Look after your voice

Top tips for protecting your voice as a teacher from Sing Up

When things get busy and work takes over, sometimes we forget to protect one of the key tools of the teaching trade… the voice. That is why we have put together our top tips on how to ensure we keep the voice happy and healthy throughout the school year.

The voice is made up of the same material as the rest of our anatomy – muscle, cartilage, tissue – and is as susceptible to illness, stress, strain and injury, just like other parts of our body. So, we need to know how to take care of it. For teachers in particular, it is a vital tool of the trade. We spend a huge amount of time communicating through speaking, often when tired, stressed and sometimes straining to be heard over general classroom noise. As well as being very prone to developing vocal problems, it’s especially inconvenient to lose your voice if you’re a teacher.

As well as being very prone to developing vocal problems, it’s especially inconvenient to lose your voice if you’re a teacher.

Research shows that teachers are far more likely to suffer from vocal problems than people in other professions. National Health Service data shows that teachers are nine times as likely to be a voice clinic patient than the average adult. And teachers of primary-aged pupils (4–11 year olds) are the most likely of all to suffer from problems with the voice. This might relate to average class size, or general noise levels in a primary class, or that more of a primary teacher’s time is spent speaking than with older age groups.

There are five main factors which can negatively affect our vocal health:

  • Using the voice too much
  • Using the voice too loudly
  • Poor vocal technique
  • Illness
  • Emotional stress
  • Irritants

Inside the larynx are your vocal cords. They open and close when you talk and the air passing through them causes them to vibrate together which produces the sound of your voice. If your vocal cords become swollen or inflamed – through overuse or illness for example – then you will experience hoarseness or even lose your voice completely.

Here are some things to be aware of and tips about what you can do to look after your voice.

Using the voice too much

Instead of speaking for long periods of time without a break, which will cause voice strain, try to build in frequent breaks.

Using the voice too loudly

Whether speaking or singing, try to keep within the natural range of your voice and not strain to be too loud. Teachers can fall into the habit of using a higher-impact voice quality than is necessary, and prolonged use of this tone of voice will make your voice tired.

Instead of straining your voice in class, experiment with non-verbal ways of gaining your pupils’ attention. Try to make a rule for yourself that you won’t speak until the classroom is quiet enough for you to be heard while speaking in a normal, unstrained voice.

Teachers can fall into the habit of using a higher-impact voice quality than is necessary, and prolonged use of this tone of voice will make your voice tired.

Poor vocal technique

Try following these simple rules:

  • Don’t hunch, twist or bend while using your voice. It puts the voice and your breathing apparatus under strain.
  • Stand or sit up straight, with a straight back, relaxed neck and shoulders.
  • Warm your voice up before you use it. Like any part of the body, your voice needs warming-up to avoid strain. Vocal warm-ups don’t need to take long, and you can do them in the shower or in the car on your way to work.
  • Get to know when your voice is starting to feel tired and rest it before you suffer more serious problems.

Illness

Illnesses that affect the respiratory system – like coughs and colds – are likely to affect your voice. Try to get plenty of rest (rest your voice and get enough sleep), and drink plenty of water. Old-fashioned remedies like inhaling steam with a towel over your head do work. It helps to rehydrate the throat and soothe irritation.

Other health-related suggestions if you’re having problems with your voice are:

  • Keep a bottle of water with you and take frequent sips throughout the day. Staying hydrated is probably the most important thing you can do. You could try having a humidifier in your bedroom overnight too, since this is the time when the throat naturally dries out the most. Drinking water isn’t about lubricating the throat, it is about hydrating your whole body.
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol (they dehydrate you) – or at least balance with plenty of water. Warm drinks can be soothing but green tea, chamomile or decaffeinated is best. Add honey for an extra healing boost.
  • Avoid sweetened fizzy drinks, milky drinks, chocolate, yoghurt and other dairy products because they can encourage mucus production.
  • Try to avoid eating just before going to bed and sit upright just after eating. Reclining after eating can cause acid reflux which can irritate and burn the throat and damage your voice. The presence of stomach acid in your throat will also cause your body to produce too much mucus as a protective mechanism – but this will also make it difficult for you to use your voice efficiently. Be aware of whether you are prone to heartburn or indigestion, and experiment with removing foods from your diet that seem to exacerbate that.
  • Avoid taking decongestants – they are designed to dry up your sinuses but will also dry your throat which can cause problems for your voice.
  • You could try taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication such as Ibuprofen as this will help take down the swelling in your vocal cords if you are unwell.
  • You can also try gargling with saltwater – it has healing properties which will speed up the healing process of the inflamed areas in your throat.
  • Don’t whisper – it puts your voice under more strain than speaking quietly will.

Emotional stress

Your voice is particularly vulnerable to stress. In extreme cases, prolonged periods of emotional stress have been known to cause people to lose their voice entirely or to lose part of their vocal register. Tension manifests itself in the physical apparatus we use to speak and sing very readily. It can cause the throat, chest and shoulders to tense up and this can put the voice under significant strain. Have you noticed how hard it is to try to sing when you are crying, or how your voice wobbles when you are upset or angry?

Breathing exercises are a good way to reduce stress. In particular, lengthening the outbreath slows your heart rate and lowers stress levels.

Breathing exercises are a good way to reduce stress. In particular, lengthening the outbreath slows your heart rate and lowers stress levels.

Irritants

You might be sensitive or allergic to dust, pollen, or art materials like some paints or spray adhesives. Some food sensitivities can affect the throat too. See if you can identify what you are sensitive to through a process of elimination. If the problem is more than a minor irritation, see your doctor.

Warm-up theory

Warming the voice up before use can prevent injury, improve technique, eliminate tension and make our brains more alert.

Warming up your speaking voice

If you are a teacher, it’s a really good idea to warm your voice up before everyday use, and it only needs to take two or three minutes. Here’s what you can do:

  • Body stretch: stretch your arms up then gently flop forwards from the waist, letting your arms dangle. Have a little shake to release tension. Slowly roll yourself back to an upright position until your back is straight and you imagine your head is being pulled gently upwards by a piece of string. This will align your back and neck nicely.
  • Released breathing: do some slow hisses with your hand on your stomach. Feel your belly pull in. Then release your belly muscles as you breathe in again.
  • Range: on a humming sound or an ‘ng’ sound, slide up and down like a siren. Gradually go a little higher and a little lower to reach the more extreme ends of your voice range.
  • Efficient voicing: siren up and down to some buzzes (‘vvv’ and ‘zzz’) making sure they sound buzzy not breathy. Think of using very little air in your sound. Then siren up and down to open vowel sounds.

Simply being aware of the strain our voices are put under every day and being mindful of the easy ways we can preserve our voice for longer is a great place to start when it comes to vocal health. You can find out even more at the Sing Up website on our vocal health hub, where we have videos, articles and much more on the subject.

Tweet @SingUpTweets @michellejjames1 to continue the conversation.

Sing Up

Fun, free and accessible for all, singing is the secret to transforming and improving every aspect of school life. Based on the research we have done over the past ten years, we have written a practical guide on how to begin your journey of becoming a Singing School. Read more about Singing Schools here and get your copy of The Singing School Handbook here.

Through our award-winning digital solution, Sing Up provides you with the complete singing experience. Membership includes access to almost 1000 songs, specially arranged to promote good vocal health in young voices. Our wide range of resources, training and songs are designed to help you create a complete foundation for singing across the school, for musical learning, choirs and more, for early years to age 18 and beyond.

Make this commitment to music for your students throughout the year by becoming Sing Up Members today and harness the power of singing every day – click here to find out more.