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Vocal pacing

October 10, 2013

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The high vocal demands of singers, performers, parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, and occupational voice users often lead to voice problems from overuse. A voice injury from overuse is like a repetitive motion injury, similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. 

When we speak and sing, our vocal folds vibrate very quickly. If we speak or sing a lot as part of our job, our vocal folds can vibrate a million times or more during a workday. We use vocal pacing to balance voice use, and voice rest to avoid or recover from injury.

The vocal clock

We all have a “vocal clock” that starts ticking the minute we start our day. We have a limited number of hours and minutes of safe voice use on that clock before the vocal folds are at risk for being injured.

Certain intense vocal behaviors and styles take more minutes off the clock than others. Examples include yelling, loud speaking, and singing (especially loud singing or belting). Prioritization is key. If teaching or singing is most
important to you, then you may need to reduce other kinds of voice use.

Vocal pacing at work

Vocal pacing means taking voice breaks—both short and long—during your workday, between workdays, and on weekends or vacations. But resting your voice outside of work will not be enough. Finding voice breaks during the workday is essential to avoiding a voice injury. These suggestions will help:

  • Work with your voice therapist to develop safe, efficient speaking technique.
  • Plan time in advance for voice use and voice rest. Professional voice users may need to plan weeks or months in advance.
  • Color-code different types of voice use by intensity or level of priority.
  • During the workday, block out several 5-15 minute periods for voice rest. During voice rest, you can do any task that does not require talking.
  • Use at least part of your lunch break or other scheduled breaks for voice rest.
  • Teachers should avoid long, uninterrupted lectures, which tire the voice quickly. Break up lectures using other teaching strategies.
  • Delegate vocally demanding tasks to others whenever possible.
  • Minimize yelling to get someone’s attention. Use nonverbal alternatives such as bells, whistles, or clapping.
  • Minimize talking when emotionally upset or physically exhausted.
  • If you are ill or your voice is tired, cancel nonessential speaking or social commitments.
  • Always use amplification in situations such as lecturing or teaching engagements, coaching, performing for a large audience, or directing musical rehearsals.
  • Decrease voice use in one-on-one communication: shorten phone calls; use e-mail or text messaging; and avoid talking too loudly on cell phones.

Vocal pacing outside of work

Minimize attending social events in noisy places. Schedule activities that are less vocally demanding, such as watching a movie.

If you must be in a noisy environment, get close to the person you are talking to, or go to a quieter setting so you won’t have you raise your voice.

When possible, arrive late at social gatherings and leave early. Master the art of the brief appearance.

Avoid yelling at sports and spirit events. Show your support by clapping, using a noisemaker or pompoms, or holding up a sign.

Vocal pacing for singing

Work with your singing voice therapist or singing teacher to develop efficient voice production. Singing with technique that is appropriate for your singing style is imperative for long lasting vocal health.

College music majors should prioritize academic voice requirements such as lessons, required ensembles, and practice, and should carefully consider their academic vocal load before joining extracurricular ensembles and activities.

  • Always warm up your voice before rehearsing or performing.
  • Try to rest your voice for one day before and after a big performance.
  • Know your limits for vocal stamina, loudness, and pitch.
  • Do not push through a performance or rehearsal if you’re sick or feeling vocally fatigued.
  • “Mark” whenever possible. “Marking” means singing through a rehearsal with lower vocal intensity than you would use in performance. For example, do not always sing full voice in staging or choreography rehearsals.
  • Minimize scheduling social/public/media events and activities around a performance so you can devote all of your mental and vocal energy to your performance.
  • Minimize recreational singing—in the car, around the house, etc.

Make your practice time count

Schedule individual practice on a regular basis, and break practice time into smaller units. Instead of practicing 60 minutes three times a week, practice 30 minutes six times a week.

Avoid using your voice learning the music. Reap the benefits of mental practice: think through the song while listening to a recording; use unvoiced lip trills or hissing to practice breath flow while listening to or thinking through the music; and memorize and interpret the song mentally before singing through the song.

Plan which songs and which parts of songs need the most work, and allocate your practice time accordingly. Rather than repeatedly running through an entire song, listen to or think through the song three times and then sing it once.

Make vocal pacing work for you

Experiment with the strategies on this sheet to devise a plan that works with your specific needs. Keep in mind that finding your best vocal pacing plan may involve plenty of trial and error. If you experience a setback because you overdid it, assess the cause of the setback and decide how to avoid it in the future.

Effective vocal pacing works best when paired with excellent vocal hygiene. Work with your doctor or voice therapist for optimal vocal hygiene: stay well hydrated; get treatment for allergies and acid reflux; avoid smoking and secondhand smoke; and avoid excessive throat clearing.

Consult a speech-language pathologist who specializes in voice disorders for more information on effective vocal pacing that fits your lifestyle.

Learn more about voice disorder treatments at Duke

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