctor. We will emphasize how to prevent vocal fatigue, which is always the smartest route. And lastly we will emphasize what you should do once this frustrating, ruinous problem has your voice feeling like it is bound in barbed wire!
What Vocal Fatigue Really Means
A respected speech pathologist has defined the issue in a good overview found here. It is a reminder for singers to put vocal health first. Singers are special creatures. We can sing well only when our physical instrument is working properly. And this requires looking after our voices every single moment.
When we ignore the need for continuous gentle care of the vocal anatomy, the risk is too great for developing vocal nodules, cysts, polyps, hemorrhages, and chronic laryngitis. These troubles are your worst nightmare! When the voice needs rest, the absolute worst thing you can do is force singing.
You might recall about 10 years ago, famous rock-pop-blues singer John Mayer had surgery on his vocal cords. In this article, John Mayer tells Billboard Magazine that his singing and speaking voice will never be the same. And this is not meant in a good way!
Countless great singing voices are damaged by neglect. Singers are only human, and we have special care needs. When a singer is vocally ill, live concerts are either canceled or very poorly sung. And the music-loving public is deprived of this huge source of enjoyment and meaning in their lives!
As we delve into the causes and triggers of vocal fatigue, it is helpful to discover how the finest ENT doctors explain our epidemic of poor vocal hygiene. Here’s another great article to scan.
When the Damage is Done
So what happens when we ignore vocal fatigue and keep “powering through?” Well, in the first place, you lose your opportunity to prevent the whole nightmare! Too many singers force their voices just at the moment when vocal rest would have saved the day. This is a surefire recipe for damaging the vocal folds, causing nodules, polyps, cysts, bleeding of the vocal cords, and repeated bouts of laryngitis. Disorders such as these are so horrible for any singer!
Forget about singing for a long time. You will first need medical and surgical treatment for the actual damage to the vocal anatomy. As if this is not bad enough, you will also need “vocal rehabilitation.” This usually means multiple visits to the office of your ENT surgeon, for postoperative checkups. And vocal rehab also means working hands-on, in personal sessions with a speech pathologist. You might also be referred to a specialist voice teacher with experience working with singers who are recovery from vocal surgery.
Imagine not being allowed to use even your speaking voice for many weeks or months, as part of your recovery from vocal surgery. What a hugely disruptive requirement, guaranteed to ruin your quality of life.
The main culprits fall into one or both of two categories: injury and/or illness. In no particular order, here are some of the most common issues that cause vocal fatigue:
1) Singing technique which contributed to hoarseness
2) Lack of good hydration and lubrication of the voice
3) Lack of adequate good quality sleep
4) Drinking alcohol, causing vocal folds to swell
5) Smoking of any substance or use of tobacco in any form
6) Too much caffeine, causing vocal folds to become dry
7) Forcing singing through respiratory illness, particularly coughing
8) Forcing singing when you know your voice is exhausted and needs rest
9) Vocal fry used for speaking or singing
10) Singing too much in ranges that are either too high or too low for your voice
11) Yelling or screaming on the voice, causing hoarseness and loss of voice. Forcing singing too soon, not allowing time for this injury to heal.
12) Exposure to air pollution such as exhaust fumes, which will dry the vocal anatomy and might cause swelling
What do singers describe and ask about, when they begin having potentially serious vocal troubles? Here are just a few of the questions I am routinely asked by young singers.
1) “Is it normal for the voice to become hoarse, just from warming up?” Answer: No, not at all. This is an indication the voice is fatigued and needs rest. The underlying causes of your vocal fatigue should be identified. Please consult your voice teacher or your doctor as soon as possible.
2) “I recently went to a concert this past Friday night and I lost the ability to sing in my high voice, cheering and shouting for the performer to come on stage. What should I do to recover it fast?” Answer: This singer is describing vocal fatigue caused by yelling, as an audience member, at a live stage event. There is no “fast” way to recover.
For example, if you have a injury that causes bruising to an area of your body, would you expect this to “recover fast?” The body needs time to rest and rejuvenate, in order to heal. This is a good enough analogy to the vocal folds having been injured from yelling. Vocal rest is crucial to recovering as swiftly as possible. Also it is essential to get plenty of sleep, to have lots of hydration, and to be patient for the next week or so. This gives the voice every advantage to restore itself. Once the voice is working well again, we hope this singer derives some value from the ordeal. It is not a total loss if we can learn how to avoid misusing the voice in the future.
3) Next we have an interesting discussion by a singer who is recovering from vocal damage, caused by misusing the voice.
Avoid Vocal Fry
Let’s begin with a perfect audio sample of the horrible sound of vocal fry. And how does this speaker come across? Well, she does not sound confident or even credible. So the sound of your speaking voice has a tremendous impact upon how others perceive you, as a professional and in a personal way, too!
Probably the best way to define “vocal fry” is to listen to a specializing ENT doctor. Here is a great one, explaining vocal fry in this video:
Vocal fry is in fact a common cause of vocal fatigue. If you are speaking this way in order to fit into with the cool kids, please ask yourself if the price is worth the benefit.
For one thing, you are diminishing your individuality. Employers hear this vocal pattern and they question whether you have real self-worth and whether you can bring anything of value. You are putting your best voice forward, building your reputation, so people will appreciate and respect your style of communication. One thing sure to quickly ruin it all is the lousy impression you make when you “follow the herd.”
Please consider truly owning the sound of your own voice, when it is healthy and supported by good body alignment. Liberating and confidence building! It is part of your humanity. After all it is your voice, no one else’s. You deserve to claim ownership and to reap the benefits!
Every singer should celebrate his or her unique vocal timbre. Notice how the great singers of the world each have voices that possess original and distinctive sound quality. When you hear a voice for just a minute or so and you never forget that special sound, this is the mark of originality and excellence.
Remember, your voice is as unique as your fingerprint. Embrace the singular timbre of your own voice. You are better than resorting to the unhealthy risks of vocal fry, just to blend into the crowd. Be proud and celebrate your distinctive vocal quality, all yours, never to be duplicated or shared with anyone else!
How to Stop Vocal Fry
The actual physical cause is lack of consistent air flow. The vocal cords are being squeezed together without sufficient air flow, resulting in a gravelly, croaking tone. Your remedy lies in having individual attention in a personal private lesson with a good voice teacher.
Email me now: Gretchen@SingingAndYou.com.
How the Voice Rebels Against Vocal Fatigue
If your voice is not working optimally, due to overuse, strain, or any form of abuse, then nothing you sing is going to sound like you want it to sound. In fact, you might well find that you are badly embarrassed by your singing, when the voice is overtired, fatigued.
The sound will be what I would describe as brittle, dry, often hoarse and gravely. It is common that when the voice is fatigued it will react by skipping — cutting out and then cutting back in. Also your singing will feel and will actually sound different, but not in a good way. Singing becomes labored. It is no longer fun to sing, when vocal fatigue takes hold.
Count on inflamed and swollen vocal folds, once the voice has been injured from overuse. Even mild swelling, what you might call “puffy vocal cords,” equates to vocal fatigue. These are all strong clear indications that the voice needs rest.
Do you want to be singing for the rest of your life? Then, it really is essential that you learn how your voice feels and sounds, when it is working well and when it is not.
You Sense the Voice is in Trouble
Inflammation and swelling of the vocal cords generally produces a sound that is husky, thick, and breathy. You will probably also discover that the top range of your voice is almost impossible to access. Insisting upon your top range causes the whole situation to worsen. And when I say “worsen,” I mean instantly! It is as if the wheels have come off and the vehicle that is your singing instrument is an accident waiting to happen.
You will probably also discover that the top range of your voice is almost impossible to access. You might come to realize that it feels like wading through quicksand: the more you struggle, the more you are pulled under!
In short, everything about singing is ruined, until your vocal anatomy can be properly treated and allowed to fully recover from vocal fatigue. If you learn only one thing from this entire blog, please understand this: when you sense that your voice is in trouble for any reason, you must rest the voice! This includes not speaking. Send a message to your voice teacher to explain the trouble. Make an appointment for a visit with your doctor. But rest the voice above all. Give it time (several days) and then gently try some vocal warmup exercises, to begin getting a feel of whether the condition is better. If not, then you must next consult your voice teacher and your doctor, asap!
One in a Million
Here we have one of the best examples of vocal fry, swelling, and inflammation of the vocal anatomy:
A genuine American original and national musical treasure, Louis Armstrong had an unmistakable signature vocal timbre. According to his biographer, Armstrong’s singularly gravelly sound was due to an overuse injury, followed by two failed surgeries on his vocal anatomy.
From this we learn:
1) Armstrong was a phenomenal musician, a creative genius
2) Armstrong’s example is one in a million, in that he created professional career in spite of severe vocal damage and
3) You absolutely should not aspire to sing this way and should seek professional care, when your voice shows sign of fatigue and damage!
Treatment Focused on Prevention
Once your voice has recovered and is working again, your best strategy is to prevent future episodes of vocal fatigue. Let’s discover how you can do just that. As always, knowledge is power. Getting to know your own body and your own voice is fundamental for any singer. It is simply vital that you zero in on how your voice and your whole body feels when things are going well and when they are not. At any given moment when you begin to perceive that your vocal folds are puffy or swollen, then it is crucial that you make a plan to thoroughly REST THE VOICE asap! This means you should greatly limit all speaking and you should not sing at all, at least for the next 4-5 days.
While you are resting your voice, there are some supportive measures you can take to help the process along. Regardless, the body needs time to heal, so please do not disrupt or try to rush the healing process.
One product I like very much is aloe vera gel. It is a miraculous remedy that reduces inflammation and restores moisture. Dr. Andrew Weil is my go-to source for guidance on natural remedies. Here Dr. Weil outlines the wonderful healing power of aloe vera gel and recommends the dosage of 30 ml, 3 times per day, taken internally. The best brand is Lily of the Desert and you can buy it from Amazon here.
Another excellent product to counteract vocal fatigue is yerba maté tea. Many popular canned beverages contain small amounts of yerba maté.
However, if you are using this herb for medicinal purposes, a greater concentration is necessary. This brand of the tea is one I’ve trusted for many years. You can buy yerba maté tea from Amazon here.
In the comment section, please share your approach to this widespread, very troubling problem. A discussion will be helpful to literally all singers!
So then our post is an investigation of what vocal fatigue is, how we can treat it, and most importantly how we can prevent it!
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