Vocal Health: Fact v Fiction, Part 1

A quick interlude to have a look at vocal health, as I’ve had loads of questions on this topic this week.

Let’s start with the food and drink issue, as I get asked about this frequently, and I was once told by a ‘technical development’ tutor on my music degree course, that singers shouldn’t eat cheese as it would ‘sit on the vocal cords…’ so there is clearly still a lot of confusion around this topic.

Here’s the thing …. your vocal cords are in your airway; food goes down your oesophagus; the epiglottis is the flap that manages the junction, if you like – it closes over the airway so you can swallow food without choking. So, if cheese were to be ‘sitting on your vocal cords’ you would be in immediate need of the Heimlich Manoeuvre!

In addition, food passes through the pharynx before it goes down the oesophagus, which is the section of the throat behind the nasal cavity and mouth. The wall of the pharynx moves quite dramatically when we raise in pitch during singing. In a healthy body, food or drink does not linger in this area – some people have the idea that certain foods ‘stick’ to the throat – but a functioning digestive system will have everything moving through efficiently.

(Pharynx split into three sections here, green, yellow, blue)

However, certain foods or drink could irritate or dehydrate the tissues of the lower pharynx / wall of the throat, impairing the movement required during singing.

The only ways your vocal cords can be affected by food or drink, are if there is steam, or moist air, that you are inhaling (e.g. hot cup of tea) or the overall level of hydration in the body has dropped (e.g. a raging hangover). It takes your body around four hours to metabolise water that you have drunk, so it can reach the cells which make the vocal cords’ lubricating fluid. A drink of water may soothe your mouth and pharynx in the short term, but has no immediate effect on your larynx.

Another question is whether certain foods encourage the production of excess mucus in the body, particularly the upper respiratory tract, around the larynx, which could inhibit the movement of the vocal cords and other structures. Possibly, this is why some singers find eating dairy produce affects their voice.

I say ‘possibly’; my advice to students is that there isn’t a one-advice-fits-all here. We need to discover for ourselves what our bodies need. For me, I try (…operative word!) not to drink coffee beyond 10am on the day of a gig, as I feel it dehydrates my pharynx wall, it doesn’t seem to move as easily, it feels dry. That’s from years of being a coffee-addict and noticing a correlation. So I work on hydrating my body effectively from a couple of days beforehand.

There are other things that can affect the health and functioning of the voice, but let’s look at those in another post …. it’s time for a coffee …

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com

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