Voice care for teachers

A professor addresses a class of students in front of a projector screen while wearing a face covering.

A guide to caring for your voice while teaching, from the Department of Music’s vocal faculty

Dr. Nathan Leaf, Jennifer Beattie, Dr. Daniel Monek and Dr. DeMar Neal

The pandemic has affected all of us in ways both seen and not seen. As we approach the home stretch of the fall semester, some who use their voices in teaching or other activities may be feeling as though their voices are not working as well as they usually do. Some may feel their voices are worn, tired, scratchy or even sore. While some of this vocal fatigue might be attributed to the rigors of any typical semester, we members of the faculty who are voice professionals want to take a moment to acknowledge that for voice use, teaching this semester is anything but typical.

Wearing a mask not only makes it more difficult for others to hear us, it also affects the manner in which we use our voices, the way we hear ourselves when we speak, and the typical equilibrium we maintain between voice use, vocal rest and hydration. Additionally, personal stress and excess tension in the neck, jaw and shoulders are significant inhibitors of balanced vocal function over time. That Zoom fatigue you experience after spending hours hunched over talking to a screen? It’s real, and it affects your voice. Those tiny bits of frustration you might feel because the typical ways you vocally express your thoughts and ideas are covered, muffled and sometimes less effective–that’s real too.

The good news is that there are simple steps you can take to counter these negative effects, keep your voice feeling good, and enable something closer to your typical full range of vocal expression, even through a mask.

Rest and hydration

Your voice is a part of your body, and like any part of your body, it functions better with appropriate amounts of rest and adequate hydration.

Breath

Breath is the power source for your voice. Allow your breathing to be deep, relaxed and free.

Enunciation, pitch range and volume

Speaking for long periods at a high volume or constantly in the lowest part of your speaking range is taxing on your voice. To allow yourself to be heard and understood, especially through a mask, rather than just talking louder, use breath to enunciate clearly. Also, allow your voice to sound in the middle and upper parts of your comfortable speaking range where it is more resonant and will carry better. When speaking to a large group, if it occasionally seems like you might be half-singing when you talk, that’s probably about right.

Use a microphone

If speaking loudly enough to fill the room is challenging, use a microphone. There are many small, portable PA systems that are not expensive. Perhaps your department has one. Using a microphone can save significant wear and tear on your voice, especially when we are wearing masks.

Try a singer’s mask

There are specially designed masks made for singers. These masks may allow you to talk more easily for extended periods than a normal mask. The key elements for a good singer’s mask are that they allow for more natural movement of the jaw without pulling the mask down, and they have some firm structure around the mouth to allow for more separation of the fabric from your mouth while still maintaining a good seal.

Eliminate muscle tension

Many of us carry lots of tension in our neck, jaw and shoulders, and it is easy for that tension to be transferred to the muscles that control our voices, which inhibits their functionality and leads to vocal fatigue. Before or after class, take a couple minutes to breathe deeply and relieve any jaw/neck/shoulder tension through stretches, massage, gentle moving around of your jaw, or any other way that is effective for you.

SOVT exercises

SOVT stands for semi-occluded vocal tract. That’s a fancy way to say that the air tract through the mouth or nose is partially closed. One way to help decompress and revive a tired voice is to take a couple minutes and sing long tones, using flowing breath, on a hum, lip buzz, or through a straw (preferably paper or metal). It’s no accident that sustained singing and humming have been part of many meditative and spiritual practices for centuries–it can help relieve tension and vocal fatigue. The key is to breathe deeply and easily, sing sustained comfortable tones, keep your jaw loose/teeth not clenched together, and relax your neck and shoulders. If you’re curious, check out this YouTube video on the straw technique—we promise, it’s a real thing!

Teaching is taxing on the voice, and even more so in our current circumstances. If you are feeling vocally fatigued, these simple steps may help to keep you and your voice feeling a bit better and able to manage. If you would like any further help or guidance, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Department of Music vocal faculty:

Jennifer Beattie, lecturer, voice

Nathan Leaf, teaching professor and director of choral activities

Dan Monek, professor and department head

DeMar Neal, applied lecturer, voice