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How do singers protect their voices?

Placido Domingo Image copyright PA

Professional singers treat their voices a bit like athletes treat their bodies, writes singer and broadcaster Mary King.

The best protection is a good posture and sound vocal technique. Voices always need to be supported by the bigger muscles in the body - poor posture can lead to muscular tension and vocal strain. There are also other factors which might be less obvious.

Singers need to keep their bodies hydrated, so that the delicate vocal folds (or cords) can be kept supple. They would probably drink between two and three litres of water spread out throughout the day. The water would be at room temperature, rather than ice-cold.

A number of factors contribute to dryness, so singers avoid caffeine, red wine and, wherever possible, air-conditioning. Smoke, of course, in whatever form, is a really bad idea.

Hydration in the form of steam (head over a bowl of boiling water, with a towel over your head), is seen by many singers as the very best way to get the folds hydrated, and to shift thick mucus which might clog them up. Menthol products are too strong for the delicate membranes, so singers choose to keep it pure.

A singer's lifestyle is very different from the average person - they need to have enough energy for a performance, but not eat so much that they fall asleep. Eating late at night, however - after a performance, for example - can produce problems with acid reflux.

This condition causes stomach acids to rise up the oesophagus during sleep, backing up against the vocal folds, causing discomfort, and eventually, damage. For this reason also, singers tend to avoid spicy or acidic foods - eg apples or tomatoes - and fizzy drinks, and often sleep with the bedhead raised.

Singers will regularly spend some time on "vocal rest" - total silence, with no speaking for a period of 48 hours, giving their vocal apparatus time to recover. The rule with sore throats, and particularly laryngitis, is no speaking and no whispering - the very worst thing that you can do in this situation.

Singers can be compared to sportsmen and women - they are the athletes of the voice.

Sunday Feature: An Anatomy of Singing broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 at 18:45 BST on Sunday 21 June as part of the Classical Voice Season and will be available to catch up on iPlayer for 30 days. Radio 3 is resident at the Royal Welsh College of Music Drama from 19-21 June.

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