When I started to learn how to sing, I didn’t know how to use my voice. It would get tired and even hoarse after one song.
Also, I would get hoarse while talking for long stretches, talking loud in a pub or at a rock concert, or yelling at my boyfriend (kidding, I had no boyfriend and I don’t usually yell – I just needed a third example). It was the basic vocal fatigue that many people experience. It was only when I started to take singing lessons that I realized I had been using my voice in the wrong way.Turns out there were a few bad habits I had – and many people have.
1st bad habit that causes a hoarse voice: not closing the vocal cords
Like many people, I was trying to not make an effort, by speaking with a ‘calm voice’. This breathy, pretty, intimate voice was not doing the intended job.
If you allow your vocal cords to close only partially, thus creating an airy sound or whispering, a lot of air and energy gets wasted.
The vocal cords get hit by so much air they dry out quickly. Know the feeling of your throat being dry? Not the best feeling, if you ask me. And pretty difficult to talk or sing this way.
The sound you make is at its best when the cords come together and touch fully. Then you can be properly heard. They should be either closed or open, nothing in between. Going halfway will not save energy, rather make you more tired.If you let a doctor look at the larynx (the voice box) and vocal cords of people with a hoarse voice, you’ll see there is a gap between vocal cords at some point. They don’t close properly and this creates a raspy, hoarse voice.
How to close the vocal cords
There are a few ways to close the vocal cords. Once you’ve closed them, preserve that feeling as you start to speak.
1. Breathe in, stop the air in an active way.
This creates a little noise that is created by closed vocal cords. I’ll show you in this video.
2. Make a squeaky noise
Another way would be to make a squeaky noise – think that you are holding an inflated balloon at the opening and letting out the tiniest amount of air. Sometimes people feel it as an ugly voice. It’s the opposite of the stereotype beautiful voice.
Here is someone who does that magnificently, and from whom we can all learn an important lesson: the character Janice from Friends.
I’m not saying you should talk exactly like Janice. It’s not about exactly imitating an annoying voice. But try if you can find that quality in your voice. Realize that you are closing your vocal cords properly and apply it.
3. Using the glottal stop
The glottal stop is a consonant which is produced by a complete closure of the vocal cords, followed by an audible release of air.
We produce glottal stops all the time in the English language. For example in the word “I”. This starts with a slight “explosion” of air. So that’s different from the flow of air as produced with the letter H.
You can practice the glottal stop by repeating a few times the sound eee – eee – eee. When you use the glottal stop, by definition you are closing the vocal cords.
2nd bad habit causing hoarseness: bad posture
Another thing that troubled me and my voice for many years was my posture. It was a big issue for me: my head was too forward, my shoulders held up too high and my jaw was almost always tight.
It also hurts, a lot. So many people have regular neck and shoulder pain. For me it reached a point where I was usually not aware of the pain anymore, having gotten used to it. But once in a while it would emerge and I would suffer quite a bit.
If you experience even a part of what I am describing here, you should know that neck and shoulder tension put pressure on the trachea (the airway) and significantly limit your control over your voice. It’s very difficult to be vocally effective that way. A lot of air is wasted by a ‘cracked organ pipe’.
How to fix a bad posture?
After the years of learning and practicing different body awareness methods – mainly the two mentioned below – I have collected a tool kit of knowledge that I can consult if I find that there is something not quite right with my voice.
1. Do yoga
The first thing to do is yoga, a very practical way to do the right things, settle in the right habits.
2. Go to an Alexander Technique practitioner
This is more theoretical: you learn intellectually how your posture should be. It will help you get rid of harmful tension in your body in the long run.
Check out my article with video of an Alexander lesson I take.
Friedrich Alexander (see photo) stated that our instincts and feelings about the use of our body are inaccurate, and often lead us in the opposite direction of where we want to go.
So get a teacher, or at the very least a mirror!
No time to go to lesson? You can also go on Youtube and find instructors.
But be careful: if you have a baggage of years of being not physically aware of your posture, you can’t trust your own judgment all that much. So you need an expert to guide you, at least in the beginning, and work with a mirror as much as possible.
With the above in mind, let me give you a short checklist.
Checklist: body posture before speaking or singing
- Make sure the neck is straight, so the trachea (airway) is not curved.
The underlying principle of all this technique is that your airway stays free. Then your larynx – voice box – is free, and you’ll have more control over the air passing the vocal cords.