Protecting Your Vocal Health – Tips from a Voice Coach
As a seasoned voice actor, you need to make sure that you are protecting your voice at all times. This means that you have to do the right kinds of vocal warm ups in order to protect your vocal health and ensure the longevity of your voice acting career, as well as maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Voice Actor and Coach, Susan Berkley, has been in the industry for over 30 years and is the author of the book Speak to Influence: How to Unlock the Hidden Power of Your Voice. She shares the techniques, health tips and vocal warm ups that you should build into your everyday work life, to ensure that you are treating your voice in the best possible way while still being productive and successful.
Understanding Vocal Health
Here are the 5 main tips and aspects of your vocal health that Susan recommends you should focus on in order to take your vocal health seriously:
- Work Hours vs. Downtime
- Overall Health
- Vocal Placement
- Vocal Warm Ups
Vocal health is something that needs to be tailored on an individual by individual basis.
“People need to understand their own instrument – they need to be warmed up and they need to understand how to speak in a healthy manner for 50 minutes at a time, and not everybody has that ability. But I take this very seriously,” says Susan.
Vocal Health Tip #1: Eat a Balanced Diet
Susan acknowledges that diet is going to vary from individual to individual but when you get to the professional level, voice actors need to start taking vocal health seriously. When you have to do 4 hours of voice over work each day, you have to understand that your voice is a part of your body – and to treat it in a healthy way.
“Some people think ‘Oh I talk all the time, I’ll be fine’ but that’s not how it works,’ explains Susan. “You’re like an athlete in the sense that you’ve got to be ready for the long haul”
So what are somethings you can do to protect your instrument?
Foods to Avoid Before Recording Your Voice
First off, watch what you put into your body.
Top 3 foods to avoid before your recording session:
- Fried foods
- Dairy products
Dairy and fried food tend to produce more phlegm, which is obviously not good for recording. And although it may be extremely tempting to reach for the caffeine, Susan recommends not having caffeine right before a session. “Tea and coffee are very drying to the voice. You certainly should not be drinking these things during a session. Give some time before speaking and when you have your caffeine,” says Susan.
Pro Tip: Susan puts matcha in smoothies that she drinks in the morning so that she gets the benefit of tea and caffeine, without having it actually pass over your throat.
Foods that Strengthen Your Voice
What types of foods should you be eating in a day to maintain your optimal vocal strength?
In order to keep her voice in top shape, Susan tries to maintain a plant-based diet as much as possible in order to keep her voice in top shape.
“If it’s in the morning you might have oatmeal, but don’t put cream on it. [Instead], you can have some protein or some nuts and fruit. If it’s around lunch you eat a lean piece of meat or tofu on a salad and vegetables, just around recording and there will be less phlegm and it will tend to keep your voice clearer,” advises Susan. “And again everybody’s different. You have to address [these aspects of your health] to be not just a successful voice talent but a successful business owner. You must maintain your health.”
It also goes without saying that you should also be paying attention to the amount of water you are consuming in a day – staying hydrated is extremely important in protecting your voice. When Susan wakes up in the morning the first thing she does is drink a big glass of lemon water.
Vocal Health Tip #2 – Work Less Hours a Day
Once you have your diet sorted out, the next thing to consider is how long you should actually be working in one day.
A common occurrence that Susan has run into in her career is that voice actors – whether they are new or seasoned talent – don’t rest their voices enough. It can be tempting to work many hours a day, especially when working from your home recording studio, however, downtime and rest is equally as important as working hard.
“If you don’t understand what you limits are and how to protect your voice health, you can do a lot of damage, says Susan. “The rule of thumb is [work for a total of] 4 hours each day, with a regular break. Spend 50 minutes ‘on’ and then take 10 minutes off, plus a lunch break in the middle. So you’re really not going strong for more than 50 minutes at a time, but you’re taking a lengthy break in between those two hour blocks of time,” she recommends.
Vocal Health Tip #3 – Do Your Vocal Warm Ups!
Vocal warm ups are an important part in maintaining your productivity throughout the day.
“Think about your vocal warm ups, those are muscles just like the rest of your body,” says Susan.
Here is an audio clip of some of Susan’s favorite vocal warm ups to get your day off to a great start:
Along with the exercises above, there are other exercises you can do to warm up your voice before stepping in front of the microphone.
Susan recommends using the time in the shower to start your warm ups. The warm, moist air from the shower is the perfect time to start lip flutters.
“Lip fluttering is a strengthening exercise for the vocal folds – speech pathologists use it, it helps for breath support as well,” Susan advises.
Fricatives are consonants that are formed by impeding the flow of air so that a friction sound is produced. Common consonants are p’s, b’s and t’s. You can learn more about how to produce fricatives from vocal coaches or from videos online.
No matter the vocal warm ups you use, lip flutters, fricatives or others, they are a critical way to start your voice acting day. If you are not properly warming up your vocal folds each day, you can do serious damage to your voice and potentially ruin your voice acting career.
“I met a gentleman who does a lot of teaching and speaking. He didn’t pay attention to this and he did permanent damage to his vocal folds. That would be a tragedy for any of us as voice talent, so don’t mess around. If you’re hoarse, go to a specialist. That’s what they’re there for and they’re used to working with voice talent and singers and performers like us,” Susan cautions.
Susan recalls a time about a year ago when she realized her voice was becoming a bit hoarse. “This is something a normal person wouldn’t even pay attention to, but for me, because it’s my instrument, it’s my livelihood – I instantly went to the ENT (ear, nose, throat doctor) and had my voice scoped,” Susan says.
Susan ended up learning that she had acid reflux. The cause? She was not breathing properly, which came as a shock to her. “I realized I’d gotten into a bad habit of not breathing in between thoughts in normal conversation, and that was putting undue strain on my voice,” she says.
Susan recovered from acid reflux by changing her diet to exclude certain foods that were just too acidic for her and decided to consume a mostly plant-based diet. She was also instructed to do certain exercises by her doctor to get her back on track.
The main takeaway: If you are experiencing any differences in your voice, seek out the help of a specialist right away.
Vocal Health Tip #4 – Be Aware of Your Vocal Placement
Being aware of how you are speaking can really help to reduce the amount of strain on your voice. The good news about being a voice actor is you are not a public speaker – for the most part you are not projecting your voice – you are up close to the microphone so you don’t have to worry about too much vocal strain. But on the other hand, you also have to be aware of whispering too much or being too breathy, which could also cause a vocal strain.
Susan instructs on the proper way to speak – and it has to do with the vocal mask, also known as the facial mask.
The facial mask area is the area that stretches between the sinuses, throat and larynx. It’s a forward placement of the voice and the way you do that is by humming and speaking at the same time. For more voice placement tips, check out the best vocal warm ups.
Vocal Health Tip #5 – Take Care of Your Whole Body
Working out your body is equally as important as taking care of and warming up your voice.
“Everybody, first of all, should be working out. Even if it’s just a walk everyday – that’s fine – but everyone should be getting physical activity first thing in the morning for at least 20-30 minutes a day,” says Susan.
You can also use your downtime during the day to get in some exercise. However, it’s starting your day on the right foot that sets you up for success and productivity throughout your whole day.
Susan is a creative professional who doesn’t need to take too much downtime during the day, and the reason is because she starts her day on the right foot. It’s starting your day correctly that sets you up for success and productivity throughout your whole day – and what starting your day properly means to you is something that you can learn from trial and error.
“I’m starting the day in good physical and mental health. I’m getting behind the mic in good shape and I’m mindful of my posture and how my script is hanging in the booth so that I’m not straining,” says Susan. “I stop when I’m tired and I keep myself hydrated. So in my downtime I’m marketing. I don’t need long periods of relaxation – I think work is energizing,” says Susan.
Taking care of your whole body also means starting your day at a time that is suitable for you. If you are a night person, then save any strenuous work for a time of day when you are most energized – there is no ‘right’ time of day for your voice – it’s whatever time you feel most energized. Take it from Susan, an early bird.
“I’m a morning person, so if I were speaking near the end of the day and I’ve left all my recordings until 10 o’clock at night, I would be at my physical weakest and also exhausted, so it’s up to the person,” she says.
Other Do’s and Don’ts From Susan
- Do take plenty of breaks.
- Don’t take aspirin before a screaming session. If you are voicing a video game character, for example, where your might be screaming or grunting for longer periods of time, avoid aspirin as it will thin your blood and make you more susceptible to damaging your vocal folds.
- Do work with a vocal coach if you are going to be trying out a new gig or new voice strategy (screaming, yelling, learning a dialect, etc). Susan had a friend who hired a singing coach who is used to working with rock singers and he learned how to yell and scream and still protect his voice.
Ultimately, every person is different. At first it may take you a bit of time to discover the habits and routines that work best for you and your lifestyle. Once you find those things that work best for you, be sure to stick to the routine and listen to your body.
About Susan Berkley
The Great Voice Company was founded in 1987 by Susan Berkley, a voice talent, former radio personality and author of “Speak To Influence: How To Unlock The Hidden Power Of Your Voice”. Susan is a former cast member on the Howard Stern Show and left radio to pursue her voice over career and start her own business. She quickly became a sought after voice talent, becoming the signature voice of AT&T and the branded telephone voice of Citibank.