Strike the Right Cord

Posted on January 2, 2013 by

Prevent and ease vocal strain.

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Jaune Buisson’s voice was failing her. She had a full teaching schedule as artistic director of Metropolitan Dance Theatre of New Orleans, while spending her weekends singing in local musicals. Tea and lozenges didn’t soothe the problem and eventually, she could barely speak. “It was a nightmare. I couldn’t produce sound for two months,” she says. “It’s really hard to teach preschool classes when you can’t speak.”

The voice offers praise and correction. It sings the tricky counts of a song, enthusiastically bellows a job well-done and calls a wayward line of tiny ballerinas to order. All this over music, tap shoes and chatter. But after years of dancing, teachers can forget to train and care for this vital tool.

For most, vocal strain begins with overusing the voice. “It’s like anything with your body when you overexert yourself,” says Dr. Joseph Turner, an ear, nose and throat specialist and clinical associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “If you’re doing too much, the muscles just get tired.” In addition, anything that irritates a throat, such as colds, allergies or smoking, can add to the problem. When particularly stressed, vocal cords develop nodules, which Turner describes as small calluses. These affect the vibration of air and how sound is produced. If well-rested, vocal cord nodules can dissolve over time.

Warming up your voice, similar to how dancers need to do pliés before grand allégro, is the best way to prevent strain. Humming along to the radio or trilling the lips silently and slowly adding sound can help you prepare for class. And these exercises can easily be performed on the way to the studio. Turner also reminds patients to drink lots of water. “If you’re dehydrated, it’s like a motor without the oil,” he says. The mucus covering your vocal cords needs to remain thin and slippery to allow proper vibration.

After prepping your voice, projecting clearly and correctly requires proper breath. Vocal coach Liz Caplan, developer of the Singing for Dancers app, says dancers tend to breathe high and shallow. “This is largely due to tightening the core and not wanting to see expansion of the rib cage.” Work on breathing deeper into the lungs and back, which opens the throat and allows for better projection. “Yoga is a good modality to begin practicing inhaling and exhaling with precise choreographed intention,” she says.

Buisson eventually discovered that her vocal strain was compounded by irritation from acid reflux. But she learned from the experience of being mute, becoming more aware of her body language and what it conveys to her students and their parents. “It forced me to become an observer in my classroom,” she says.

Short-Term Soothers
Ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Joseph Turner suggests these methods for soothing slight throat pain. If you’ve had a hoarse or raspy voice for a week or more, see a doctor.

  • “Humidification is the key to reducing the vocal strain,” says Turner. Take a hot shower and breathe the steam in deeply or put a hot towel over your nose.
  •  Mucinex, an over-the-counter cough suppressant, helps thin out the mucus that coats and lubricates the vocal cords. This will allow the cords to vibrate properly.
  •  Invest in a humidifier. Room humidity, which you can check with a hygrometer, should be between 30 and 50 percent.
  •  Jaune Buisson of Metropolitan Dance Theatre of New Orleans purchased a wireless headset microphone so she could apply corrections in even the noisiest tap class without having to stop the music or shout. Alternatively, you can download the Microphone Pro app (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad: $0.99), which turns your device into a handheld mic. The downside is that the player must be plugged into your stereo with a cord fed through the headphone jack, limiting how far you can walk with the converted mic.

Quieting the Little Ones
Keep the attention of your students without having to shout.

  • Foster respect: With her younger dancers, Jaune Buisson begins class outside the room. By having everyone enter together prepared to dance, they understand the sanctity of the space.
  •  Command attention: To calm a chatty group, Buisson will quietly say, “Everyone who can hear me, clap once.” The children standing closest to her will follow. She repeats with, “Everyone who can hear me clap twice,” to catch the attention of the rest of the room.
  •  Make it fun: Echo claps can turn listening into a game. Tell your students that anytime you clap out a rhythm, they should clap it back. It will become habitual. When you’re in tap shoes, try it with your feet.

Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She also writes for Dance Magazine and Pointe.

Photo by Matthew Hebert, courtesy of Jaune Buisson

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