In my specialty of Otolaryngology—Ear, Nose , and Throat—we receive intensive training in the anatomy and function of the larynx, or voice box, and the airway. However, professional voice users, like professional athletes, have unique talents and needs, which often require additional experience and knowledge. As an amateur musician and music fan, I have taken a special interest in caring for the performing artist, and that led me to start the Center for the Performing Artist at Weill Cornell/NewYork-Presbyterian. Along the way, I have learned from my own experience, from singers themselves, from the best-published evidence, and from many experts, including my colleague at Weill Cornell Medicine and Director of the Sean Parker Institute for the Voice, Dr. Lucian Sulica.
The larynx is made up of small muscles, a very specialized lining with a vibrating surface, and a special lubricating mechanism. The voice you hear, however, is not just created by the larynx alone. The voice requires air pressure from the lungs, vibrating vocal cords, and a resonating upper airway cavity, including the mouth, palate, nasal cavity, and throat. So, when taking care of your voice, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Stay Healthy
The voice is more than just the vocal cords. Breathing difficulties, dehydration, and allergic nasal congestion are just a few of the things that can affect the quality of the singing voice. Stay healthy and hydrated, and don’t push a performance when you are not well.
Always warm up gradually before singing and never do anything that hurts, just like you would stretch and warm up before exercising.
3. Watch for Overuse
Don’t overuse your voice outside of performing. Your “performing larynx” is the same one you use to talk during the day and when you’re off at night. A Major League Baseball pitcher would not spend the day before a game throwing to his child’s Little League team; similarly, as a professional voice user, you should be careful at social events and when not performing.
4. Know Your Range
It’s important to find your comfortable range—singing teachers call this the “tessitura”— and stay within it. If you are an alto and try to make yourself into a soprano, you will be prone to injury.
5.R Is for REST
Rest really helps keep your voice in order. With it, swelling goes down and tissues return to their normal flexibility. If you do more singing than usual, rest a little more than usual.
Michael Stewart, MD/MPH, is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. He is also the Founder and Medical Director of the Center for the Performing Artist at Weill Cornell/NewYork-Presbyterian. He has written two textbooks and more than 150 scientific articles and chapters, and he has served as President and/or Board Member of several other national professional societies. Stewart is also the Editor-in-Chief of The Laryngoscope, one of the top scientific journals in his field. Stewart has been listed in Best Doctors in America and Best Doctors in New York City since 2007. Find out more at weillcornell.org/mgstewart and weill.cornell.edu/centerperformingartist.