Every car comes with an owner’s manual, which instructs you to pull over immediately if the oil light on the dash illuminates. A better idea, if you’re in the habit of waiting until the trouble light comes on before taking care of your engine, would be to put a “for sale” sign on the vehicle. Allowing a car to run without enough lubrication is a sure recipe for trouble down the road. The same is true for singers who don’t keep themselves hydrated. Without adequate protection, the activity of singing causes the membranes in the larynx to swell. The problem is friction. The body has a natural solution, however, if we would only follow the owner’s manual for our bodies.
Keeping yourself hydrated is an all-day affair. Often, we wait until we’re thirsty to reach for a drink. This is too late for singers — especially once you’re on stage. It takes at least twenty minutes, on an empty stomach, for water to cycle around your system and show up at the membranes where it’s needed. Other beverages take longer because they must be digested. This means drinks on stage don’t take effect until after the set. So why does it feel like a quick swig of something between songsoffers immediate relief? Two reasons: The first is that there are receptors in the throat, which signal the brain that fluids are on the way. The second is the physical action of swallowing.
Contrary to belief, nothing we swallow touches the vocal folds. All of the potions singers consume in an effort to wet their whistle are channeled away from the larynx by the epiglottis and sent down the esophagus. It’s just as well. Like the eye, the larynx should be awash in saline, not tea or honey. Even if your drink seeps down to the vocal folds, the air stream created to sing promptly blow-dries the area. If you are driving your voice hard, or are nervous, the muscles in the throat tighten. The tension closes the saliva ducts designated for the larynx. Like blinking, swallowing changes the muscles’ position for a second and allows the ducts to open and re-lubricate — that’s if you are hydrated in the first place.
Two thirds of your body weight is water. It would make sense, then, to replace what’s lost with the same. A general rule is to consume 1/2 an ounce of water for every pound of body weight per day. The water you eat counts, so if you’re not fond of drinking the stuff, load up on high-water content foods like raw fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, beer, coffee and sodas don’t count. Even though each contains mostly water, their ingredients trigger the body to flush itself, leaving you with less water than before.
Certain foods will also drain your internal water supply. Since digestion is the number one priority of the body, when we fill up on low-water foods like breads, crackers, chips, cheese and prepared meats and potatoes, the throat and larynx are robbed of hydration to make up the deficit. Basically, if you have to have something to drink with a meal, the foods you are eating are too concentrated. A good routine would be to hydrate well before a meal so you won’t feel the need to dilute your digestive process. I know this goes against the ever-so-common practice of eating and drinking at the same time, but that tradition was not put in place so we would sing better.
Athletes hydrate well before a game so their muscles don’t cramp; singers should do the same. Maintaining a lubricated larynx means you’ll be able to swallow during a song without sucking on a water bottle. Remember, rehearsals are no easier on your instrument than gigs, so get into the habit of staying hydrated. If your budget is tight, there’s nothing wrong with tap water. It’s a good idea to filter it, though, to remove the chlorine. It’s best to drink water at room temperature to avoid tensing throat muscles.
No matter what style music you sing, you will notice a significant improvement in your vocal longevity once you get yourself up to specs. A good measure of a proper water level is clear urine. Since there is no light on our bodies to warn us when we’re running low, let the following statement be your mantra, “Don’t wait — to hydrate”
WRITTEN BY MARK BAXTER