“Give Her a Shot for Whatever She’s Got”: A Guide to Avoiding (and Recovering From) Musical Theatre Vocal Injuries
It is July, which means that most summer stock seasons are halfway over! This also means that the excitement and perfectionism when performing the show day after day has since worn off, and performers are more prone to vocal injuries. When singing contemporary musical theatre, especially, with today’s technology and demand for a studio quality performance each night, the way we, as performers, take care of our voices has evolved. I want to highlight some common injuries I have seen in musical theatre performers and talk about some prevention techniques and my tips for healing. I should preface this by saying that I am not in the medical profession whatsoever; these are just ideas I have picked up from educators, performers and doctors/physical therapists over the years.
When performing a show eight times a week, overuse of the voice is probably the most common culprit of later vocal damage. This doesn’t just apply to belters and high tenors; this is something that can harm anyone – from chorus member to lead. A fatigued voice can become horse more easily, which results in the singer “pushing” in order to compensate, and can lead to even more vocal damage. It is important to use self-discipline and know when to save your voice in order to have longevity as a performer. This means that sometimes saying “no” to social engagements and even calling out of a show or two could help you save yourself from long-term damage.
While microphones are a nice addition to new musical theatre (and have been a staple on the stage since the mid 1970s), this is no excuse for poor vocal technique. The microphone is there to enhance the natural voice, not to compensate for lack of support or breath management or, in contrast, to make the performer feel like they need to be even louder and push. It is important for contemporary singers, especially, to approach music from a place of correct technique and then work on matching the style of the musical with that technique already in place. This will ensure that you, as a performer, are not pushing your vocal chords too far and putting yourself at risk for vocal injury.
Outside of the stage, it is also important to make sure you are speaking at the optimal pitch. Our generation tends to speak lower and more gravely than is good for the voice– this is called “vocal fry” (think how Kim Kardashian talks). This habit can make its way into musical theatre, especially new musical theatre, when performers are trying to sound “speechlike” and casual, but it is actually very damaging to the voice. When performing frequently, try to speak in a head voice (or “princess voice” as my coach has called it) outside the show as much as possible in order to not further push the voice.
New musical theatre has given performers unique opportunities to show off the reaches of the voice, but it is important to be aware of the effect they can have and use preventative care. Belters are finding themselves asked to use their “belt voice” with higher and higher notes, which can be safe if they are within in the singer’s range and approached correctly. These notes, and money notes for high tenors that are so common in new musical theatre works, should be something that a singer works towards slowly and only when the voice is ready. Too many young singers try to attempt notes that were written for older, matured voices and end up hurting themselves permanently. It is also important for singers to continue to stretch their vocal range to keep up with the demands of contemporary composers, and do so safely. This means taking the time to really warm up and making sure the voice is in ideal health.
Of course there are things that a performer can’t control that can lead to vocal issues- the weather, certain chronic sinus and allergy issues, performance schedule, etc. It is important to maintain healthy vocal habits, especially in warming up and cooling down. I know I am guilty of doing a few lip buzzes and calling it a warm up, but it is important to make sure the full range of your voice feels natural and loose as well as making sure your support and core feel strong and ready for action. While I won’t go into a full warm up today (maybe look for it in future posts), you can find ideas from these two articles from VoiceOverXtra and Backstage.
The demands on a singer are growing due to contemporary musical theatre pushing the voice to new heights. While this is not a bad thing, singers need to be prepared for the potential damage it can have even on a healthy voice. Use the rest of this summer to work on creating or maintaining healthy vocal habits so we can all swoon over your gorgeous tones!
Jessica’s tips for healing a tired voice:
- Just say “no”! Be a hermit and watch all the Netflix instead of going out.
- Local honey. This helps stave off allergies when in a new city. If you don’t have access to local honey, Burts Bees or Smith Bros. makes delicious honey drops that make it easy to have honey on the go.
- Don’t whisper– take a day to truly be on vocal rest, but if you have to speak do so in the “princess voice” – at least it will be fun for you!
- Steam, steam, steam – along with drinking lots of water, it is important to keep the vocal chords moist. Get a small face steamer and try to spend 15 min steaming every 2 hours.
- Take time off of practicing and performing- use your day off to do something other than theatre. Explore other interests! Maybe use the time to meditate, go outside and hike, try a new sport, or even just get together with non theatre friends and get your mind off the show. Literally give your body a break- it will thank you by staying healthy!