Singing, animal voices, sound effects, vocal explorations, and more...a music teacher’s voice certainly gets a lot of mileage! When I first began teaching, I didn’t realize just how much of a beating my body would take (I often joke that my music teaching job is the best gym plan ever, especially with being on a cart!) and that body beating certainly included my voice. I also found that when germs bombarded my body, the inflammation would always target my throat….*ALWAYS*. This meant getting laryngitis multiple times during the year. After getting through those first few overwhelming years of being a new music teacher, I did eventually hit my stride and improved in balancing tasks and taking better care of my body in general. More recently, in my reflection of new habits I’ve adopted, I pinpointed five specific changes I had made that really aided in preserving and maintaining better vocal health, which in turn decreased my bouts of laryngitis (with last year being my first year of NO laryngitis *does happy dance*).
1. Toggle Your Lesson Activities
For any teacher who teaches more than one grade level, you have to constantly reset and be "on" every single class period. That repetition of lessons can take a toll vocally. So what I've learned to do is toggle the activities I teach in two ways: within the lesson and across grade levels. What in the world does that mean? Let's break it down.
Toggling within the lesson means that if I have an activity that's a song, the activity that follows it might be a listening one. Or maybe I'll begin with a familiar song that the students are fine singing on their own (as they've learned it a lesson or two ago), then I'll introduce and teach a brand new song that requires more use of my own singing voice. For my younger preschool and kindergarten classes, I alternate a song, poem, or finger play done by me with a song, listening, or movement activity done to recorded music. In the same way I alternate activities that have my students sitting versus standing/moving, I also alternate singing and not singing.
Toggling across grade levels means that I may have one grade doing lots of songs, but another grade might be focusing more on a composer/listening unit. One grade might be working on layering instruments parts and vocal ostinati to a song while another is folk dancing. I tier my grade level units so that I'm alternating the amount of vocal activities led by me in order to prevent fatigue. This doesn't mean that there's not any singing at all for a certain grade level (my students still sing while they dance or play an instrument) it just means that singing isn't my main focus of the lesson and I personally am not doing the bulk of singing. Which leads me into the next point...
2. Allow Student Ownership
I've been learning this theme more and more with each passing year, having even written in a previous blog post about the importance of student ownership in another aspect of teaching, but when it comes to your vocal health as a music teacher, this is particularly key...and for me, it starts with my "Hello" song. I begin all of my lower elementary music classes with the same hello song with differentiated movements based on grade level. The only time I ever sing fully from start to finish is the first two weeks of kindergarten and maybe the first month for preschool. Other than that, I set the key, set the tempo, and off they go, a cappella on their own! Later in the lesson, when working on a new song, I remove my voice and simply mouth the words (not whisper, just move my lips silently...but with great enthusiasm!) while letting my students take over the singing as soon as possible. I'll only chime in during a difficult rhythmic phrase or tricky tonal part to help reinforce it. I'll also ask for a small group of student volunteers to come up by me to review a song with the class, joking with them by saying, "Raise your hand if you reeeeally think you can sing the song without my help. I dunno, I ask my 4th graders to do this, you think you can, too?" And after they come up to sing I gush over a part that they did great (even if they weren't in tune, if they remembered a tricky word or rhythm, I point that positive thing out and play it up). Give your students ownership over the singing as much as possible. It's good for them and it's good for you!
3. Enjoy Some Lunchtime Solitude
I'll preface this by saying that I consider myself a 'social introvert'. I say 'social' because I don't mind being around groups of people, speaking at conferences, and I'm of course very outgoing while teaching my kiddos. But I admittedly recharge best when alone, hence the 'introvert' part. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, please still hear me out! I encourage you to think about not spending all of your lunchtime up in the faculty room. It's so easy and enticing to talk for most of that time...to talk about your morning, talk about students, talk about the broken copier, talk, talk, talk. I've found that even on the days when I'm not eating at the same lunch time as most other teachers, I'll still get sucked into a conversation with the few people who are in the room at the same time as I am. Consider eating elsewhere so your voice can have a break. Since I'm on a cart, I have no music room to utilize, but I'll sit in my car if the weather's nice or sit at wherever my prep space is for that year and let my voice rest for that precious down time. I've had years in which my schedule didn't have a full prep period on particular days, so lunch would be the only stretch of time in which my voice could relax. Utilize that time!
Easier said than done, right? This was so hard for a majority of my teaching career. I just couldn’t manage to get the amount of sleep that I knew I needed. I’ve found, for me, there’s an ideal number of hours my body specifically needs and when I sleep for less than that amount, I’m struggling to get through the day, I'm sluggish, and I "hit the wall" at lunchtime and again after school (which wasn't good because I teach private piano lessons after school hours). Doing that for several days in a row would bring on a cold or cold-like symptoms due to a lower resistance to the germs I faced daily. One year, after a super bad bout of the flu (which also made me miss a vacation I had already planned but now couldn't go on), I finally came to my senses and put my foot down. When it reached a certain hour of the night, I would tell myself to stop working. My brain knew I was done, my body knew I was done, so why wouldn’t I just accept the fact that trying to push past that exhaustion would just slow down any work I’d attempt anyway….it's a waste! After setting that limit, I realized that half the battle of time management was a lack of thorough organization, so I worked on that (and this past summer, I took it a step further and went through an organization ‘bootcamp’ of sorts which you can read about here). The triple threat of setting work time limits, sufficient sleep, and better organization has left me feeling *GREAT* this school year. I have so much more energy and am much more efficient doing my work at my most alert hours and then relaxing for the remainder of the evening and getting a good...night's....rest. It’s glorious.
5. Water, Water Everywhere!
You hear many touting the benefits of water and that’s for good reason. I didn’t realize until last year just how dehydrated my body was. I’m not a big caffeine drinker (I *love* coffee and soda, but I'll only have them maybe twice a year, if that), but I'd maybe only drink about one 16-ounce bottle of water a day. I began to gradually increase my water intake, being sure to sip constantly throughout the day AND at home. I started noticing that not only did my voice feel soooo much better, but my skin felt softer and breakouts I was attributing to stress disappeared. Though the stress of life didn't disappear, I feel that the combination of lots more water (and more sleep like I mentioned above) helped my body to repair and replenish itself.
And while we’re on the subject of water, it’s worth mentioning that many singers I know sleep with humidifiers during the drier seasons of the year, so I decided to invest in one and have found my throat isn’t so parched when waking up during those dry winter mornings. Another tip from singers I took on was gargling. Some people gargle with plain warm water, while others like a saltwater gargle or a diluted apple cider vinegar mix. I like to gargle with a 50/50 mix of warm water and hydrogen peroxide (the 3% brown bottle kind found in grocery stores), but am careful not to swallow anything I gargle with! Diluted peroxide gargles aren't for every day (instructions are on the label), but I'll do it when I feel a cold potentially coming on and will gargle when I get home from work and again before I go to sleep (and I'll repeat that for 3-4 days in a row).
Water...drink it, breathe it (well, the vapor :P), gargle it!
So, those are my top 5 vocal health tips, but it's of course not a comprehensive list, just what I've found to be particularly helpful for my music teaching. What are your top tips for vocal health? Are you also prone to laryngitis? Have you had to change any bad vocal habits or other things that you realized were damaging to your voice? Let me know in the comment section below!
Encouraging you to rock as you roll,