How do you spot a singer who has some experience? You will find two things on their person pretty much all the time: a pencil for marking up music and a water bottle. Every singer is told that drinking plenty of water is essential for optimal voice. “Your pee should be pale,” I was told. But why? I have a confession to make: as I was immersed in training my singing voice and before I became a speech pathologist I didn’t know that water is not supposed to actually touch your vocal folds. You know the feeling of something “going down the wrong way?” You cough for a minute or two, your eyes water, and it is quite embarrassing in a quiet café or elegant restaurant. That is what happens when water touches your vocal folds. If you want to hydrate your vocal mechanism, you have to hydrate your entire system.
VOCAL FOLDS: WHAT ARE THEY AND WHY DO THEY NEED WATER?
The vocal folds, or vocal cords, are twin layers of mucous membrane that vibrate together to create voice. Click here to watch healthy vocal folds in action. Don’t be fooled by their simple appearance; they are actually composed of five different layers of tissue and their movement is much more complex than tissue flapping together. Healthy voice function relies on the ability of these tissues to change length (for pitch variation) and to make a good seal (for clear quality) when they come together. To do that they need to be moist, pliable, plump…hydrated.
The effect of good hydration on the voice is twofold: physical and neurological.
Hydrated vocal folds do not have to work so hard to press together to make sound and require less pressure from the lungs (i.e., less effort) to get the voice started. Simply stated, a well-hydrated voice is easier to use and is less susceptible to injury from overuse. You can also expect a wider pitch range and more vocal stability with adequate hydration.
It’s not only your vocal folds or even your muscles in general that need to be hydrated to function well. Speaking and singing are not just physical activities, they are neurological activities too. The brain needs water (among other things) to be in the correct balance for optimal neurological firing and ultimately your best voice. As an added benefit, you will be much more likely to remember your lines, lyrics, talking points, or sales pitch if you join the water-bottle-toting crowd.
HOW MUCH WATER DO YOU NEED?
The most widely recommended daily intake of water is eight to nine 8-ounce glasses. Some experts disagree about the precise hydration requirements for men and women; some recommend up to 12 glasses daily for men. But one thing on which most experts can agree is that the body’s daily water requirement varies from one individual to the next. Eight glasses a day is considered to be a starting point and is influenced by factors such as body size and composition, lifestyle, and general health.
DEHYDRATION: ALL THAT HARD WORK DOWN THE TUBES
As conscientious as you may be to drink enough water, good hydration can easily be undone with caffeine, alcohol, certain medications, and exercise or exertion that cause excessive sweating. Some health conditions such as diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome (particularly with diarrhea) can also cause dehydration. And if you live in Denver, aka the Mile High City, or any location considered to be high elevation, you are at a higher risk for dehydration. Think about sipping a little extra if these factors apply to you.
PICKING UP SOME STEAM
There is actually a way to hydrate directly: steam. Inhalation of steam delivers moisture directly to the vocal folds and respiratory system and also has the benefit of thinning mucus if you are prone to allergies or excess phlegm. Room humidifiers have a similar effect. There are plenty of vaporizers on the market that you can use to inhale steam directly, or you can lean over a bowl of steaming water with a towel draped over your head to catch the steam. I am on my second Conair facial sauna in 15 years and I love it both for my voice and my skin.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
When is the best time to hydrate? This is a particularly important question for people who use their voice professionally. If you know you have a performance at 7:00 on Saturday, when should you try to drink enough water? The answer is all the time. The easiest way to prevent dehydration when you need your voice to be at its best is to stay in a constant state of hydration, not by binging on water (which is not necessarily helpful) the day of a performance but by habitually drinking water throughout the day, every day. Technically speaking, your body may rehydrate in as a little as 45 minutes, but if you wait to do this until a few hours before a performance you’ve been straining your poor dehydrated vocal folds all day.
Figure out a routine that works for you. Make sure you bring enough water with you when you leave the house, or buy a water bottle with a built-in filter so you can refill no matter where you are. If your hydration habits can be described as “out of sight, out of mind,” get yourself an eye-catching water bottle and keep it in reach. Show your voice some love. It doesn’t ask for much, but it’s probably thirsty right now.