7 Things Your Voice Needs This Winter
Winter can be a tough time for us all. It's cold, grey, and rainy. We might be wearing layers of heavy material around our necks creating unwanted tension, or maybe our scarves and zip-up coats just aren't cutting it and the cold is getting through. The central heating and the cold air are drying out our throats, so what's more appealing than a cosy pub and a glass (or three) of wine? Or that extra cup of tea or coffee in the morning (or afternoon!) to help warm us up from the inside?
With all these things in mind, here is a simple easy to follow guide to help you through the dreary season:
1. STAY WARM
This might seem obvious, but have you considered whether you are keeping your voice warm too?
The vocal folds are mulit-layered folds of tissue, intricately connected to many other vital muscles and tissue in the throat and neck area, so keeping these warm and relaxed is imperative to good vocal health, particularly during the colder months. Tea and coffee are fine in moderation but not recommended, as they have a diuretic effect and can therefore dry out the voice. Instead, opt for warm water with honey and lemon to soothe, and sip warm water throughout the day.
2. CONSIDER WHAT'S ON YOUR PLATE
Have you thought about what you're eating from a vocal point of view? Colder weather can upset our usual eating patterns, resulting in us ordering more take aways or slurping creamy soups, or maybe even indulging in a late-night curry after yet another seasonal get-together. Sounds delish! However, whilst I am a passionate lover of food, I personally have to consider the consequences if I fall out of my normal eating habits.
Dairy is a massive no-no for the voice as it causes mucous. You may as well try speaking through clingfilm while adding some rhythmic mouth-clicks to your recording session. There are many alternatives out there now making dairy-free living far easier. So swap your creamy soup for a vegetable broth, or your milky morning cereal for a dairy-free 'milk' such as almond, oat, rice, or soya.
Curry? I love it. If you choose a restaurant with high-quality ingredients the health benefits can be fantastic, with spices such as turmeric possessing anti-inflammatory benefits. However, if you eat late, or consume very spicy foods, you may well bring on a bout of acid reflux. A burning sensation in the back of the throat and a gargling digestive system are not very comfortable and can leave some people needing medication.
So order your food earlier, or have a lighter late-night snack. Choosing when to eat is just as important as choosing what to eat, and how much of it you should be eating.
3. YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
This heading speaks for itself ... if you get sick, you will sound sick. Keep your immune system bolstered with multi-vitamins and add more fruit and vegetables to your diet. I make sure I have a juice or smoothie as often as possible, and add those magical super powders to fortify the blend. Maca, Moringa, Acai, and Cacao are just a few names on a long list of powder form immune-system boosters.
Wash your hands regularly. Ever been out in public and watched other people's hygiene habits? Yeah, I'll say no more. Protect yourself from picking up those unfriendly germs.
Now I'm not suggesting here that you embark on a winter fitness regime, although overall good health and physical stamina are a great bonus to beating the winter slump. What I'm talking about are vocal exercises, the key to keeping those vocal folds strong and free, and one of the pathways to maintaining vocal excellence. There are many different exercises you can undertake, whether at home or when you find a moment to yourself during the day and want to top-up your skills. I will write another post about specific daily exercises you can do, but for now I would suggest: steaming; stretching your body; breathing deeply into the lower ribs and belly; blowing raspberries; and humming ever so gently. If you want to learn more about exercises for the voice I would suggest you pick up some books by world-renknowned experts Patsy Rodenburg, Barbara Houseman, and the late great Cicely Berry.
Have all those scarves and extra layers got your shoulders scrunched up? Have you been standing or sitting poorly on your busy commute? Or have you simply forgotten what your neck looks like because you've had your shoulders up around your ears to stop the cold wind getting in? It's horrible, I know. You're probably so full of knots and creaks you can't remember what it's even like to roll your shoulders without them popping like Rice Crispies.
Time to de-crease yourself. I love yoga, and if you can find a class near you I really recommend it. There are many different types, from Hatha (closest to the yoga sutras - yoga in it's original form) to hot yoga. It might take a while to work out which one suits you best, so persevere and do your research. The combination of gentle stretching and core strength exercises with relaxation and meditation are essential for the voice.
If you can't get to a class, there are plenty of practitioners online and apps you can pay for and use at home. I would say, however, be cautious of certain 'teachers' promoting yoga, the focus should never be on appearance but should always be about the detailed movements and positions, and holistic benefits. Videos of 'teachers' in bikinis on beaches probably aren't concerned with the finer details of the yogic experience. It pays to do your research.
If none of the above appeals to you, then voice practitioners such as those mentioned at the end of point 4 have some great stretches for the whole body to get you back in line and reconnected with your natural rhythms.
Ahhhhhhh yes, relaxation is key to permitting good vocal health. Tension acts as a padlock on the voice, and a good massage by a qualified practitioner as well as a vocal steam is a great way to unwind. After rushing about in the cold weather, bracing yourself for the madness of outside, and desperately trying not to slip on fallen wet leaves, ice, or post-snow sludge, we need to de-stress. A warm bath with low lighting is a great way to start to unwind, and introducing some quiet music into the mix also helps us on that journey toward peaceful relaxation.
If baths and professional massage aren't possible for you, then look no further than your own hands and a hot water bottle. By placing a hot water bottle on areas of tension (particularly the neck and shoulders) the muscles will slowly begin to loosen, making self-massage easier. You can use your own moisturiser or a carrier oil such as coconut or almond oil, and gently rub the areas where you feel the most tension. Move your hands in downward motions around your neck so as not to bring tension up and into the throat area.
Whether you are self-massaging or enjoying a professional massage, having a bath or indulging in some much-needed quiet, don't forget the key; deep and slow breaths.
It seems fitting that we should follow on from relaxation and end this list with some vital quiet time.
Never underestimate the benefits of vocal rest, and finding some time by yourself to check in with how you're doing, and areas you need to focus on relaxing. Even the best athletes factor in rest days so why wouldn't you factor in rest time for you and your voice? Its a muscle we use daily and we often don't realise the stress we put our voices under. So give yourself some time off. And if a whole day isn't possible right now, ensure you're factoring in times in your day for not speaking and make a point of not answering that phone call if it's not urgent.
You've heard me mention vocal steaming a few times now. I believe a good steam warm-up at the start of your day and steam warm-down at the end of the day are fantastic practices to add into your vocal routine. You can do this by leaning over a bowl of boiling water and breathing in the steam via the mouth (why not fill up a bowl straight after you've made your morning hot drink?), or using a facial steamer. I use Doctor Nelson's Improved Steam Inhaler, which sends the steam directly to the throat. A quick search online will bring you to some stockists.
The winter months are a time when we should be slowing down, resting more, drawing inspiration from other mammals such as the bears who hibernate and stock-pile supplies in their caves whilst simultaneously shutting the outside world out. But lets be realistic, modern living means we still have to get up when it's dark and come home when it's dark, and still find the same amount of energy to go about our daily lives as if we were in the warmer seasons. So it is really vital that we find time to invest in our wellness, enact simple changes to our days and nights such as those listed above which will make the world of difference to our vocal health, our stress management, and our physical, mental and vocal well-being.