As interpreters, we spend our lives talking. Our voice -and logically our vocal cords- is one of the most important tools in our tool set. No glossary, accrued experience or talent can shine if words do not come out of our mouth loud and clear – and in a pleasant tone.
Until now, I have been relying on a combination of tea, ibuprofen, and cough lozenges to make it from one long day of interpreting to the next.
Luckily for me, and I hope for you too, my dearest best friend of twenty-five years, is an ENT surgeon and has agreed to write down a few practical tips to look after our voices properly.
Here is what she wrote:
7 practical tips to look after your voice
We lead busy, fast-paced, and disorganised lives and, often, we have long work-days that leave us exhausted and, thus, we fail to give our bodies the rest they need. That is when they start voicing their discomfort and health problems show their ugly face. It is our bodies crying out: WARNING!
The vocal cords are in the larynx. The larynx is an organ made of muscles and cartilage and the vocal cords are nothing more than a pair of thin and small muscles.
Just like our abdominal muscles feel tired and sore after doing sit-ups, the same happens to our vocal cords when we strain them. If we strain our larynx, tense it or abuse it, it gets sore, painful, and shows symptoms like tightness in the neck or weak, hoarse voice or dysphonia.
How can we look after our voice and prevent injuries?
In the case of those who use their voices professionally, such as singers, broadcasters, teachers, and interpreters, the larynx is a WORK TOOL. So, you should look after your voice when working long hours.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind and to learn to look after yourselves:
Learning to breathe diaphragmatically helps build greater respiratory capacity and to speak at a higher volume without straining the larynx. Some pranayama breathing techniques are good to give a massage to our vocal cords and, in addition, calm our minds; for example, practising Ujjayi or Brahmari breathing or simply singing the mantra Om.
Drinking plenty of fluids during the work-day helps keep the vocal tract well hydrated and eliminate mucus more easily. It is very important that what you drink is not cold, not even during the summer; room temperature is best. It is not advisable to have fizzy drinks as they might interfere with your breathing.
When standing, keep your back straight and your core engaged with your coccyx slightly tilted forward. When sitting, make sure your back, and especially your lower back, is resting comfortably against the back of your seat, your chest is open, and your shoulders are slightly pushed back.
Avoid food and beverages that cause dehydration; such as coffee, alcohol, sugar, and spicy food.
- Nasty habits
Tobacco affects the larynx directly, therefore, it is very harmful. Another common and harmful habit is to cough to clear your throat, which sort of bumps the vocal cords against each other. Over time, this may lead to the appearance of nodules, polyps or haematomas in the vocal cords. In case of having chronic phlegm, you should see a doctor who can then assess the situation.
Resting is vital. Getting enough sleep allows us to be relaxed and focused at work. If you need to take a break during your work day, do, even if it is only for a few minutes. Use your breaks to be quiet (as in not speaking) and practise mindful breathing.
It is important to do some exercises to relax and tone your laryngeal and cervical muscles before and after a day of interpreting. Doing simple vocal exercises for 5 to 10 minutes will help you activate your vocal cords and get them ready for work. Follow them with a few minutes of yoga breathing to relax your neck.
Each of these recommendations emphasise the importance of being mindful and aware. Being aware of what our bodies need and respect their limitations. That is, being mindfully present in the moment.
Your voice is your instrument. Take good care of it.
María Mercedes Yáñez, M.D.
Argentine Registration #111304
Former ENT Chief Resident at Italian Hospital, Buenos Aires
Former Staff Specialist at Children’s Hospital, Buenos Aires
Fellow in Paediatric ENT at Brooklyn Shands Hospital, New York
Fellow in Otolaryngology at Universidad of Gainesville, Florida
“You are your most important resource. In the pecking order of resources money comes third in value after you and time.”
Photo taken by me while showing a dear friend and Beatles fan around London.