Panelists offer advice to sustain vocal health

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Try this exercise: Take half a tissue by the edge, hold it in front of your face at nose height and let it hang past your chin. Then say the word "who."

If the tissue moves from the air passing through your mouth, you are using your voice properly. If the tissue doesn't move, you are holding back on your breath and straining your vocal chords. That can lead to vocal fatigue or even damage, pitfalls to be avoided by anyone who does a lot of speaking or singing.

A lot of voice use is common among the 50 or so people who gathered Sunday for a free vocal health seminar at Mercy Hospital. It was designed by the UPMC Voice Center for church choir members and clergy who hope to keep their voices in top working order for years to come.

The tissue exercise was courtesy of Rita Hersan, a speech language pathologist. She was joined by Libby Smith, an otolaryngologist, and Douglas Roth, a voice clinician and specialist. By turns, they covered the anatomy and physiology of voice production, vocal wellness guidelines and techniques to ensure a healthy speaking and singing voice.

Dr. Smith and Ms. Hersan explained how the human instrument produces sound. The power comes from air expelled from the lungs, which travels through the larynx to make sound, and then through the filters -- throat, nose and sinuses, tongue and lips -- which give it resonance.

Speakers should feel the sound vibration in the face, tongue and lips, not the neck, Ms. Hersan said.

"For some reason you hear a lot of teenage girls holding their breath when they speak," Ms. Hersan said, imitating the flat, choked-back sound as the audience nodded knowingly.

Then she demonstrated the "pitch ditch," wherein the voice drops at the end of a phrase.

"You can guess the last syllables, but you don't hear them," she said, but this can be avoided by letting breath flow freely.

The ear is also part of the sound-production process, Dr. Smith said, because it sends modulating messages to the brain.

The larynx contains paired vocal folds, or what lay people call vocal chords, that vibrate together to make sound, she said. The folds are highly sensitive to injury and very difficult to repair. They can be damaged by yelling, coughing, excessive throat-clearing and noisy rooms that cause people to raise their voices.

One negative outcome is hoarseness.

"Hoarseness is never good," Ms. Hersan said.

Added Dr. Smith, "If you're hoarse the day after the Steelers game and it goes away, you're lucky."

Also harmful to the voice are overuse, sinus disease, dehydration, cysts, polyps and acid reflux.

The last is an increasingly common side effect of the typical American diet, Dr. Smith said, caused by caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, spicy and fatty foods, obesity and lying down after a meal. Over-the-counter remedies for acid reflux are a good countermeasure, she said.

"The nose humidifies and warms the air you breathe," said Dr. Smith, but allergies and infections block the nasal passages. So, when using remedies that dry out the nose, it's important to stay hydrated.

"Singing when you're sick can cause serious vocal injuries," she said, including bleeding and irreversible scarring. "It's better to limit your singing, get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water."

And, Ms. Hersan said, it's much better to let your breath out when talking. That, she said, is not just a tip for singers and preachers, but for everyone.

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Sally Kalson: or 412-263-1610.


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