Handle with Care: Vocal Health (Part 1)

“Few realize what a special gift this instrument the voice is, or have any idea of how to take care of it.” — Oren Brown

Choral directors are like coaches working with athletes: the coach has to know something about his or her own body (voice) and what constitutes healthy physical play (singing) to help athletes (singing students) perform safely and at their best. Some choir directors may be the only vocal coach many students ever have.

The vocal cords develop differently than any other muscle in body, and it’s important for choral directors to know what the voice can do naturally, and what it cannot be made to do.

Oren Brown* shares important principles for voice training.

STRETCH and FLEX:  Before you sing, stretch to relax your entire body; muscles can be tense anywhere, from the feet up. Wherever you find a source of tension, find and use an exercise that will relieve it. Head and shoulder rolls, reaching up or to the side, jogging in place, use anything that can shake out the kinks and tight muscles.

PROPER ALIGNMENT: Your body is your instrument . Proper alignment (posture) is essential. Body parts have to interact freely; if posture is good, your rib cage will be comfortable when it’s elevated in singing.

As you breathe in, feel an expansion in the area between the bottom of the ribs and the belt line – this is abdominal breathing. Some may need to re-learn it. Observe a sleeping baby; babies naturally breathe deeply from below (belly breathing).

LET AIR FLOW OUT WITHOUT PUSHING: The air flowing out should be natural and not forced. It’s the flow of air that activates the vocal folds. An easy flow of air will make a vibration in the fold+.

With students, demonstrate how to let the air flow out naturally. Let the air do the work.

VOCALIZE UP to DOWN: Start in the upper tones, not at the bottom. Start tones from above and let them flow downward in a pattern of 5- 4- 3 -2- 1 or 8-5-3-1 in an easy medium range. Then, start again a half step lower, and continue in descending sequence to a comfortably low note. Then start again a bit higher than the first time, and repeat. Use M to hum, or Hoo or Huh with beginners. Any vowels that are easy to sing without face or jaw tension can be used.

Oren Brown was faculty emeritus at the Juilliard School and faculty member at the Voice Foundation.

Adapted from Oren Brown’s article “Maintaining Vocal Health”; Teaching Music; April 1999. Available online at KU (University of Kansas)


Voice Problems 
National Association of Teachers of Singing 
Boston singers resource 
Voice and Voice Care  The University of Kansas
MENC Position Statement on Health
Techniques for Muscle Relaxation; Teaching Music, August 2008  (not available online)
Vocal health in choral rehearsal, Music Educators Journal, May 2007 (available online to members)
+Bernoulli effect (as referenced in the original Brown article)

–Sue Rarus, June 8, 2011 © National Association for Music Education