As an actor I’m no stranger to vocal exhaustion. Much of my theatre work has involved playing characters who have a lot to say: eight shows a week, six days a week, in large theatres, often for many months on end. Let me tell you – your voice gets quite tired doing that! I’ve had to learn the hard way how to maintain vocal health. I’ve also learned some invaluable quick, temporary fixes for imminent voice loss. Here is what I’ve learned from experience.
So, let me set the scene… I’m imagining this is a big moment for you – you’re going to be delivering a big presentation this afternoon. You’ve been preparing for it for weeks and there’s a lot riding on it. Not only for the project itself, but for you personally too. There will be some important people there and they’re looking to you to come up with the goods. But, as bad-luck would have it, you’ve been feeling a tickle in your throat since lunch time and you’re starting to lose your voice…
First of all: focus you efforts on resisting the urge to panic! Carrying any tension particularly in your jaw, throat, neck and shoulders isn’t going to help matters. In any nervy situation turning one’s attention to some gentle, mindful breathing is a really good place to start. The aim is to get oxygenated blood back into your pre-frontal cortex – so you can think as clearly and calmly as possible. Find a comfortable position – seated, or best of all, lying down on your back with your knees drawn up to point at the ceiling. With each breath try to focus on making your out-breath longer. Let yourself notice the still point at the end of each out-breath, before breathing in again.
By slowing down your breathing, you can also lower your heart rate, which will allow you to feel less tense. You can now start to notice any areas of your body where you are carrying tension – that is, any areas where you might be aware of a sensation of ‘holding on’, gripping, or rigidity. Send your in-breaths to each of these areas in turn and with each out-breathe observe a little of ‘the grip’ loosen. If you are lying on the floor you could visualise the ground beneath you rising up to support your body. Try this for 10 minutes if you can.
It also might be necessary to limit how much you use your voice between now and the presentation. It’s hard, I’ve been there… try to stop speaking until then. The aim is to conserve vocal energy. If other people need to communicate with you – this is where email and text can be very handy. And if people need to talk to you in person – get a notepad and pen – to write out your answers. Old school? Yeah! Or you can type things out (in Notes) on your mobile phone. You may feel this is impractical – it might be. But resting your voice as much as possible will help.
At this stage I wouldn’t recommend using ibuprofen to reduce inflammation, nor any throat sprays that numb the back of the mouth. This kind of analgesic can make it difficult to tell when you’re pushing your voice beyond comfortable limits. If you do that, then you may end up doing longer term damage to your vocal cords. Wait till after your big gig before dosing yourself up on the painkillers and anti-inflammatories. For now, adrenalin will power you through.
You’ll also need to re-hydrate your vocal cords to give them the best chance of performing well. The most straightforward way of doing this is to drink some water – but I’d advise you not to drink freezing-cold water. A better option might be to make a warm, honey and fresh lemon drink, to soothe your throat. Sip it slowly. Try to avoid tea, coffee and cigarettes – all these will only dehydrate your vocal cords – which will make the problem worse.
And here, I can extoll the virtues of pineapples. Pineapple contains an enzyme called bromelain that has natural, anti-inflammatory properties. Either eating fresh pineapple, or drinking some pineapple juice may ease that ‘gravelly’ feeling at the back of your tongue. I’ve consumed many a pre-show portion of pineapple and sometimes it’s really worked. Placebo effect? Maybe… But have you looked at the research on placebos? It’s funny what can happen when you believe something is going to help your symptoms.
Drinking fluids is one way to rehydrate, but it might have the adverse of effect of making you desperate for the loo during your much-anticipated presentation. So, by all means, take in fluids this way, but I’d say: don’t overdo it! The best way to get moisture immediately and directly to your vocal cords is to use a vocal steamer. If you have access to one, an electric steamer is great for a twenty minute throat steam. Follow the user instructions carefully. However, when it comes to vocal steamers, my personal favourite is the antique looking ‘Dr Nelson’s Improved Inhaler’. Go on – google it now! Plus steaming your voice with the kind of utensil that Donald Wolfit might have used will be highly amusing to your colleagues. I find it’s worth pursuing the comedy angle in times of difficulty.
And if you don’t have access to either of these items then you might try Mother’s favourite! Put some boiling water in a large bowl, get your face over it and a towel to cover both your head and the bowl. Breathing through your mouth, gently draw the steam from the water into the back of your mouth and breathe out again. The added benefit here is that you get a facial steam at the same time!
Once you have breathed, steamed, rehydrated and rested your voice, rest it some more. About half an hour before you’re due to deliver I recommend doing some huge yawns to stretch out the jaw and throat areas. You can do some nice stretches of your whole body too. Then very gently – try a gentle hum at a comfortable pitch for you. Continue humming for about ten minutes – maybe varying the note with each new breath. Resist any urge to push your vocal cords into making a sound. Misusing your voice repeatedly can cause nodules to form on your vocal cords. These are a pain in the neck – literally! And can require laser surgery to remove them.
Now – good luck with that presentation!
If you regularly experience vocal problems consult an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist (Otolaryngologist).