Hygiene Of The Voice
I should say that no one should be more scrupulous in his habits than
the singer. It is more difficult to keep the keen edge of the voice in
good repair than that of the sharpest razor, and nothing should be done
to dull it. No one more than the singer requires to observe the moral
and physical laws. The singer should always be in training, always
in the pink of condition. By nature, women should be more subject to
irment of voice than men. But they are not. They are brought up
to take better care of themselves and, to put it bluntly, to behave
themselves better. As a result, in spite of recurring disorders, they
stand up and do the work demanded of them when men do not or cannot.
Every pupil should be instructed to fall naturally into an attitude of
attention when coming into the presence of the teacher--as much so as
in the presence of a distinguished host or hostess. Morale, esprit
de corps, cannot be instilled too soon. They may well be considered
psychical elements in general vocal hygiene.
Personal cleanliness is, of course, one of the first requisites to
health. But, while bathing should be regular, it should not be extreme.
A cold bath stimulates at first, but is followed by a bad reaction in
a few hours. A hot bath, followed by exposure to the open air or a
draught, is apt to develop a cold by night. I recommend for singers
a lukewarm bath.
When singers have had their hair cut, they should watch themselves
carefully for the next twenty-four hours. If possible, they should have
it cut shortly before going to bed and should protect the head with a
light hood. Some singers catch cold every time they have their hair cut,
and bald-headed singers always are catching cold. And while on this
subject, it cannot be stated emphatically enough that any hair tonic
that stimulates the scalp too much is bad. The glands in the scalp
absorb the lead, cantharides, cayenne pepper, or whatever the specific
poison in the tonic may be; this is carried to the respiratory tract,
and creates the symptoms of a cold.
Singers are not apt to take much exercise. For this reason they should
be careful in their diet. They should avoid beef, lamb and mutton. The
white meat of fowl is the best meat diet for the vocalist. Milk, eggs,
toasted bread, string beans, spinach, lettuce, rice and barley are
excellent. Potatoes should be mashed, with milk and butter. Fruit is
better taken stewed and with little sugar. Ice cream clears the voice
for about twenty minutes, but the reaction is bad.
Regarding tea and coffee, inasmuch as a singer is not a cat on a back
fence, but a human being, there is no reason why he should not be
permitted to follow the social law in respect to these, provided he is
not a sufferer from indigestion. In fact, there are times when a cup of
coffee taken at the right moment will carry a singer, tired from travel
or other cause, over a crisis. There can be no harm in a cup of coffee
(Java and Mocha mixed), a cup of Phillip's Digestible cocoa, or a cup of
tea (Oolong or Tetley's Ceylon) for the singer who is in good condition.
I always have held that a singer could drink a small quantity of
alcohol--claret, for example--if he takes with it enough lithia or other
alkaline water to counteract the acid in the wine. Smoking, however, is
very injurious. A famous tenor of to-day whispered during a performance
in the Metropolitan Opera House to the prima donna in the cast, "I
smoked too many cigarettes yesterday; I feel it in my voice." Myron W.
Whitney always left off smoking for two weeks before the Worcester
For travel the singer should be prepared for atmospheric changes as no
one else in the world. He should be especially cautious at night. A
singer who filled an engagement in Savannah started from there for the
North at night. He had been in perfect voice. As the night was warm he
left one of the windows of his berth open. At Washington he woke up with
cold. It was snowing, and snow had come in through the open window on to
his berth. His nose was "stuffed." He had no voice when he reached New
York. This was due to the sudden intensification of all the things
that belong to a cold. If he had worn a dressing-gown with a hood--not
necessarily a heavy one--that would have saved him. A garment of that
kind should be worn by singers at night when traveling. They can
regulate the bed-covering accordingly, so as not to be too warm.
Clothing should give correct aeration for the season. Silk underclothing
I regard as dangerous, because silk is a non-conductor. Good Lisle
thread or flannel giving proper aeration is excellent. No one should be
more careful about their clothing than New Yorkers, because of the
sudden changes in temperature there. Stiff, high collars are injurious,
because they are irritants to blood-vessels and nerves and are
non-conductors. Collars should be worn from a quarter to half an inch
away from the skin, for the less the Adam's apple--the highest forward
point of the larynx--is irritated, the better.
There are certain periods of the year and even one special day when
singers should especially look out for their voices. From January
15th-20th is the period of January thaw and of colds from melting snow.
From March 19th-25th the earth is beginning to ferment and this is a
period for spring fever and intestinal troubles, which indirectly affect
the voice. May 9th usually is cold and rainy. The latter part of May and
nearly all June, rose cold or June cold is prevalent. About August 1st
come the dog days and hay fever. In fact, from August 1st until the
autumnal equinox is an anxious time for the singer. From November
11th-25th there is apt to be alternate cold and warm weather conducive
With the singer, more even than with any one else, the ounce of
prevention is the pound of cure. The first sneeze should send the singer
to his physician; and he also should realize--as only too few people
do--that after a cold nature requires from a week to nine days to repair
the damaged processes, and that he should not work too soon. Rest is a
One of the most distinguished French laryngologists, Dr. G. Poyet, was
interviewed for the European edition of the N. Y. Herald on the
subject of hygiene for the singer. Although what Dr. Poyet says on some
points is a repetition of matters already gone over here, while other
points will be more thoroughly gone into than was possible for him in
the space at his command, a summary of what this clever man had to say
on a subject of such importance to the singer will serve capitally the
purpose of this chapter.
Dr. Poyet began by saying that, since the voice has intimate relationship
with the entire organism, it follows that a well-understood hygiene
should concern the totality of the functions. First of all, it is
indispensable to avoid any cause of disturbance of the circulation, and
particularly of the pulmonary functions.
"The singer, as much as possible, should inhabit sufficiently large
apartments. He should avoid rooms warmed by apparatus which may produce
carbonic acid or which remove from the air the watery vapor it contains
normally. Every day on rising he should practise exercises in deep
breathing and, if possible, some of the gymnastic exercises which it is
possible to practise in a room. Walking is undoubtedly the best
exercise, and every singer who is careful of the soundness of his
lungs--which is equivalent to the soundness of his voice--should walk
for an hour every morning before his repast." (This advice of Dr. Poyet
can hardly be taken literally, and should be determined largely by the
physique of the individual.)
In order to avoid colds, bronchitis, sore throat, catarrhal laryngitis,
the singer should regulate in a fitting manner the thickness of his
clothing in accordance with the prevailing temperature. If by misfortune
he catches cold, a little laryngitis, a coryza, all of which cause
hoarseness, he should immediately abstain from singing. Neglect of this
rule may bring about the persistence of vocal accidents often very
long in curing. It is because professional singers cannot interrupt
their work in such cases that they more often than any others suffer
from laryngitis and above all in the so dangerous form of chronic
inflammation of the vocal cords, which determines the deplorable
The cutaneous secretions should be watched in persons who have need
of a clear voice. Almost all catarrhal affections of the respiratory
organs are due to chills. Advice is therefore given to every person who
has practised violent singing-exercises, which cause perspiration,
immediately to change his clothing after having been rubbed down with
a horsehair glove or with flannel sprinkled with alcohol.
Like the respiration, the alimentation ought to be watched by the
singer. As much as possible during the process of digestion no violent
or prolonged singing-exercise should be undertaken. Digestive troubles
are often the cause of deterioration of the voice, either because the
swelling and distension of the stomach by gas trammels the play of the
diaphragm, and consequently that of the lungs, or because intestinal
troubles bring on constipation or diarrhoea.
Very nutritive and very digestible food should be chosen for a singer,
and a mixed alimentation should be employed. Among drinks preference
should be given to wine and beer. Alcoholic liquors, Dr. Poyet thinks,
should be absolutely forbidden. However, he advises a singer in the
course of a fatiguing performance sometimes to moisten the throat with,
and even to take a few mouthfuls of, cold water, to which has been added
a little old cognac or "vin de coca"; but never, on any account, to take
an iced drink just after singing.
Everybody who sings ought first to observe in the strictest manner
the rules of general hygiene. Thanks to this hygiene it is possible
completely to develop all the faculties of the larynx and to regulate
the voice in such manner as to assure its regular operation. General
hygiene, moreover, will permit the singer to preserve himself from the
external influences which may bring about aphony or dysphony, that is,
loss of voice or difficulty of voice.
A person who sings should always assume a natural attitude, since this
aids the play of the respiratory organs. This play should be mixed, that
is to say, costal and diaphragmatic. The respiration should be well
regulated. The singer ought never to take too sudden inspirations, for
he would thus run the risk of rapidly irritating the vocal cords. When
it is a question of vocal exercises, one always should proceed from the
simple to the complex, taking care not to prolong the exercises at the
beginning. That is, the first singing-exercises should not be too
prolonged. Moreover, in these first exercises the singer should never
attempt to attain the extreme notes of his vocal range. The exercises
should lie in the middle register.
Keen impressions, whether of joy or pain, are, in Dr. Poyet's opinion,
bad for the voice. Great fear may cause a passing but instantaneous loss
of voice. "Vox faucibus haesit." The emotion of singing in public, as
everyone knows, prevents many artists from showing their full capacity.
Only custom, and sometimes reasoning, can free them from "stage-fright."
People who sing, and who desire to preserve the integrity of their
voice, should abstain from smoking. Because some singers--Faure, in
particular--have had a brilliant career despite the inveterate use of
tobacco, there is no reason that this example should be followed.
Tobacco irritates the pharynx, reddens the vocal cords, and may cause
heart troubles harmful to singing.
Pungent scents should be proscribed for singers. The odors of some
flowers are for certain artists the cause of persistent hoarseness.
Mme. Carvalho could not endure the scent of violets, which instantly
caused her to lose her voice. Scents often determine a rapid congestion
of the mucous membrane of the nose to such an extent that in certain
persons they cause veritable attacks of asthma. Dr. Poyet also puts
singers on their guard against scented toilet powder. "I knew," he says,
"a great singer who was obliged to renounce the use of the toilet powder
called 'a la Marechale.'"
In ending the interview, he calls attention to the fact that the larynx,
while very delicate, is an extremely resistant organ, since it can face
fatigues that no other human organ could support; but because it shows
signs of fatigue only by hoarseness, is no reason to call on it for
too prolonged efforts. "To work two hours a day, either in study or
in singing, seems to me a maximum that should not be overstepped by a
person careful of his vocal health."
Another distinguished foreign specialist is Dr. N. J. Poock van Baggen,
of The Hague, Holland, who has contributed to the Medical Record a
series of articles on throat diseases caused by misuse of the voice,
and their cure.[A]
[Footnote A: These articles have been reprinted in four slim but
interesting pamphlets published by William Wood & Co., New York.]
Clergyman's sore throat, as Dr. Van Baggen says, is a disease known
to every throat specialist. "It is produced by misuse of the voice,
and the same disease, often in more aggravated form, is produced in
the singer and by the same cause. The patient, after singing, will
experience a dry and hot feeling in the pharynx and larynx, irritation,
and a frequent cough. Examination of the patient discloses catarrh of
the pharynx and of the larynx; congested and swollen mucous membrane;
pillars of the fauces swollen and unduly developed; all these symptoms
accompanied by paresis of the vocal cords, which are red or yellow and
do not approximate well. To this paresis of the cords is united a
paresis of certain muscles of the larynx; to which is added, in serious
cases, a swelling of the aryepiglottic ligament."
That this disorder is not organic, but functional--not caused by
enlarged tonsils, adenoids, nasal polypus or malformation of the tongue,
but by misuse of the voice--can be proved by the beneficial effect
produced upon the organs by complete rest from singing; the symptoms
sometimes disappearing entirely, only to reappear, however, when singing
is resumed--further proof that misuse of the voice is at the root of
"Dividing the muscles into those used in breathing, in articulation of
consonants and in vowel enunciation, the physician will find that in
his patient there is no proper coordination between these three groups
of muscles--that through faulty respiration and articulation the
respiratory and articular muscles fail to support sufficiently the vocal
muscles, with the result that the vibration of the vocal cords is
weakened. One fault begets another. The faulty use of the respiratory
muscles directs the vibrating air-column to the soft palate, where the
tone is so smothered that the singer has to over-exert himself to be
heard, instead of directing it against the hard palate, where it would
gain vibrance and carrying quality."
The faulty use of the muscles of articulation is disclosed when the back
of the tongue rises like a flabby partition between the opening of the
mouth and the pharynx, the consonants being formed thereby far back in
the mouth, instead of forward with the tip or middle of the tongue
leaning against the hard palate. The articulation is, in consequence,
thick and dull. The vocal muscles are contracted to an unnatural degree,
and every vocal tone is accompanied by an audible shock or spasm of the
glottis. All this adds to the exertion required of the singer to make
himself heard, an exertion and strain which eventually result in the
symptoms that have been described, and which most singers believe due
to colds and other troubles, whereas they are the result of the singer's
own misuse of his voice.
I have said that correct breathing is one of the fundamentals of correct
voice-production. No wonder, therefore, that incorrect breathing is one
of the most potent factors in the misuse of the voice that sends the
singer as a patient to the physician. I have stated that there are three
kinds of breathing--clavicular, costal and diaphragmatic; and these
have been described. It has also been pointed out that the teacher who
instructs in one kind of breathing to the exclusion of the other two
makes a serious mistake. For in correct breathing, all three are
coordinated. Usually it is spoken of as mixed costal and diaphragmatic.
In truth, however, it is mixed costal, diaphragmatic and clavicular;
but, aside from the awkwardness of combining all three terms in
characterizing correct breathing, the clavicles play a less important
part in it than the diaphragm and the ribs. In their relative importance
to correct breathing the diaphragm comes first, the ribs next and then
the clavicles. I feel certain that Dr. Poyet means the coordination of
the three when he speaks of mixed costal and diaphragmatic breathing,
and that Dr. Van Baggen also means this when he speaks of diaphragmatic
breathing. In fact, his description of diaphragmatic breathing involves
the ribs; and if he omits mention of the clavicles, this may be
explained by the slight part they play in correct breathing, merely
topping off, as it were, the action of diaphragm and ribs.
Dr. Van Baggen, in the breathing-exercises which he describes as
beneficial for restoring a voice impaired by misuse, lays emphasis on
the control of expiration and on the brief retention of the breath
before exhaling it. In his first exercise the abdomen is pushed forward
and contracted, the idea of breathing being excluded in order to
concentrate attention upon making the movements correctly.
The second exercise consists of these same movements, but now combined
with inspiration and expiration through the nostrils. When first
started, the exercises are limited to a few minutes four or five times
a day. When this method of breathing has become natural to the patient,
there is added the brief retention of the breath and expiration under
control--that is, gradual expiration. This constitutes the third
In this it is recommended to inhale slowly through the mouth, which
should be in position to pronounce f, that is, not too open. Hold the
breath while mentally counting three. Exhale, pronouncing a prolonged
s and finishing on t. The pronunciation of f during inhalation
and of s and t during exhalation is advised in order to provide
evidence that inhalation and exhalation are carried out evenly and
without shaking or breaks.
Built upon this is the exercise for teaching the vocalist to inhale
quickly, hold his breath a brief space, and exhale as slowly as possible,
as must be done in singing. The inspiration now is through the nostrils;
the pause is not quite so long, but the expiration on s and t is
longer--say as mentally counting 40 would compare with counting 10.
Whoever has read carefully the chapters on breathing in this book will
have discovered by this time that the breathing-exercises just described
lead up to the principles of artistic breathing set forth in those
chapters; and that whoever has read them and will carry them out never
will require breathing-exercises to correct misuse of the voice from
that source, because his breathing will be absolutely correct. The same
is true of the exercises given by Dr. Van Baggen to make the
breathing-muscles cooperate with the articulation and vocal muscles.
Nevertheless, since there are people who do not read carefully, or who
go along in the same old faulty way until brought up suddenly by the
dire effects of misusing the voice, I may add that Dr. Van Baggen's
exercises for articulation will be found in detail in the pamphlets
When a singer who is suffering from misuse of the voice comes to a
specialist for treatment, the specialist must for the moment become a
singing-teacher and instruct the singer in the artistic coordination of
breathing, articulation and vocal muscles. The patient, having gained
proper breath-control and having had impressed upon him the importance
of forward placement and of the normal position of the tongue to correct
articulation of consonants, is ready for correction of the faulty
action of the vocal cords. This faulty action is due chiefly to faulty
attack--a faulty coup de glotte--manifest mainly on initial vowels in
an audible stroke, shock or check and in the emission of unvocalized
breath. This latter is the so-called spiritus asper, because the
emission of unvocalized breath which precedes phonation gives an
aspirated or h sound, so that, instead of ah, we hear haa. The
spiritus asper is caused by a too slow contraction of the vocal cords
and their too gradual approach for phonation.
In the audible shock of the glottis (sometimes called the "check
glottid") the vocal cords are pressed together and the retained breath
causes a shock or explosion. Dr. Van Baggen says that the vowel which
is thus formed might be called an articulated vowel, which accurately
describes the effect, the vowel being enunciated with the circumstance
of the articulated consonant instead of with the ease of the phonated
With a normal attack--the spiritus lenis in contradistinction to the
spiritus asper--the glottis is in position for phonation at the moment
breath passes through it. No unvocalized breath precedes it and no
explosion follows it. The vowel-attack is clear, precise and distinct.
Not only is the voice-emission pure, but there is no needless fatigue
of voice, because all superfluous movement of the glottis is avoided.
The "check glottid" or glottic shock, on the other hand, involves an
undue effort of the vocal muscles, and the compression of the vocal
cords causes irritation. The audible shock of the glottis cannot be
avoided when it is necessary to accentuate a word beginning with an
initial vowel. Constantly used, however, it is part of the misuse of
the voice. Dr. Van Baggen recommends, as a method of correcting the
too frequent use of the audible shock, that when a word beginning with
an initial vowel appears in the middle of a phrase, this word should
be united to the preceding one, somewhat after the manner (but more
lightly) of the French verbal "liaison," in which the final consonant
of a word becomes the initial consonant of the following word beginning
with a vowel. For example in "vous avez," the s of "vous" is drawn
over to and pronounced with the a of "avez," the effect being
"vou-z-avez." If the phrase that is to be sung commences with a word
beginning with an initial vowel, care must be taken to employ the normal
coup de glotte, or spiritus lenis.
Although I have devoted two chapters to the registers of the voice,
I shall also quote Dr. Van Baggen on the faulty use of these and the
physical ills that result therefrom, since there are but few singers who
do not know the difficulties which the registers of the voice offer; and
many who spoil their voices forever by the misuse of those registers.
Generally, the misuse consists in the exaggeration of a lower register
at the expense of the higher; that is, in order to produce "big tone,"
forcing a register up instead of bringing the higher one down.
Especially with dramatic singers, this fault is frequent. There is no
voice, however strong it may be, which can endure this overstraining of
the registers, and sooner or later the singer must experience the
disastrous results of his or her fault--hoarseness, fatigue, roughness,
and impureness in singing, and last, but not least, premature wearing
out of the vocal organs.
The exaggeration of the registers is generally united with faulty
breathing, which first of all must be corrected. Only after good results
have been obtained with regard to breath practice, can exercises for the
correction of the use of the registers be made with success.
When the fault consists in the exaggeration of the low register, the
singing in this register must be avoided for some time; when both the
low and middle registers have been used beyond their limit, exercises
can at first be sung only in the high register.
The pupil, while practising (in the first case in the middle and high
register, in the second only in the high register), must limit himself
to a few tones, singing always downwards and very softly. The tones will
be weak, husky, and often impure in the beginning; by and by, however,
they will improve. When those few tones are pure and clear, the pupil
may extend the exercises downwards, always singing pianissimo and
avoiding the lower register. The high and middle registers, or only the
high register, must be extended downwards as far as possible. Only after
all the tones, sung as indicated, are clear and pure and have gained
sufficiently in strength, may the low or the low and middle registers
be used again, but even then not more than is strictly necessary.
The extending downwards of a higher register is also an excellent help
in smoothing out the break in the voice at the passage from one register
to the other. This extending downwards of the higher registers always
can be done without any danger to the voice. The "timbre" of the voice
will even gain considerably in brilliancy and fullness by exercising in
Closely united to the stretching and relaxing of the vocal ligaments is
the moving up and down of the larynx. Many believe that the larynx must
be kept as motionless as possible and in a low position. The large
number of voices which have been spoilt by this unnatural fixed position
of the voice-box are a manifest proof of the evil of this way of
operating, against which every singer must be warned.
The larynx must be completely free in its movement, its positions
varying according to each tone and to the pronunciation of each vowel.
We can easily follow the movement of the larynx by laying the finger on
the prominence in the throat formed by the junction of the two wings of
the thyroid cartilage, commonly called "Adam's apple." When pronouncing
successively "oo, ow, oh, ah, eh, ay, ee," we shall notice that the
voice-box rises and inclines slightly backwards; and, while at "oo" its
position is lowest, it is highest at "ee."
Also when singing upwards we feel the larynx going up, while the
inclination backwards can be observed even better than when pronouncing
the vowels. Especially when singing a high tone after a low one we can
feel how considerably the position of the larynx changes, and it is
clear that every obstruction in its movement hinders normal
When examining the patient the physician should observe the action of
the larynx and feel if there are no spasmodic movements and if the
flexibility is satisfactory. The action of the larynx can be exercised
and improved by singing seconds, thirds, etc. The keynote always may
be sung on oo; the second, third, etc., on ee.