Vocal Health

Cleaning the Instrument

Cleaning the Instrument: Guest Blogger David Houston shares his experiences as a voice actor with pointers on oral hygiene.

Voice artists are often reminded that their “voice is their instrument.” While we generally agree with this statement, it’s more accurate to say that your entire body is your instrument; the voice is really the product of operating the instrument properly, much like the twang that results from a well-struck guitar string.

With this in mind, the voice artist needs to have a greater awareness of his or her body than most people, particularly the mouth and throat. Taking care of this part of your instrument means being all too aware of things like saliva, mucous, and stray food particles — not the most pleasant topics, but important ones.

One problem I still encounter occasionally is the “clicking” noise that results from saliva on the tongue and other areas of the mouth. (Note: While it’s true that these sounds can often be removed in post-production, it’s an audio editing technique that’s often tricky and time-consuming; this can only hurt you in the long run, whether the post-edit is done by you, the client, or a third party.) I find that it’s better to eliminate the source of these noises before I deliver the first word, and increase my chances of a great first take.

One of the best ways to avoid the clicking is to keep yourself hydrated with lots of water; this may seem contradictory, but the salivary glands actually will be regulated, instead of over productive, if your body is telling them that its already well hydrated. Drinking plenty of water can be especially important for those living in dry climates who need to compensate for low humidity, and it is essential for those who rely on decongestants designed to clear up congestion and phlegm.

The problem with many cold remedies is that they also decrease the amount of mucous needed for normal voice production. (Again, this isn’t pretty, but it’s necessary.) The trick is to keep your palate (and the rest of your instrument) lubricated with the right amounts of those natural secretions; too much, and you’re clicking all over the place. Too little, and it becomes hard to even get the words out.

If you do find yourself with an upcoming session and an instrument full of congestion (from colds or allergies), gargling with a solution of Tabasco sauce and water is a good, quick remedy. Limit the hot sauce to about 10 drops in 8 ounces of water, and the ingredients which normally set mouths aflame will work to reduce tissue inflammation and clear the unwanted stuff. (For years, the preferred version was a mix of water and salt; however, salt dehydrates, and we already know we want to avoid this.)

Often, congestion of this type simply can’t be avoided; colds and allergies don’t respect the voice artist any more than the next person. One way that excess congestion can be avoided, however, is to stay away from dairy products before recording. Milk and cheese are particularly notorious for causing this problem, and it’s best to wait until after your session. (If you’re craving a cheeseburger, resist temptation and make it your delayed reward for a great session!)

An additional technique favored by some voice artists is to eat a slice or two of apple before a session; the acids in the fruit will reduce excess saliva. While this bit of advice seems to be at odds with another fundamental rule — namely, “don’t eat before a session” — this can be helped by swishing and gargling with water immediately after.

Underlying all this, of course, is just good old basic oral hygiene. Many VAs make it a point to carry a kit to a session, containing things like a toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash. Practicing this before a session is good not only for eliminating “mouth clicks” from saliva, but for getting rid of the aforementioned food particles.

Things like brushing and flossing may seem obvious, but many a voice talent has finished a session and regretted that they didn’t take care of their instrument beforehand; don’t be one of them. Here’s wishing you great first takes and good health all around.

Article submitted by David Houston.

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  • Avatar for David Houston
    David Houston
    September 5, 2006, 3:24 pm

    Thanks for posting this on Vox Daily. This article is far from comprehensive, and I should note that different methods work better for some voice artists than others…every mouth is different, after all. I hope to get others’ thoughts and feedback on this. Thanks again!
    ~ David

  • Avatar for Bob Souer
    Bob Souer
    September 5, 2006, 9:43 pm

    Thanks for sharing these valuable ideas with us. I must admit, the clicking noise thing is a problem for me now and then. I’m going to starting brushing and rinsing before sessions and see if that doesn’t make a difference.
    Be well,

  • Avatar for David Kersten
    David Kersten
    September 8, 2006, 8:52 pm

    Reading this comes with some relief.
    I thought I was the only voiceover on the planet with a clicking mouth!
    Nice to know I’m not alone.
    Tabasco sauce, heh?
    I’ll try it!

  • Avatar for Allen Scofield
    Allen Scofield
    September 8, 2006, 10:49 pm

    Very helpful info Dave! I’ll have to remember them. I, like Bob, have a clicking problem from time to time, especially on a drawn out narrative.

  • Avatar for Sanda Allyson
    Sanda Allyson
    September 9, 2006, 4:02 pm

    Great overview. I’m also a session singer. I, too, never eat before a session. No matter what it is, it has a negative affect on my work. Some additional major culprits for me are anything with sugar or sugar substitutes, like sugar free breath mints. I stick to warm water, sometimes with a tiny bit of fresh lemon. And, fyi, Cayenne/Red Pepper is a natural expectorant that you can add (in small amounts!!) to hot water as a Cayenne Pepper Tea and sip if you have congestion. It works great. Thanks for the article!

  • Avatar for Paul
    September 10, 2006, 11:00 am

    Great tips, however, I don’t know if I want to walk into a session with a grumbling stomach! lol.
    I’ve used the Tabasco trick successfully for congestion for colds but have not really tried it for a voice session.
    Thanks for the tip.

  • Avatar for Claire Michel
    Claire Michel
    September 12, 2006, 8:13 pm

    Not just dairy…I’ve found problems with nuts, carbonated beverages, chocolate, and coffee. NOT eating makes my stomach growl so loud that a good mic can pick it up! Oasis Moisturizing Mouthwash (by Sensodyne) for dry mouth can help, and I’ve had success with cinnamon Altoids.

  • Avatar for Lora Cain
    Lora Cain
    January 19, 2007, 11:39 am

    Actually a little tiny piece of cheese can be helpful for excess saliva and mouth noise for a lot of folks but here’s the info that will change your life.
    You know that phlegmy coating you get on your vocal cords that you have to clear your throat to get rid of?
    Well don’t do it. It’s literally like taking a hammer to your cords. That tearing, growling sound you make is actually damaging your voice.
    Instead, head to the drugstore or a website and get a bottle of Alkalol.
    It’s a mucus solvent which sounds disgusting but will be the miracle you’ve been looking for your entire life. It’s dirt cheap and you can dilute it with a little warm water. You can even use it for your sinuses.
    Most drug stores carry it but only behind the counter so you have to ask the pharmacist for it or to order it (lack of shelf space not because of the ingredients).
    I’ve been using Alkalol for 10 years and am still amazed how few people who use their voice for a living know about it.

  • Avatar for Robin Rowan
    Robin Rowan
    January 20, 2007, 11:33 am

    After my husband had tonsil cancer (yep, I’d never heard of it before, either), he lost his salivary glands and found that drinking sweet tea (something we crave here in the South) was the perfect liquid to ward off his perpetual dry mouth.
    By the way, he’s fine now–the dry mouth is one of the lasting aspects of radiation, though.
    Since I come from a radio background, I don’t project and have to be very close to the mike, which exacerbates mouth noises.
    Having a glass of sweet tea (sweetened with CORN SYRUP, not Aspartame or regular sugar), provides that perfect “slickery” palate–moisture without mouth sounds.

  • Avatar for Matthew Hinman
    Matthew Hinman
    February 2, 2007, 9:08 am

    So, is that Alkalol sprayed, gargled, or what?

  • Avatar for joe
    March 29, 2009, 4:58 am

    I am amazed how many different technique for vocal cords well being exist.It appears that there is no one safe formula and each of us will have more less his own unique way of dealing with it.I gues I must be an odd case for I must have a cup of coffe in the morning to get my vocals in bright sounding order .If I neglect that ritual my singing sounds flat and laboursome.One cup puts everything into its place .Now here is the difficult part.:as we know we -who sing opera and probably others as well do not hear ourselves correctly and what we think is fine and dandy it might be actually the oposite of the reality.Therefore it is a good idea before taking “Cleansing steps to ask the second party for an opinion,for that one cup of coffee could be possibly a very bad thing for someone elsees vocals.And lastly I totally agree with the CAYENNE pepper it is an excellent remedy not only for my high “G”flat but also for host of other joys of life and do not be afraid of quantities of it…Good luck to all of you. eg.the salt remedy is trully bad idea it nearly ruined my vocals…

  • Avatar for Elie Hirschman
    Elie Hirschman
    May 15, 2009, 3:01 pm

    I was taught to bite into an apple (get a little squirt of juice), not necessarily eat or swallow the apple.
    But I usually go the lemon/water route.

  • Avatar for Therisa Bennett
    Therisa Bennett
    September 27, 2009, 7:09 pm

    I am struggling with dry mouth. I just bought some Thatchers dry mouth spray…it doesn’t work for more than 30 seconds, and its kinda like swallowing slobber. I have come to the conclusion that whitening toothpaste is messing up the ph balance in my mouth and also my head. Seems the more I concentrate on the tacky noise, the worse it gets. I am changing toothpaste and hoping that will help my psyche!

  • Avatar for Dentists Fort Lauderdale
    Dentists Fort Lauderdale
    November 23, 2009, 3:45 am

    I enjoyed reading this post. very informative indeed. we should pay attention in taking care of our oral health in order to prevent serious gum diseases specially if you’re using it by means of living. Daily brushing and flossing and regular professional cleanings can significantly help to maintain a proper oral health and reduce your risk of developing potentially serious condition.