10 Professional Singers on How to Protect Your Voice

Mavis Staples. Photo by Myriam Santos.
Amythyst Kiah. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.
Amy Lee. Photo used with permission from the artist.


Amythyst Kiah is a singer who, whenever possible, follows a relatively strict regime when it comes to looking after her voice.

"I stay hydrated, sleep at least seven hours a night, restrict caffeine and alcohol, exercise up to five times a week, and eat a balanced diet," she says. "This has all proven to be challenging when I'm touring, and there are some days I totally miss the mark, but when I do, it makes a huge difference. Your vocal cords are muscles, your lungs give you breathing capacity, and if I am not as consistent as possible then my voice becomes inconsistent."

Her conclusion is a simple and, for her, an effective one. "I get what I put in."

Like any musical instrument, the singing voice is worth looking after. And as with any musicians, some singers take that idea more seriously than others. The big difference, of course, is that vocalists have their instrument permanently onboard. That means it's more likely that what they do with their bodies in general can affect their instrument. The singing voice is not an instrument you can put in a case and forget about for a while.

I asked a group of 10 professional singers, including Amythyst, about the strategies they use to care for their voice, and also for advice that might help the rest of us maintain good vocal health. Our group is a wide-ranging bunch, so it's no surprise that they've come up with a varied assortment of stories about that most original of musical instruments, the good old vox humana.

Our Native Daughters - "Black Myself"

CALM

It's important for singers to sleep well and to get vocal rest. In that sense, looking after your voice can be as much about what you don't do as what you do. Alicia Olatuja is an American jazz singer who was a featured soloist at President Obama's inauguration, and her latest album is Intuition: Songs From The Minds Of Women. She says that when we think about caring for our singing voice, it's useful to consider how we care for other valuable assets. "For me personally, I make sure I give my voice rest so it can recover after a series of performances."

Rest might be a luxury on the road, but it's important to get some where you can. "I think good rest is probably the best thing you can do for your voice," Eilen Jewell suggests. Eilen is an American vocalist and singer-songwriter, her records including a tribute to Loretta Lynn (Butcher Holler, 2010) and, most recently, Gypsy. "But on tour, stress is easy to come by, and rest is very scarce. And, of course, nowadays my voice is getting plenty of rest—sadly." As with everyone inside our band of intrepid vocalists and beyond, that statement is darkened for now by the depressing shadow of Covid that limits so many musical opportunities.

Aside from that most pressing issue of the moment, there is wide agreement on maintaining a rest program when and if you're on the road.

"But also, when singing, try not to force anything," Karrin Allyson says. Karrin is an American jazz vocalist, five times Grammy nominated, and her latest album is Shoulder to Shoulder: Centennial Tribute to Women's Suffrage. "But that, too, can be hard to do with the unforeseen circumstances and the fatigue which we face all the time on the road. We can make different vocal, musical choices when we need to."

Eddi Reader and Kandace Springs also find the combination of no rest and pushing too hard can be bad. Eddi is a Scottish singer who sang backup with Eurythmics, had hits with Fairground Attraction, and continues her solo career, releasing Cavalier in 2018. Kandace is an American jazz and soul singer, and on The Women Who Raised Me (2020) she covers favorite songs made famous by everyone from Dusty Springfield to Lauryn Hill.

"One of the worst things you can do to your voice," Eddi says, "is to try to push through when you have no energy, or you've had too little sleep, or both." Kandace: "The worst thing for me, also, is pushing too hard. I have a delicate voice, and I can blow it out if I come out too strong."

Mavis Staples is an American vocalist who performed with her family in The Staple Singers, and she first appeared solo on album in 1969, more recently releasing We Get By (2019). "I've been told by a few of my peers—Prince and Roberta Flack come to mind—to protect my voice, to keep my tone down, to keep quiet when I'm not on stage. My father, Pops Staples, always insisted we get some rest."

Amy Lee is the vocalist, songwriter, and pianist of Evanescence, whose latest single, "Better Without You," is out March 5 [which you can pre-save here]. She too knows the power of simply keeping quiet. She says, "Excessive talking is one of the worst things for your voice! Text or play a video game instead if you’ve got a performance coming up."

When Alicia feels her voice is fatigued, resting it is imperative, and support and understanding from those around her takes on a new importance. "When I'm in strict vocal-rest mode, others have been very helpful in allowing me to use notes to respond to them, as opposed to answering them verbally. Also, they lend their understanding if I choose to go straight to bed after a show instead of hanging out."

Eleftheria Arvanitaki is a Greek singer who combines traditional and modern influences, most recently on Ta Megala Taxidia (The Great Journeys). She is more specific in her advice. "Sleeping well and for at least eight hours regularly will allow for the voice to really rest," she reckons. "Get enough deep sleep," Eddi agrees.

Eddi Reader - "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose"

PREPARATION

"I try and warm up before each gig," Kandace says, "and I do that with a lot of singing." Amythyst Kiah, meanwhile, considers vocal exercises in largely theoretical terms. "I know people do vocal warm-ups, but I must admit that I never have—and it may come back to haunt me as I get older. But I'm managing to get away with it for now!" Amythyst is an American singer and songwriter whose latest single, "Black Myself," (2019) comes from the all-women-of-color group Our Native Daughters.

Eddi says that warming-up can be whatever you can grab. "A quick 10 minutes before a performance, say. And if you're lazy about that, as I am, even five minutes can get you to a place you need to be in. Ideally, I like a good 50-minute warm-up the day before and on the day of performance. The less you use your voice, the more warm-up you'll need."

AILMENTS

Kandace once had to do a European tour while suffering with flu. Not a great combination, as you might imagine. "It would have been nice to postpone the gigs, but I couldn't," she says. "So I rested every moment I could and didn't speak at all. I just really babied myself. And, amazingly, every night the junk would just clear out of my throat after a couple of songs, and I made it through. But I wouldn't want to go through that again."

Karrin, too, knows all about the strain of singing while under the weather. "There've been a few times when I've had a terrible cold and cough when I've had to sing. No fun! Last year in February, for my annual week at Birdland in New York City, just before covid, I was really sick. I felt lucky our show that week was Allyson Sings Allison—that's Mose Allison. Since his material is mostly blues, I could manage it. I didn't have to sustain much if I couldn't. However, I was on antibiotics and even a steroid for that week, which is unusual. But I got through it."

Alicia remembers being up all night with postnasal drip when she was recording her most recent album. A symptom of postnasal drip is the feeling that you constantly need to clear your throat. "It made me want to cough viciously—but coughing leads to swelling of the vocal cords, and I knew I needed my voice to be in good shape for the record. So I actually did a slow and controlled breathing exercise whenever I felt the need to cough until the sensation to cough passed. It was difficult, and I was sleep-deprived, but my voice was still able to have rest."

In 2014, shortly before her Carnegie Hall concert in New York, Eleftheria caught the H1N1 flu virus and soon was suffering a very high temperature. "I had to be hospitalized only a week prior to the concert and the trip from Greece to the USA. The pressure I felt was extreme. I took cortisone, but the problem was still there because I was also suffering from a terrible and unstoppable dry cough."

When she arrived, she was examined by a renowned voice specialist. "The doctor gave me a special treatment that allowed me to do the performance at Carnegie Hall—but due to the whole boost of treatments I had to do in order for the concert to take place, a lot of voice problems emerged shortly after this performance and after I returned to Greece."

Back home, Eleftheria began suffering regularly from laryngitis—she says it felt like she was married to laryngitis for about 18 months. "It was at that time that I met my amazing voice doctor in Athens, who has been my doctor ever since, and he gave me a recovery treatment that I followed reverently. Along with my decision to stop performing for a year, it helped me overcome the voice problems and return to live performances again."

TOXINS

Eilen points a wary finger at what she calls some of the fun things. "Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine—they all seem to be the worst for your voice. Therein lies the rub. You need your voice in order to tour, but touring wrecks your voice. It's a rough reality."

Everyone knows that smoking is a no-no—Eleftheria speaks for many when she says: "Of course, smoking and drinking alcohol is very much not to be recommended"—but it's worth underlining its particular dangers for singers. "One of the worst things you can do to your instrument as a singer is smoking cigarettes," Alicia says. "The damage is so quick, and the addictive properties of cigarettes make it more challenging to curb smoking behavior."

But let's try to keep positive here. Skye Edwards is a British singer best known for her work with trip-hop pioneers Morcheeba as well as her own solo work as Skye (including In A Low Light, 2015). Morcheeba's new album, Blackest Blue, is due in May. "The best thing for my voice is actually singing," Skye says. "My voice becomes better and 'warmed up' the more I sing. I love it when we have three or four shows in a row."

She reiterates the caution about alcohol. "Not drinking too much booze is important—if I'm tipsy, I can't pitch as well. But wearing in-ear monitors has been really helpful. I can hear my voice clearly over the loud band. I didn't like them at first, as I felt isolated from the audiences, but now we have ambient mics to pick up the crowd."


Popular In-Ear Monitors

TUTORIAL

Eddi has always enjoyed singing, and she grew to be acutely aware of when her voice felt rough, when it felt not warmed-up. "I look out for those signs, and other people can help by pointing out what exercises are good for the vocal cords. I read books about it as a young adult, and in my mid-20s I tried my best to get a good coach."

Eleftheria, too, recognized early in her career that she needed guidance beyond what she knew instinctively. "About a year after I started singing professionally, I started taking voice coaching lessons, and I have not taken a break ever since. This is the most basic and most important thing that a singer needs to do. A voice coach is absolutely necessary, because he or she will listen to your voice in a different way than you listen to your own voice. They will be able to detect vocal issues and instruct you about how to work on them."

Alicia and Skye have both been involved in teaching. "Fortunately," Alicia says, "I've never had a major vocal-health problem to date. I am all about preventative care for my voice, so I never have to go through that. But I do have an interactive online program, Vocal Breakthrough Academy, and I've helped several of my voice students overcome that experience and prevent recurring injuries, through proper vocal technique and also through homing in on the mind-and-body connection necessary to maintain healthy singing."

When Skye first began singing live with Morcheeba, she realized her voice was very quiet. "The band had to play softly, and the audience weren't happy, always telling us to turn it up! I lived in east London at the time and found a singing teacher in the area, Roger Kain. I said to him, 'I want to sound like me, but louder,' and I saw him once a week for a number of years. When he joined the Brighton Institute of Modern Music, he asked me to be the female voice for his teaching package, The Complete Vocal Workout. It improved my range, I learned how to sing loud using my diaphragm, and I could reach high notes without hurting my throat or damaging my voice."

Morcheeba - "Sounds of Blue"

CORDS

Mavis says her dad, Pops Staples, noticed on stage one night in 1995 that she couldn't make her high notes. "He set me up with an ear-nose-and-throat doc. I had polyps and had them removed," she says. Polyps are small, soft growths on a vocal cord. "First, the doc drew me a picture and showed how he was going to cut my vocal cords. I was scared to death! But I calmed down, and the doc was the best of the best. I couldn't talk for 30 days, so I'd write notes to my sister Yvonne. Yvonne was staying at my place, and I had a bell to call her when I needed something from the other side of the home. Had to cancel some gigs, but I needed to heal."

Eddi suffered a similar problem when in her early 20s, at first noticing that her (untrained) voice seemed to be tiring more than normal. "My partying was catching up with me," she concluded. "At the time, I had to have a long-overdue ear operation, which included having a tube down my throat. The anesthetist noticed I was marked down as a professional singer, so they warned me that the tube would exacerbate what they noticed was developing on my vocal cords, namely the beginnings of nodules."

Like polyps, nodules are growths on the vocal cords, but usually they occur in pairs and are harder, almost callus-like. Eddi describes them as becoming like corns on the vocal cords. "And they can only be removed surgically. So I cancelled the ear operation and went to see a vocal speech therapist at St Thomas's Hospital in London. For a few months, the therapist guided me with a machine, which would show a pure line on its screen when I used my speaking voice well. I had two small microphones attached to my neck, and as I made sounds I could see when I made the line jagged or straight. For a few months, I did this at the hospital, and I managed to eliminate the signs of developing nodules on my vocal cords. Thank god for the NHS!" she concludes, saluting Britain's public health service.

HEARSAY

Skye cautions against the combination of party talk and party drink. "The worst thing for my voice is at an after-show party," she says, "when I've had a few drinks and I'm talking a lot over loud music. That's when I do the most damage to my voice."

Add together two more party elements—smoking and chatting—and the result is another potentially dangerous combination. Amythyst: "It's obvious that smoking is bad for your vocals and lungs, but an overlooked one is talking a lot before and after a gig. Traveling and keeping a wellness routine is challenging enough, but add talking on to that, and you can make your voice very tired. I do tend to be pretty chatty, so that is a challenge for me at times," she adds with a laugh. "I generally like to keep to myself as much as possible on show days, so I don't give in to temptation."

Like Amythyst, Amy says she'd be better without the post-show partying. "Worst thing you can do: Hang out at a party where you have to talk loud over the music. Especially if there’s cigarette smoke," she says. "It sucks because after the show I always want to hang out with everybody so bad—and I’ll admit it, I usually do! But don’t do it for too long. And mainly don’t shout."

Evanesence - "Better Without You"

When Skye began work on a solo album, at first she worked with her husband and two friends. "We all got on so well and would be cracking jokes and laughing all of the time. It was a lot of fun, but the laughing would cause phlegm to build up in the back of my throat. I had incredibly good times in the studio, but I wasn't much use when it came to recording vocals. So we had to make a conscious effort not to fool around and laugh too much."

Skye found herself suffering from silent reflux a few years ago. "I can only describe it as making my voice sound less flute and more clarinet. I changed my diet and was very strict, cutting out a number of different foods—and the diet was more depressing than the reflux. So I had to find a balance. Now, I'm less strict with the food and accept the slight changes in my voice."


Popular Vocal Mics

DISAPPEARANCE

Eilen reckons she might just be an example of what not to do. "I'm ashamed to admit I do nothing to look after my voice until I lose it," she says. "Then I make desperate attempts to get it back, mostly in vain. It disappears unexpectedly, then returns when it wants to, like a capricious little sprite."

She recalls three tours in her 13 years on the road when she lost her voice. "Each time it was gone for about five miserable days," Eilen says. "I tried whiskey, acupuncture, water, hardly speaking at all, gargling with vinegar, chomping vitamin C, drinking mint tea with lots of honey, and despairing. There was no silver bullet, I discovered. Time healed it, and I just tried to do my best at each show with what voice I still had. Singing songs that are lower in my register was helpful, for some reason. The setlist had to be altered quite a bit. But my takeaway from all three experiences was that prevention is the best cure. Now I just wish I'll remember that when the time comes. Maybe doing this interview will help."

HYDRATION

The key factors for Karrin when it comes to keeping her voice in good order are exercise and generally keeping active. "I love walking, or using a treadmill when that's not possible," she reports, "and I keep up with my Pilates and yoga." An even easier route to vocal health is through the mouth. "I drink lots of water, and also hot tea. That doesn't mean I'm always pristine about this, but I do try."

Eddi is another fan of hydration. "Lubricate!" she says. "Drinking water often is good." Tea, water, and honey are high on the list. Kandace: "The best things are tea with honey—and potato chips! I know that sounds funny, but ask around and you'll hear that from a lot of people." Mavis: "I keep my throat hydrated with honey and room-temperature water. Everything I drink is room temperature or warmer. I love my peppermint tea with a little ginger and a tiny bit of lemon." She emphasizes the "tiny bit," warning against adding too much lemon juice. "That just closes my pipes up," she explains.

In addition to water or herbal tea, Amy has what she calls "a secret weapon": "It’s called Ponaris. It’s a nasal oil and you can find it at health and vitamin stores. Made for astronauts! Take a drop or two when you lay down to sleep, and it coats your nose and throat and stops you from waking up with that dying of thirst, craggy, dry throat in the morning."

Mavis Staples - "No Time For Cryin'"

OPTIMISM

Our vocal team does not disappoint when it comes to overcoming problems. "I was recording a demo with my backing band last year," Amythyst recalls, "in between touring, and I was exhausted—running on caffeine, not drinking enough water, not really even able to focus because I was running myself ragged. So prior to the next time I went into the studio to record my album, I started monitoring what I was eating, my hydration, and making time to sleep and to do some physical activity. From my experience, there isn't a shortcut to having good vocals in the studio. I have to already be taking care of myself before I go in."

Amythyst offers a tip she got from a fellow vocalist. "Steam from hot water is incredibly helpful for opening up your sinuses if you're having congestion issues," she explains. "I actually ended up buying a little steamer made just for that—you put a mask attachment over your face and inhale the steam."

Singing can be as much about listening as it is about projecting. "The best thing you can do as a vocalist is to listen to what your body and your voice are telling you," Alicia advises, "in regard to how your throat feels when you're singing, and to respond accordingly. So, if you feel your voice is straining, tight, even painful, stop whatever you're doing and adjust your choices. Also, reach out for an excellent vocal coach to correct any habits that are not serving you vocally."

Kandace concludes with some apparently simple but evidently effective advice for gauging and maintaining your own personal vocal health. "What I would tell other singers is that you know your voice better than anybody else," she says. "So be sure to listen to what it's telling you."


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Legendary Guitars: An Illustrated Guide. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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