AS THEATRE PROFESSOR and voice trainer Steven Chicurel-Stein says, singers are “vocal athletes.” And he means that literally. Just as an isolated sprint will punish your leg muscles, belting out that power ballad without warm-ups and proper, ongoing training will lead to a sore throat — or even to your understudy replacement.

Vocal health isn’t just about drinking ginger tea with lemon and occasionally resting your voice. Maintaining good vocal health is a 24/7 job. Chicurel-Stein, director of the School of Performing Arts at the University of Central Florida, maintains that the more you know about the physiological mechanics of your vocal instrument, the better equipped you will be to perform.

He teaches the Estill Voice Training method, developed in 1988 by American singing voice specialist Jo Estill. The method breaks vocal production into its component physical structures — tongue, vocal folds (or vocal cords), larynx, torso, etc. — and identifies specific vocal exercises that properly condition each structure.

From a belted high note sprint to the stamina required in an ensemble marathon role, anatomical literacy can help a singer develop sustainable, consistent performance quality. In other words, just “feeling it” is not enough. Try bellowing to the high heavens night after night without proper placement and pacing, and you will not enjoy the feelings to come.

And speaking of feelings, good vocal techniques can help increase your acting range. Chicurel-Stein often emphasizes to his students the physical strain of performing emotionally intense vocal arrangements onstage. For example, take Fantine’s heart-wrenching “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables, repeated every night — and sometimes twice a day. What if the actress is not feeling it? She has to give every audience the same performance, right?

Chicurel-Stein, who has studied with Jo Estill since 1988 and has taught her model around the world, calls his students’ attention to their natural human tendencies while, for example, crying. The physical components of crying — or as Jo Estill called it, “the sob recipe” — include whimpering, deeper breaths, and a relaxed throat (the same relaxation behind yawning). This is the ideal formula for both classical singing and for emotionally demanding songs like Fantine’s.

KNOW YOUR LEARNING STYLE

One central aspect of Estill Voice Training is to recognize your learning style: auditory, visual, or kinetic.

Master imitators, adept at accents and celebrity impressions, tend to be auditory learners. And they tend toward certain unhealthy habits. For example, one thing that speech pathologist and Estill trainer Kerrie Obert hears in a lot of inexperienced, imitative singers is a confusion between twang and nasality. “Twang is a brightness in the voice that is often confused with nasality,” says Obert. In trying to sound “like the Wicked Witch of the West, a lot of people are accidentally lowering their velum,” referring to the soft palate that comprises the soft tissue at the back of the mouth’s roof. This creates “a nasalized sound, when what they’re really trying to obtain is that bright, brassy Kristen Chenoweth, Idina Menzel kind of sound.”

Now, there are singers who have a nasality we love, such as Taylor Swift. But Obert points out that, while Swift’s sound may be successful, she’s “not on the stage performing huge belty pieces” on a daily basis. Recording artists “are singing with microphones in a studio with a limited range. We really can’t afford that sound in musical theatre,” where the volume depends on our vocal projection. Instead, stage performers must learn more efficient, sustainable techniques.

“When you lower the velum and nasalize the sound, you lose a lot of sound energy,” Obert says, so “people push at the vocal folds to make up for the lost sound energy. Without awareness of such strain, you can do permanent damage to your vocal folds.” Obert explains, “A simple trick, like lifting the velum to make the sound oral [that is, throaty] rather than nasal, can reduce the push everywhere else.”

If you learn visually, you can avoid poor habits and better channel sound using techniques that involve clear mental images, like imagining putting your voice “forward in your nose” or deliberately changing your mouth shape to produce stronger sounds.

Meanwhile, kinetic learners can harness greater, more sustainable vocal energy through more mechanical methods. For instance, operatic singing requires a certain roundness and depth of sound. This can be effected through the placement of your larynx, the structure that connects to the Adam’s apple. If you touch your Adam’s apple (or thyroid cartilage), feel where it sits, and adjust accordingly, that may help you find the proper placement.

NURSING YOUR VOICE

Antique medical illustration.Performers are only human and sometimes get sick. Of course, this can even happen on opening week or before an important audition. What to do? Taking three supplements of vitamin C isn’t any more helpful than taking one. Numbing your throat with Chloraseptic spray may soothe the pain, but pain is your body’s way of communicating to you when you are harming yourself. Chicurel-Stein gives the classic advice: listen to your body. “Sometimes the best way to address a vocal issue is not to try to sing or speak over it or go for some quick fix,” he says. “Have an understudy go on for you.”

Sometimes, though, you won’t have an understudy or the luxury of skipping that audition. According to choral specialist and Nova Southeastern University professor Bill Adams, maximizing airflow can help. “My classical technique and the continual quest to create open space for resonance and receiving air quickly serve me when sick,” he says. “Students can depend on the breath.”

That said, sometimes you need more than increased airflow. “If it’s opening week and you’ve lost your voice, you need to call the ENT [ear, nose, and throat doctor]. They have medications that they can give you as a last resort that will help reduce the irritation and swelling of the vocal folds. We don’t like to do it habitually, because it indicates that the person is doing something to cause the hoarseness. But if you just get plain old sick and you have a show coming up, you need to see the ENT.”

MAKE IT A HABIT

When your body takes in fluids and foods, it can take days for that nourishment to reach your vocal machinery. In reality, downing 24 ounces of water the morning of an audition just makes you have to visit the restroom every 10 minutes. You don’t reap the benefits of hydration until you’re hoping for that callback.

“Personal health — mental and physical — comes first, and it tops the list of priorities,” says Adams. Taking care of your entire body helps take care of your voice. The best thing you can do is to start healthy habits that are easy to adopt and to commit to.

First among those is increasing your water intake. Water is a singer’s best friend. When asked about essential daily habits, Obert says, “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!” She suggests buying a gallon jug and drawing lines measuring every 8 ounces. Carry it with you and build up to drinking one whole jug a day. Then, have a cup of non-caffeinated tea before you go to sleep every night. This is good for your throat, plus it tastes good and helps you relax and get to sleep — often the best medicine.

Acidic foods, however, may not be your friends. This may not be easy to hear, but chocolate, soda, candy, tomatoes, coffee, and even a lot of sugary citrus fruits (like orange juice) can cause acid reflux. You don’t have to entirely cut all of these from your diet, but be mindful of how much and how late you consume these, especially if you suffer heartburn or burning sensations in your throat.

In addition to hydration and diet consideration, Chicurel-Stein emphasizes vocal warm-ups. “One should engage in vocal warm-ups as often as one can during the day. These warm-ups begin as low-impact and require little phonation. Because of this, they can be practiced anywhere!” Such daily exercises can include retraction (pushing your vocal folds outward), recoil breaths (exhaling sharply, then letting your body naturally inhale rather than sucking in air), and sirens (quietly intoning your entire vocal range on an “ng” sound). And “always do vocal cool-downs following singing or speaking,” Chicurel-Stein advises.

Obert also suggests going easy on your voice when not rehearsing or performing. “Avoid screaming and yelling such as you might do at a ballgame. Give yourself time for rest both vocally and physically. Recognize when hoarseness has been persistent for more than two weeks, you probably need to see a physician.”

Talent and hard work both hook opportunities, but a vigilant approach to vocal health will help ensure that you can continue to reel them in. According to Obert, the Estill model, which incorporates both body awareness and preventative daily habits, “gives you lots of tools for quickly identifying problems and working towards a solution.”

This story appeared in the May 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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