Your voice can withstand a certain amount of use without vocal fatigue, depending on the intensity of use and your level of vocal fitness. By singing too much, too loudly, or out of range, your vocal mechanism will begin to fatigue and your body will try and compensate.
by Wendy DeLeo LeBorgne, Ph.D. CCC-SLP
Symptoms of vocal fatigue may include: hoarseness; change in laryngeal sensation (tightness, neck muscles aching); increased vocal effort to produce sound; loss of dynamic control (generally soft becomes more difficult); and vocal onsets become discoordinated. You may begin to experience physical compensation (jaw tightness, tongue tightness).
Over time, continuing to sing on a vocally fatigued mechanism may result in physical and vocal changes (and possible injury) that will alter the way that you perform as a singer.
How to minimize vocal fatigue?
There are several ways to minimize vocal fatigue. We turn to the athletic model of training to serve as an example:
1. Ensure adequate nutrition and hydration.
It takes approximately two hours for the liquids that you drink to become systemic (with the exception of alcohol and caffeine). Therefore, it is imperative singers begin drinking non-caffeinated, non-carbonated fluids several hours before and consistently throughout their singing day. The vocal folds require appropriate lubrication to vibrate efficiently. Vocal folds lacking appropriate lubrication result in a system at increased risk for injury because of increased heat and friction (imagine an engine that doesn’t have enough oil, gears heat up and don’t work well).
2. Practice and train in a cost-efficient manner.
Training for a marathon takes place over a period of several months, with gradual increase in pace and stamina. There are also built-in periods of rest.
Think about what we often do as performers. We wait until the last minute to learn new music, we rehearse for several hours at a time “full out,” and the most intensive week vocally is often tech week (and then everyone is vocally exhausted for the show).
Consider training smarter. Train like an athlete and vary the intensity of your vocal workouts. Pace your training schedule as well as during your practice sessions. For example, Weeks 1 to 3 can be vocal building weeks and Week 4 a recovery week. Then, Weeks 5 to 7 are increased vocal building, with Week 8 a recovery week.
Within your weekly practice sessions, balance your vocally intensive practice days with an easy vocal day the following day. Take a day of vocal rest each week for adequate recovery.
After practice sessions, be sure to cooldown your body, voice, and mind to return to “neutral.” This is especially important when you are at vocal extremes during your practice session.
3. What to do if you are vocally fatigued?
Because singing involves the entire body and psyche, there will be times when vocal fatigue is unavoidable. Here are several tips to recover quickly from vocal fatigue:
- Modified (not complete) vocal rest. Consider minimizing your talking (both the amount of talking you do and the intensity/loudness).
- Decrease the length and intensity of your vocal practice sessions (i.e. practice for 15 minutes 3-4 times per day instead of one 45-60 minute session).
- Use vocal “unloading” exercises during practice sessions. Specifically, vocalize in the mid-range at a moderate vocal intensity. Use step-wise exercises (the larger the interval, the more vocally complex the exercise is). Vocalize on semi-occluded vocal tract exercises for singing — lip buzz, tongue trill, straw in water (bubbles) — to help unload the system.