Something that has stayed with me since my training days is the idea that you can only start from where you are, and so with this in mind, I begin.
So, where am I?
Right now I’m in my office getting phone calls and emails from disgruntled actors about viruses and allergies that are irritating their vocal folds and causing them to sound hoarse. They are hoping that as a Voice and Speech Consultant, I can give them some useful advice to help them heal quickly, and to prevent permanent harm to their voices as they go about their work.
Here’s what I’ve been telling them:
PLEASE NOTE: I have collected these remedies and practices from health practitioners and colleagues over my years as a professional dialect coach. I am not a physician, so use your noggin and check with one before trying any of these ideas! You are always responsible for your own actions.
REMEDIES FOR A VOICE THAT IS IRRITATED DUE TO ALLERGENS, VIRUS, OR EXTREME USAGE SUCH AS VOCAL VIOLENCE
What To Try: Drink Plenty of Body Temperature Water. Aim for a 3/4 to 1 gallon per day.
Why It Might Help: The fluids help your body to fight the virus or infection. In addition, your vocal folds (aka: vocal cords) must be hydrated in order to function at their best. Ironically, the vocal folds are among the last of the body parts to receive the hydration you ingest. Why? Because as far as your body is concerned, survival is king. Believe it or not, being able to speak like an angel just doesn’t rank very high in terms of survival. If you don’t drink enough water, your vocal folds will be compromised. It’s as simple as that.
What To Try: Throat Coat Tea (by Traditional Medicinals) and slippery elm bark lozenges (by Thayers Natural Remedies)
Why It Might Help: Slippery Elm Bark, a major ingredient in both Throat Coat Tea and Thayer’s lozenges, makes a soothing substance for practically anything it comes in contact with. It is particularly effective in soothing mucous membranes. If you opt for the tea, be sure to follow the steeping instructions properly so you’ll get the full benefits of it. (And do be warned that it has a ‘slippery’ texture). Most people I have talked with enjoy the lozenges, which also have the advantage of ease of use during rehearsals. (I like the cherry flavor in particular.)
What To Try: Roxalia (by Boiron)
Why It Might Help: Roxalia is an FDA regulated, over the counter homeopathic medicine, which means that each tablet contains a micro-dose of therapeutically active mineral, botanical, and biological substances. Roxalia in particular contains ingredients that relieve sore throats. The tablets are sweet tasting and pleasant. They have a long shelf life, and are easy to take on the road.
What To Try: Complete Vocal Rest
Why It Might Help: If you are experiencing scratchiness, hoarseness, or even ‘loss’ of voice, these symptoms are happening because your vocal folds are somehow irritated, inflamed, injured or compromised in some way. To sing, speak or even whisper can potentially cause further irritation and slow your healing process.
You wouldn’t walk on a broken leg, right? Doing so might keep the leg from healing properly, right? Think about your voice in the same way. If you continue to perform stressful activities on vocal folds that are compromised, you risk permanent injury or change to the voice, the most common being a loss of vocal range. At the very least, you slow the healing process.
What To Try: Avoid Environmental Stressors (such as car exhaust, theatrical fogs, construction dust, paints, shellacs, hairsprays, air fresheners and cigarette smoke)
Why It Might Help: This one is easy to understand. If your vocal folds are raw and irritated, exposing them to further irritants will only slow your recovery. I have some clients who wear personal air purifiers around their necks if they find that they must be exposed to one of these irritants during rehearsal.
What To Try: Wear A Cozy Scarf, Even Indoors
Why It Might Help: By wrapping a cozy scarf around your neck, your body doesn’t need to use it’s energy to maintain it’s normal temperature. It can instead use it to help your immune system function at it’s best. (It feels nice, too!)
What To try: Change Your Eating Habits: Avoid Caffeine, Alcohol, Sugar, and Dairy Products
Why It Might Work: Caffeine and alcohol are considered to be ‘drying’ to the body, as they are diuretics. If you drink 8 glasses of water per day, but drink 5 cups of coffee, the coffee ‘cancels’ the water out, and the effects on your body are essentially the same as if you drank practically no liquid at all. Remember, your vocal folds can only operate well when your body is fully hydrated.
Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, many people assert that eliminating dairy products reduces the formation of the thick phlegm that can irritate vocal folds.
As for sugar, recent studies are showing that ingesting the amount of sugar found in two 12 oz cans of soda-pop suppresses the immune system by up to 50% for as many as five hours. (I’m suddenly thinking about how many colds are caught on airplanes—100 people in close quarters, sharing their germs, and all ingesting cup after cup of soda pop…yikes!!!)
What To Try: Use A Neti Pot
Why It Might Help: Essentially, a Neti Pot is a tiny teapot shaped vessel that you add a purified saline solution to and then pour through your sinuses — in one nostril and out the other–while bending over a sink with your head tipped slightly forward and to the side. Many people swear by a weekly nasal lavage using a Neti Pot, as it is said to wash out allergens that might be trapped in the sinuses. Be sure to check with your physician and to read the instructions that come with the pot. (The pot can be found at health food merchants such as Whole Foods, as well as online.)
What To Try: Strategic Rehearsals
Why It Might Help: If you suspect your vocal irritation is being caused by overuse during rehearsal, especially for roles which require extraordinary vocal usage, such as vocally violence, make a plan with your director to only rehearse the vocally violent sections of the piece once or twice per day, and ‘mark’ them otherwise. (‘Marking’ means that you rehearse the scene normally, except for the section where the vocal violence actually occurs. During that section, you remain engaged and connected as an actor, but refrain from actually screaming, yelling, etc.) It may seem like an inconvenience, but marking vocally violent scenes can save you complications in the long run. After all, who wants to be the actor that disrupts the shooting, rehearsal, or performance schedule because they have laryngitis? To my way of thinking, prevention is the best option here.
What to Try: Be Aware
Why It Might Help: Your best defense against vocal trouble is to remain in tune with your body, so that you can take action quickly against vocal troubles. Don’t wait until you sound particularly squeaky or hoarse to try remedies. You’ll get the best results by taking early action.