Episode 26 – Vocal Fold Hydration, Revisited

Keeping your vocal folds properly hydrated is essential for good healthy speaking and singing, but it is not always easily done.

Just drinking more fluids is often not enough, especially for those who use their voices on a professional level.

In this episode, John again looks at some of the latest research on vocal fold hydration and the best practices for achieving good vocal health.

John also discusses why women need to take extra care in making sure they are properly hydrated as research is showing they have particular issues that men do not.

This episode is a must for all singers who want their vocal cords to be as healthy as possible.


Episode 26 – Vocal Fold Hydration, Revisited

Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the Intelligent Vocalist.

And speaking of intelligent, I recently found out that a number of members of the Professional Voice Teachers Facebook Group are listening to this podcast. If you don’t know about this group, you can only be in it if you are a professional voice teacher. The group is full of wicked smart people who will instantly slay you if you are spewing vocal nonsense. Now I know that I have these people looking over my shoulder. If you notice that I am stammering more, take more time between my sentences, and have more difficulty in actually forming an opinion, it is because of them. So if you are from the Professional Voice Teachers group, welcome! And also know that you are likely ruining my podcast.


Today’s subject, I want to revisit Vocal Fold Hydration. That’s such a boring topic, and I can’t imagine. You know, it’s funny I can see the number of downloads, and I get a lot of downloads on things like how to sing higher, how to sing with more power, because those are the things that singers want. But you know, hydration is so vitally vitally important, and there is new research being done. You know, it’s funny, there’s been so little research on how to effectively hydrate the cords beyond simply drinking water or having a humidifier. And it is so important for the professional singer. It really does affect their ability to perform. Although, as I will discuss, it’s more important in women than in men. And this is something that’s rather surprising, but I will get into that.


Basically, when you drink water, that is systemic hydration. You’re putting water into your system and you have to trust your body to parse that water out through all the organs and the cells, etc. And vocal cords seem to be somewhat low priority, that you cannot take a glass of water with the intention of it going straight to your vocal cords.


And as I have talked about before, you have this thing called the epiglottis which is the shoe-horn looking thing that closes over and blocks things from going down your lungs, down your trachea where your vocal cords are. Because if it does hit the vocal cords and it’s gone the wrong way, they do their biological job of keeping you alive by keeping foreign objects out of the lungs and they begin to cough. They begin to try and expel that. So, drinking water is not perfect. We have people who can suffer for more chronic dryness than others. We have extremely dry climate. I will tell you, here in Southern California this time of year, it is getting extremely dry so it’s becoming a bit of an issue. In other places of the country, you will notice when all of a sudden your hands starts cracking and get really dry? Well then your vocal cords are also getting really dry. The environment is incredibly dry. So you can drink water. You can also use a humidifier, which I recommend, but you can’t carry that around with you. The effect also seems to be temporary.


So, in my previous podcast upon hydration, I spoke about nebulizers. And what they do is they basically turn the water into these tiny little breathable particles. And what’s great about the nebulizer is in the test that they did. They put in different substances into the nebulizer. And they use water, they use Entertainer’s Secret (that throat spray with a little tuxedo on the bottle), and then they use saline solution. And of the three, the Entertainer’s Secret really didn’t seem to do much at all. And what they do is they made sure that the singers’ voices were dry by having them basically breathe dry air out of the tank. So they dry them out. I believe it was 15 minutes. And then they use water – that was better. They use saline solution – that worked the best.

Now you could ask, “Why can’t I just put saltwater into my steamer or into my humidifier?” Well, the salt will be left behind, especially steamer. It’s boiling; it’s not going to go into the air. The nebulizer carries the saline, so you can breathe that onto the vocal fold. And they found that that had the greatest impact. The nebulizer they recommend, it’s the one I have, is by OMRON. O-M-R-O-N. I couldn’t remember if it’s OMRON or ONRON.

OMRON. It’s the micro-air. I’ve seen them between $150-$200, and it’s portable. You can clean the thing out with basically a solution of distilled water and white vinegar, just so you’re not breathing in any nasty bacteria or things like that. And you can buy little vials of sterilized saline solution; they’re not that expensive. You can find them online for medical supply places.

And they talked about going ahead and dumping that little solution in, filling the little cup, breathe it for about 15 minutes or so, until the cup is empty. And they recommend keeping your mouth on the mouthpiece so you consistently breathing in the saline solution.

Again, I’d be careful about where you’re doing this because it looks like some high-tech kind of “vaping” thing so you may draw some strange glances. But, it is certainly portable enough that you can carry it around before a performance. Backstage, you can do your 15-20 minutes of breathing in the saline solution. And it does have an effect; it gets it directly on the cords.


Now, they’re doing research. And there’s talk of maybe developing some type of lotion that can go on the vocal folds, etc. But, again, we need to know more about this because it certainly causes issues for singers when the voice is dry.


Basically, you have the cells of the vocal folds. So again, you have ligament in the vocal folds, you have muscle, and then you have this soft tissue; this epithelial layer.  And in all these little cells, when they get hydrated, it’s like oil in your car. And also, the cords are more pliable. As they dry out, they get more stiff, and then it takes more effort to send them into motion to get them buzzing. It’s the phonation threshold pressure. That’s what it is. Phonation threshold pressure; I got to think about this stuff. PTP. Because acronyms make them sound smarter, I’ll say PTP. That’s basically the amount of effort that you need to get your cords buzzing. We want that effort, as singers, as low as possible. We don’t want to have a lot of effort, it’s just going to use more effort to get to pitch all of those things when you have dry cords.


However, in recent studies, they have found – again, there’s more research to be done and they have to do it for different age ranges, etc. But, it would appear that women are more susceptible to issues of vocal fold hydration than men; and they looked at primarily young men. But in essence, when they used the saline solution with the nebulizer on men, the effects after they had the dry air, in terms of physiological level, weren’t really much at all. Now, when they got hydrated by the nebulizer, psychologically, it felt better. It felt like they were working less. And these included singers as well as non-singers. And in non-singers, really seem to struggle more when, not just physiologically but also just in terms of psychologically with the voice, when it was really dry, more so than singers. That makes sense, and that singers have work to have more control over their voice. But also, people who are singers and could really become the lead singers. Maybe there’s a genetic separation from non-singers that they don’t know. There’s so much more work to be done.


But be that as it may, not a lot of change with men. And with women, not only did it make a much bigger difference, but also, in terms of breathing. If you breathe through your nose versus your mouth, it takes a longer path to get to the vocal folds. And as it goes through the nasal passages, the air is basically warmed and it is also made more moist, so it’s easier on the vocal folds. If you really want to draw out your voice, I mean, you can even experiment. Go ahead and breathe in and out quickly through your nose, versus your mouth. It’s going to feel drier much faster through the mouth. Women breathing nasally or breathing through orally, definitely have bigger impact than men. So the breathing through the nose versus breathing through the mouth wasn’t that big of a deal for men. Using the nebulizer wasn’t as big of a deal for men. Now these are young and healthy males. So maybe if they’re older it’s a little different, but it’s not as big of a change as for women. And what they hypothesize is that because the male larynx is longer and deeper – Well, if you think about the advantage of going through the nose is that it takes longer to get to the vocal folds, and so it can be made more moist by the body during that travel. If the man’s laryngeal space is longer, then it takes a little longer, and there’s more chance for the air to become moist, which makes it easier around the voice.


They also want to look into if there are differences between the sexes on that level, but the research is not there yet. Although, it’s pretty interesting. Most of these is coming out of bringing the young university. (My voice is getting dry, ironically.) It’s really fascinating stuff.


So what I want to say is then, for males, you’d obviously want to stay well hydrated. I think the nebulizer could be a good idea, even if it’s on a psychological level. Because if you feel psychologically that there’s less effort, you won’t be sending those signals from the brain that it takes more effort. Remember, the muscles of the vocal folds react to indirect thought. It is indirect control. Again, there are muscles we don’t control – the muscles of the heart we do not control. We have muscles we directly control like wiggling your fingers and toes, and then there is indirect, like the cords that kind of unique in the body and muscles there. So they rely very heavily on this kind of abstract thoughts of pitch and intensity. Because you don’t feel these muscles adjust, you have to get very very strong thought and strong messages to the vocal folds in order to get them to do what you need them to do. And I think, psychologically – I’m going to interject some opinions here and some guessing – if your thought process is thrown off on in any level, that is going to throw off your ability to sing at your highest level. You really need to have the confidence like everything feeling good, in order, well for me in my opinion, to sing at an elite level. So at that level, I believe it’s important.


For women, they can see not only psychologically but physiologically, that the response is more dramatic than in male singers. You are more susceptible to vocal fold hydration issues. So if your vocal folds start to become dehydrated, and they stiffen and it takes more effort, you are going to struggle more than your male counterpart. I’m really sorry. The nature has really conspired against women. I feel for you. But, you have so many things that affects your voice, more so than men. So this is just another thing to throw into the mix. But you definitely are going to benefit from using nebulizer protocols. In other words, getting this nebulizer, you can use it a couple times a day on a consistent basis. The little vials of saline solutions aren’t that expensive. Really, the only pain is just doing the cleaning which definitely you want to do. You just get some distilled water and the white vinegar, and just throw it in there. But then again, get the OMRON micro-air; it’s a mesh nebulizer. What that does is it really really puts it into very very fine particles, as oppose to other nebulizers, and that’s a great one. It runs on batteries, it’s just perfect for caring around. So your protocol that you want to use obviously is systemic, so you’re drinking. It’s environmental so you’re using a humidifier, etc. to try and get more humidity to the environment, or you’re taking maybe a hotter shower to get some steam going, etc. And then there is the nebulizer to directly put it on to your cords.


So the main thing I wanted to get through on this revisiting of this subject is really speaking to female singers, and just impressing upon you that it’s vitally important for you to stay hydrated, more so than it is for men, and certainly on the physiological level. So please stay hydrated. I want everybody singing well. I want everybody singing healthy.


So that’s it. Kind of a shorter podcast for the day. I just want to get it out there. You can always go to my website, JohnHenny.com. If you’re interested, I do, obviously, I work with singers, training voice teachers, I work with people on a business consulting, etc. It’s kind of another sideline thing; it’s a long story that I won’t get into here. I’m actually creating another podcast to deal with those businesses used for voice teachers.


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So, until next time, this is John Henny. To better singing. Bye.