Tips For The Occasional Performer: Singer/Songwriter Voice Conditioning

Written by January 1st, 1997 at 3:13 pm

Say you’re a writer.  You play out sometimes.  You demo songs sometimes.  You work on songs a lot.  You’re not trying to make your living as a singer, but you do want to give your songs the vehicle they deserve.  What do you really need to know about your voice?

You’ve got to keep it healthy and in good working condition just like any other musical instrument.  When you’re in control of your voice, you keep your audience focused on the songs without distracting from the lyrics and the emotions behind them.

Here are some tips that could make it a little easier and smoother the next time you step to the mic, or have a long day of writing ahead of you.

Rx For The Whole Instrument

Your body is a fragile instrument.  Dryness and abuse cause irritation that can brutalize your vocal chords.  Keep your fluid intake high and drink lots of water.  In the winter, use a humidifier to moisten the air (just be sure you keep it fresh and clean).

Everything you put into your body affects you.  Caffeine and alcohol dry you out.  Limit your intake.  Sugar and red meat can cause unpredictable fluctuations in your basic energy level.  Plan accordingly because some people have an adverse reaction to dairy products and should avoid them.

Pay attention to your body and find out what affects you.  You might try getting more rest than you believe you have time for.

What if you catch a cold?  Read up on recent studies about Zinc lozenges and the common cold.  For years I’ve recommended using them to stop cold before it gets started.  At the first sign, slowly dissolve one 12.5 mg Zinc lozenge in your mouth every waking hour.  It works for a lot of people.  If you have allergies and sinus problems, sorry, you’re probably going to have to leave town.  For geological reasons, Nashville is the sinus/allergy capital of the known universe.  Of course, the upside is that there are lots of good ear, nose and throat specialists here.  You’re going to need them.

Breath Control

What about breathing?  Relaxed, low breathing is the foundation of all good singing.  I call my method “Passive Breathing” because you just open your throat and let the air fall in like water going down an open drain.  Try this.  Imagine you’re hollow below the waist.  Just let your lower abdominal muscles relax as you loosen your jaw and open your throat like a yawn.

Picture the air falling directly down to the bottom of your torso.  Be sure to keep your body and throat relaxed an open.  And don’t ever actually fill up.  Filling up with a lot of air is an open invitation to tension in your throat.  When you expand and fill your lungs beyond their resting capacity, you have to tighten up your throat like a throttle valve to hold in that extra air.  So before you’ve even sung a note, you’ve created a totally unnecessary constriction in your throat that cuts off your flexibility and resonance.  The more air you force in and hold, the more tension you have.  Whatever air falls in with “Passive Breathing” will be enough.

Body Mechanics

Once you have a small amount of air down there, gently contract your lower body around that air to breathe back out or to sing.  The trick is to keep totally relaxed above the waist.  Think about Elvis.  He had great instincts about how to use his entire body as the perfect singing instrument.  Picture the classic Elvis stance.  Strong legs and a loose upper body gave him both power and the freedom to resonate.  Think too about how Elvis cocked his head over the microphone when he sang.  It helped the sound spin freely up in his head and gave his voice that special warmth and flexibility.  Pressure in your jaw tightens and thins out the sound.  So keep your jaw relaxed when you sing.  Draw your singing power instead from strong (yet flexible) muscles in your lower body.

Live Performance

What about performing live?  If nerves affect you, try doing the passive breathing before you sing.  It relaxes you and gives you something else to think about.  Then you’re more likely to remember to use it when you sing too.  Beware of microphone position.  Reaching up to the microphone with your chin is a leading cause of throat strain, so don’t position the microphone too high.  Place it slightly below your lips.  Then when you contract into your lower body for support, you’ll be right in line with the hot spot on the mic.

Playing in the round usually means sitting in the round.  You can still use your legs and lower body for support.  Try this when you’re seated.  Sit forward in your chair, one leg in front and the other to the side and back.  Press into the floor and balance on the balls of your feet like posting on a horse.  Rounding your body over the guitar to play can actually help relax your chest and tighten your lower abdominals for support.  Just remember to keep breathing.

Don’t try to out-sing the monitor.  You’ll never win.  They have all the power.  Your enthusiasm for the opening song can lead you down the spiraling path of loud and louder.  If you start out singing loud, you don’t have anywhere to go except into a scream and the sound person thinks that’s how loud you really want to sing the whole time.  Pray for a sound person who actually likes singers and is willing to respond to a firm, but smiling, signal for more vocals in the monitor.

In The Studio

It’s important to keep your upper body loose and free.  You should never feel you’re trapped in a vise at the microphone.  Yes, you have to keep the consistent distance from it, but that doesn’t mean you have to hold your body rigid and stiff.  Don’t clasp you r hands behind your back because you can’t think of anything else to do with them.  It throws your body support alignment off.  Arms and shoulders should be loose and free.  Watch out for microphone position here too.  Keep it on the low side.

Think about scheduling and remember how vulnerable a singer’s voice can be.  Try to put a few days of rest between cutting tracks and cutting vocals so there’s actually some voice left when you do get to the vocals.  Remember, common sense goes a long way.  It’s a lot easier to replace a beat up guitar than it is to replace a worn-out voice.  Be kind, it’s the only voice you get.


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