All Things Vocal Blog & Podcast by Judy Rodman: June 2023

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Vocal Strain: 18 Causes and Fixes for Your Tired Voice



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Vocal strain, also known as vocal fatigue, is the leading cause of vocal problems, limitations and vocal damage for both singers and speakers. In this post, I'm going to give you the top 18 causes of vocal strain that I see, and tell you how to fix what's making your voice so tired. I'm also going to share a short vocal lesson I did where vocal fatigue was eliminated within minutes, so be sure and stick around for all that.

But let's start with the signs of vocal strain: You may experience it in different degrees, from your voice just getting tired after you use it, to your voice hurting when you use it. Sometimes you temporarily lose your voice. The bad news is it gets worse over time unless you do something to stop it. The good news is... you CAN stop it. 

NOTE OF CAUTION: Symptoms of vocal strain and fatigue can also be symptoms of more serious conditions of vocal damage or other underlying medical condition. If your vocal strain persists, consult your doctor - if possible, a fellowship-trained laryngologist who specializes in voice. 

If you've gotten used to having a strained or tired voice, you may think these signs are normal... until you wake up without a voice on a day you desperately need to use it!

Here are some of the signs of vocal strain

...even if you have just one of these, your voice gets tired when it doesn't have to:

  • It doesn't feel very good to use it. It may just be vaguely uncomfortable, or it may really hurt to speak or sing.

  • Your voice doesn't sound very good when it's not feeling good. Your tone may be tight, weak or harsh; you may fall on vocal fry a lot. This happens because your strained voice triggers (and comes from) a lack of breath control.

  • Your voice gives out quickly, both talking and singing. 

  • Your throat and ribcage may be tight because of the guarded posture stance you take, which compounds your vocal strain as that posture causes you to push your voice to try to get it to work.

  • Your voice cracks at your passagio, or where your chest and head registers meet, instead of blending in an ever-changing mix. You can have strange glitches here and there through your vocal range.

  • You lose some of your vocal range, your high notes and low notes may suffer. 

  • Your performance focus (your communication skill) is distracted because you worrying about how your voice is going to work, or if you're going to lose it. 

  • In general, your usual level of vocal ability and control is limited. It's hard to do what used to be easy. Using your voice may be something you now dread.

So, is vocal strain inevitable? ABSOLUTELY NOT! 

Can it be conquered? In my experience as singer and coach... ABSOLUTELY YES! 

Vocal strain & fatigue is a condition I love to work with, because by changing vocal techniques and strategies, you can experience relief from vocal strain immediately! Check out this video of a short lesson I did with a very busy singer in Peru named Silvana Del Campo who had vocal fatigue from overuse, and see how fast her vocal strain disappears when we change her posture at the wall...

It's one of my favorite moments in vocal lessons, when a student experiences that quick relief from vocal fatigue! Then, of course, you have to practice what worked!

Now let's get down into the weeds: 

Here are the top 17 causes of vocal strain I see in singers and speakers, and some strategies for turning the tide back towards vocal health:

1. Bad Breathing Technique:
...this can include a habit of gasping noisy little inhales too high in chest. But the exhale is usually the biggest problem: you're pushing too much breath through your vocal cords and you have no idea how to control that breath. 

THE FIX: learn to inhale deeply, as if your air tank sits in your pelvic floor. Then power your voice with a controlled compression breath from your pelvic floor or your heels if standing, instead of pushing breath from your ribcage. 

2. Posture issues
... slumping even just a bit causes the pushed, uncontrolled breath, a tightness of throat channel and is a very common common cause vocal strain. 

THE FIX: You can’t change anything you’re not aware of so… check to see where your head is balanced when you talk or sing. A simple fix for vocal strain can be to balance your head back over your tailbone or heels when sitting, standing or walking instead of hanging forward over your desk, thighs or the balls of your feet. Watch that video I just showed you again, and try doing your own wall work!

3. Tight Throat Channel:
... it's 
tight where your nose, throat and mouth meet at the "post-nasal drip zone". 

THE FIX: Loosen the stricture by learning to balance your head over your tailbone and to engage more active facial language (eyes, jaw, mouth)  to communicate more clearly - which also helps relieve vocal strain.

4. Yelling:
... 20 minutes of yelling, screaming or "shooting your voice from your throat" can result in blood blisters, the beginnings of vocal nodules or nodes, appearing on the vocal cords. Keep it up and you'll harden those blisters into callouses (which are vocal nodes), or you'll grow polyps or even cause vocal cord paralysis or vocal cord hemorrhage. I

THE FIX: Never ever push excess air through your vocal cords to create volume. Instead, your vocal volume should come from pulling with passionate articulation and accessing resonance zones in your head, mask, mouth and chest, which will increase your vocal resonance and power - WITHOUT causing vocal strain.

OK we just covered vocal technique you need to change so that you pull, not push, your voice to eliminate vocal strain and fatigue. Here's something cool to know: the techniques that conquer vocal strain also increase vocal impact. As I said earlier, when your voice feels better it sounds better! Now let’s go on with some other causes of vocal strain:  

5. Acute Viral Laryngitis:
... you'll definitely experience vocal strain trying to use your voice with this. Viral laryngitis can be part of an upper respiratory illness, but sometimes appears without other signs of sickness. 

THE FIX: Rest your voice completely til the infection subsides. Don’t whisper, just talk in a bell-like tone mid-range if you must. Mostly mime and write to communicate. If you don't rest your voice, your vocal strain can turn into a persistent case of Muscle Tension Dysphonia (MTD), or a nasty case of vocal damage.

6. Acid Reflux (GERD)
... or its more vocally problematic form known as laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR). 

THE FIX: Instead of living with this, get to the bottom of what's causing your reflux. Consult your doctor, and if you have a mild case, you might try (with your doctor's ok) taking food enzymes with your meals. The ones that work for me are called Digestzymes (Amazon pd link)

7. Smoking
... causes irritation, swelling and dehydration of the vocal folds. Not to mention COPD and lung cancer. You may not even realize your voice is fatigued or strained because the feeling is so normal for you.  

THE FIX: Stop smoking. You can do it... I did! You may find help with the classic book 'TheEasy Way To Stop Smoking' (Amazon pd link). 

8. Talking too loud, too long, without good vocal technique

... can cause not only vocal fatigue but serious vocal damage. 

THE FIX: learn healthy speaking techniques. Many times, even with my singers the first thing I address to correct vocal strain is the person's speaking voice. If you really want to dig into this, check out my specialized online training course

9. Chronic or Strong Coughing

... the constant hitting of your vocal cords together is as bad as yelling. 

THE FIX: You must get to the bottom of the cause of the cough and cure it. Sometimes it's GERD or LPR, sometimes a short term virus, post nasal drip, allergen or other air-born irritant, sometimes it's throat cancer. See your doctor if your cough lingers or brings up blood. When you do cough, do it as lightly as you can. I like to say ‘cough backwards’. Minimize clearing your voice... sometimes it's just a bad habit. When you do, clear as lightly as you can. Again... pull that clearing.

10. Bone and joint problems
... You might not think of this as a source of vocal problems but a lack of strength and flexibility in the spine dcan significantly affect the voice; and pain in your spine or between your ribs can indeed cause vocal strain from breath and tight throat issues. 

THE FIX: Go on an intentional journey to investigate the causes and solutions to your bone and joint problems... from medical professionals and alternative practitioners. Do your stretches… take your supplements, stop drinking those colas! Your body AND your voice will thank you!

11. Muscle tension problems
... These, too, can trigger a tight chest and/or throat channel and a "freezing" of anatomy... this is always detrimental to healthy vocal technique. 

THE FIX: Get to the bottom of the causes of your physical tension issues. Again, get medical advice and/or alternative practitioners such as chiropracters, physical therapists that work with the larynx such as Gina Thurston, and therapeutic masseuses. One of the best things you can do before stage or studio performance is to get a pre-show chiropractic adjustment and/or shoulder massage.

12. Physical fatigue problems

Great singing without vocal strain really takes a lot of physical energy. Physical fatigue, whether short term or chronic, can cause slumping of the body with concurrent high, pushed breathing and throat tightness. 

THE FIX: If you're too tired to support your voice, consider canceling a show. Find and correct the source of your physical fatigue. Explore dietary changes, food supplements, check your hormones... consult your doctor … just don't stop till you know! 

13. Emotional problems
... nervousness, lack of confidence, depression, numbness, eating disorders, addictions, chronic resentments, inability to focus on communicating. These emotions affect anatomy in ways that can cause vocal strain. 

THE FIX: Use your desire for a strain-free voice as strong incentive to get to the bottom of your mental and emotional imbalances. This is another way that taking care of your voice can add value to your whole life and relationships.

14. Lack of Sleep
... causing once again, slumping of body and breathing/throat issues. This is a very common hidden source of vocal fatigue.

THE FIX: Figure out what's keeping you from getting a good night's sleep. This definitely goes for those of you on the road... if you want to avoid vocal strain, you simply must make time and space for quality sleep. Have a talk with whoever puts your schedule together!

15. Dehydration
... the vocal cords need a thin layer of mucus lubricating them to move most efficiently. Not enough water intake results in a thickening of this lining... imagine your boat running aground and you'll have an idea of what your dehydrated voice experiences.

THE FIX: drink enough water to pee pale. Don't wait to start the day of your performance... your voice needs the water you drank yesterday. You might try sipping diluted pineapple juice when you need to speak or sing a lot. For a lot more suggestions, be sure to signup for my 9-page ebook 'Vocal Health'.

16. Flabby Core (from insufficient physical exercise)
... causing slumped posture, unsupported and under-controlled breath and tight throat... you know by now that this is the recipe for vocal fatigue and strain. 

THE FIX: Work it out! Especially do core-strengthening exercises. Your voice needs your abs, your back, your thighs to be toned. For best results, look into a personal trainer at least for a few sessions. A great source of information on physical exercise for musicians is Angela McCuiston, founder of Music Strong.

17. Singing Loud Before Building Stamina

OK this is a big one... no matter how well you do your vocal exercises and use good vocal technique, you still can strain your voice if you sing significantly loud and/or long before you've practiced full voice long enough to develop the stamina your performance will need. In other words, you can't go from zero to 90 with vocal performance without incurring vocal strain and fatigue. And possibly damage.

THE FIX: Start singing your set at least 4 days, preferably a week or two before your performance or tour, singing a little longer and stronger every day. Gradually increase your vocal stamina - if you're doing it right, your voice will feel BETTER, not WORSE the next day. If you experience strain, back off your rehearsal time and volume and go slower - always using great technique, pulling instead of pushing for volume. If you're using great vocal technique on tour you will notice your voice getting STRONGER, not tireder, as your series of performances go on.

18. Here's an less common but still significant cause of vocal strain: Endo-tracheal damage from being on a ventilator.
... if you must undergo surgery, watch for this one. 

THE FIX: if elective surgery, make sure you tell your anesthesiologist that you are a singer or speaker whose vocal health is vital, and to use extreme care if and when you must be intubated. You might even tell your family to have this conversation in case you are incapacitated. Here's my story of recovering from vocal damage sustained from being on a ventilator.

Bottom line: If you need help with vocal strain, please do reach out and do something about it! If you suspect vocal damage or illness, please consult a medical professional first to rule out anything that requires medical intervention.

So what about you: 

What is your experience with vocal strain? Did any of this information surprise you? Do you have a cause of vocal fatigue you'd like to add? I'd love to know!

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