As evidenced herein, more of our time is being spent on e-meetings than ever before. Your reality may not be a 33% jump like it is for me, but every minute longer we spend talking online is a minute longer we may be stressing our voices. What follows are practical steps I have found fruitful over the past year; all things that are easily actionable for anyone finding themselves in a similar position.
1. The simple solution of time
If at all possible, really dig into your own schedule and see if there are meetings you can delay or scrap altogether. If you can’t, build in breaks. UTSouthwestern’s Dr. Lesley Childs suggests, “[F]or every 60 minutes of voice use, you need 10 minutes of voice rest.”
At the start of the coronavirus lockdown, for a long while, I found myself packing meetings back-to-back. Over an arc of time, I found this was really stressing my throat. Now, unless it’s absolutely unavoidable, I add 10–30 minutes of space between meetings, just like I would have pre-pandemic, and I fill that time with rest and fluids (see #2).
2. Coffee is a double-edged sword
If I don’t start my day with at least two cups of coffee, it puts me, my wife, and every virtual colleague I encounter in harm’s way. But each of those cups is filled with about 95mg of caffeine. In the world of vocal health, caffeine can be a bad-news substance.
Coffee specifically is in the diuretic family, or “substances that cause your body to make more urine than usual.” So for all its glorious benefits-of-alertness, coffee removes hydration from the body. And Dr. Childs notes, “The most important thing we can consume to improve vocal health is water. Staying hydrated helps your body produce thin, watery mucus… they need that mucus to help them stay lubricated.” She gives us a very practical roadmap:
“We recommend drinking 64 ounces of water each day. If you enjoy a caffeinated or alcoholic drink, you need to add more water to your daily consumption. So, if you drink 64 ounces of water, and then you have a 16-ounce coffee, you need to drink 16 more ounces of water.”
While any water is generally better than a caffeinated beverage, the temperature matters. Even in warm climates when we might want a refreshing, chilled beverage — like here in Texas — it is beneficial for the water to be warm, or at least room temperature. I can’t stress enough how water with honey can be a lifesaver. Whether before or during a concert, recording a vocal track in a studio, or trudging through a marathon of Zoom meetings, I regularly keep warm honey-water (or honey tea) accessible.
On that last part… If you’re a bit adventurous — and you have a local Asian market nearby — you might also try to find honey tea or honey ginger tea. Normal tea also has caffeine, but calling this sweet alternative “tea” is slightly disingenuous — actual tea is not typically one of the ingredients. It’s very sweet, but it’s incredibly soothing.
3. The power of proximity
When I found my voice really tiring out during the early days of the pandemic, I realized part of the issue was shouting into the abyss that is a built-in microphone somewhere on my laptop. When we’re with other people, together in the same space, we can ‘read the room’ (as it were) to know when we need to speak louder or more softly.
Other than literally being ‘on mute,’ sometimes whether or not other people can hear us online is out of our control. University of Florida’s Upper Airway Dysfunction Lab notes, “If a listener complains that he/she cannot hear the speaker, a natural response may be to increase vocal loudness when it is truly an issue with intelligibility. This requires changes to articulatory precision, rather than volume.”
A few months into quarantine, I dug through my drawers to find an old pair of in-ear headphones with a built-in microphone. This technological “upgrade” drastically lowered the volume with which I was approaching e-meetings — this was confirmed very un-scientifically by my wife who noted how much quieter our space had become now that her ex-singer husband’s booming baritone voice was no longer frequently booming throughout the house.
UF’s Lab confirmed this more scientifically, suggesting “Using headphones with a built-in microphone and/or conducting meetings in a quiet space can improve speech clarity and volume without modifying voice.”
4. Vocal issues may be telling a larger story
It’s not always so simple that a hoarse or dry throat may be the direct result of vocal overuse — it could be the result of nerve injury, an infection, acid reflux, or something more significant. One of my ongoing vocal issues has to do with canker sores. Not to be confused with very-contagious, very-visible cold sores, canker sores are small, non-transmissible ulcers that typically appear on the inside of the mouth or cheeks. They heal on their own usually within two weeks, but while present, they are an incredible nuisance.
No less than a dozen times since March 2020, when I found my voice was really starting to give out, a few days later I would discover one of the sores in my mouth. The causes are myriad, such as a minor mouth abrasion from brushing too hard or biting your lip, but I tend to get them when I’m overly stressed or rundown.
Few things other than time act as a cure, and while I have been told by some physicians and dentists that saltwater rinses, the vitamin L-Lysine, and even diets high in onions are helpful, I have never found any of those to be overly useful remedies.
Your whole body is a system, and like anything else, a symptom with one part may signify an issue with another. If you are finding that taking breaks, drinking water, or speaking more softly into a headphone microphone isn’t providing the right solutions for your vocal issues, it may be worthwhile to call your physician and have a conversation. You might start with an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor or otolaryngologist.