Have you ever really experienced vocal fatigue? A hoarse voice, scratchy throat, dry mouth, broken notes, gasping for breath... Let's face it, vocal fatigue sucks, but to mute any alarm bells that may be sounding already, you will be glad to know that it's not a medical condition. Yet, according to WebMD, vocal fatigue is related to about 80 conditions that should concern you.
This suggests that there might be a more serious underlying medical condition. For singers, vocal damage could spell disaster. However, in most cases its effects are temporary, easily addressed with enough rest. If you institute some remedial action and adopt healthier singing habits and you will likely be just fine!
What Causes Vocal Fatigue?
Vocal fatigue has several causes, but voice abuse, or overuse, is the most common. To get a better idea of how these manifest into actual vocal fatigue, it's important to destinguish between the two different types. There is muscle fatigue, and then there is mucosal fatigue. It's important to know which habits cause each one.
Muscle fatigue happens when the muscle structure that produces and supports voice production, i.e. neck and laryngeal muscles, tire from excessive use, poor technique, and bad posture. The consequence is that your vocal folds won’t work as efficiently as they would normally, and the voice produced won’t have a consistent quality.
Mucosal fatigue, like muscle fatigue, results largely from voice over use. In some cases, your voice will also take strain from overly high pitched singing. But, unlike muscle fatigue, mucosal, or tissue fatigue, manifests exclusively in the vocal folds themselves.
After an extended period of non-stop singing, vocal folds will tire and start to swell, which stiffens them and slows their vibration. After this happens you will lose control of your voice and start to experience broken and ghost notes, winded breaths, hoarseness, and other unwelcome effects.
Calluses and Nodules
Not that it necessarily protects your voice, but your vocal folds have a way of dealing with extended vocal fatigue. As they continue to swell and wear from the resulting friction, your vocal folds will toughen up by building calluses or nodules to better handle all the strain.
Nodules, like calluses for your guitar picking fingers, are lumps of stronger tissue that form when human skin and tissue is subjected to constant friction. This may toughen up those vocal folds but can spell the death of your natural voice as it changes the mechanical function of your vocal folds and, ultimately, the sound of your voice.
How To Increase Vocal Stamina And Minimize Vocal Fatigue
The only sustainable way to minimize, and even prevent, vocal fatigue is rest. Determine how much singing your voice can take before it starts to tire.
For that you will need to know your own voice, and not draw on the experience of others, because individual voices will have different stamina levels.
Yet, even before you consider rest as a remedy, there are habits that you can adopt to better care for your voice and ensure it never gets to tire.
Drink a lot of water
Optimal hydration ensures consistent lubrication of the vocal folds, which minimizes the risk of friction over long singing passages. It is a good habit to take intermittent water breaks during your performances and practice sessions. Besides the all-important rehydration, the break will give your vocal folds, and the entire muscle structure that supports your voice, time to rest and recover.
Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
Cigarette smoke and alcoholic spirits dehydrate your body and dry your throat and larynx. The effect is, without proper and consistent rehydration, your throat will become easily irritable and the vocal folds lose their lubrication. The resulting friction will cause swelling and compromise the proper function of the larynx.
Avoid iced drinks
A healthy drink is good for the body generally. And while a cold drink may feel more refreshing, it is not the most remedial relief for a tired larynx. The delicate soft tissue in the larynx can’t handle excessive cold. Cool, room temperature water is best. Even better would be a cup of warm tea infused with lemon and honey.
Avoid unnecessary vocal strain
Singing at very high pitch is one of the quickest ways to vocal fatigue. But so is high pitched talking. So you can, in fact, fatigue your voice without even doing any singing. The fatigue resulting from this will likely be the most vexing to fix as it may not be immediately apparent what the real cause is.
Such vocal fatigue can thus become a recurring problem that you may feel unable to fix. As a habit, decide to always speak in a moderately pitched voice. Unless you really have to shout at someone, which shouldn’t be too often!
Efficient Voice Use
However way you look at vocal fatigue, the only sure way to protect your voice is to know its limits and be able to rest it before you start to experience any signs of vocal fatigue.
It is possible you will find teachers and instructors who will advise on certain ways to build vocal stamina and improve your voice’s endurance. And while this may seem attractive, this approach is not the healthiest and is fraught with risks.
The only sustainable way to prevent or minimize vocal fatigue is to use your voice more efficiently. This entails training it for the particular genre of music you sing and determining how long it can perform in the genre before tiring.
Closely linked to this is the issue of proper singing technique.
Analyze, with brutal honesty, which areas of your technique may be causing you to over exert yourself and strain your voice.
Do you have particular notes, like the high pitched ones, you struggle to hit and have to put extra effort in? Separating such issues and addressing them is the most natural way of building vocal stamina. After this you will be able to sing for longer before you have to stop and rest.
Pull the breaks, and Rest
After a period of unchecked vocal fatigue it is not completely uncommon that you will damage and lose your voice. Needless to stress the implication, but this will be the end of your singing aspirations, or career as you know it. You thus must start to worry when the usual signs of fatigue start to feel like a permanent fixture and, more seriously, degenerate into actual pain.
At the first realization of this it is absolutely important that you, literally, shut your vocal folds and stop, not just singing, but talking. Give your vocal folds a couple of days to rest and recover their strength and proper function. In the meantime, drink lots of water, exercise, and maintain a healthy diet.
Your Voice is Your Instrument
As a singer your voice is your tool of trade. Without it you can’t perform. And unlike guitarists, pianists, violinists and others, you can’t replace or repair it to its original quality once in a while. You should be taking care of the organs that produce your voice as you would the rest of your body.
Your practice sessions, performances, and singing style should be carefully adapted to your voice’s limits. Add an appropriate diet, exercise regime, and other healthy habits and... your voice will serve you for as long as your singing ambition lasts
About the Author: Brian Collins
I am a classically trained singer who believes that every instrument requires maintenance - including the voice! I started my professional music studies at the age of 8 and competed in and won several local and state piano competitions. I graduated with honors and earned my Bachelor of Music Education in 2003, and since then I have studied with famous musicians and teachers around the world. I have also completed hundreds and hundreds of voice lessons, exploring various methods, and attended countless seminars on voice coaching for all ages.