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.
This is really helpful! I think I’ve been over training and noticed whenever I have to rest (ie. get sick with a cold) I come back stronger. I thought I should start thinking more like an athlete and start incorporating rest days. I really appreciate the training plan, and have found the bubble exercise especially useful. Thank you!
For recovery weeks, do you recommend easy singing? Or resting from singing altogether?
Thanks for writing in to MajoringInMusic.com. We’re glad you found the article you wrote in from to be helpful. Good for you for incorporating the athlete mentality into your training!
As for recovery, we feel we’d be remiss if we were to make recommendations without knowing how you rehearse and sing. So we highly recommend that you work directly with a voice specialist or coach trained in vocal health. Learning how to rehearse and perform in a healthy way will help you prevent the kinds of issues many singers face as they get older. For additional resources, check out the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) and their vocal health videos and webinars. You may also want to check out Dr. Wendy LeBorgne’s “The Vocal Athlete Book.”
This was really helpful, thank you. I’m in high school and because of allergies and coughing, my voice became tired and I can’t hit certain notes. This is the first time this has really happened.
I am in my 4TH year of choir and we use fancy words to raise and lower our voices in certain songs so that way we already know that our voice parts can trick the crowd into amazement …. my advice is to take a choir class to fix up your voice or get a musical mentor to help you.
I have a BME degree with voice as my instrument. Through the years I have struggled off and on with vocal issues (due to over use as a public school music teacher, allergies, vocal nodules that remained soft, chronic sinus issues, seasonal asthma and acid reflux disease which I had fundal plication (sp?) surgery that worked great for a couple of years). However when I am not teaching I seem to do much better with hoarseness; have had a fulfilling career in performance, teaching; ministry opportunities.
I’ve seen the head of ENT at UAB Birmingham, 2010 and had vocal therapy in college in the 80’s at UAMS in Little Rock, AR.
I now seem to have issues with sustaining a pitch for a normal duration. For example: needing to take a breath sooner than is suggested in a song, especially in a choral situation. I do fine in most solo situation because I sing contemporary Christian most of the time now. I can belt more easily than sing soft at time as well. I would appreciate any suggestions/advice you would offer.
We suggest you take a look at Dr. Wendy DeLeo LeBorgne’s new book “The Vocal Athlete” (Plural Publishing) and also seek the advice of a voice specialist in your area, especially to rule out any more recent physiological causes for your pitch concerns.