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Protecting Your Voice: Winter Edition

As of the time I'm writing this, winter has already made its icy presence known and shown we're potentially in for some very cold days ahead. Winter can be a hazardous season for voice actors (I'd not necessarily say the worst, as spring with its pollen definitely likes to make things difficult for me), so I thought I'd take a moment to talk about some of the ways we can try to protect our voice while navigating the ice and snow.

Cold air can be incredibly dry, which is horrible for vocal cords. The air in our houses can also get super dry due to the heaters used to ward that chill away. Ever go to sleep on a cold winter's night, and then wake up with a raspy voice? That's because your vocal cords have dried out overnight like strips of meat in a dehydrator. Okay, so maybe it's not quite as extreme as turning them to jerky, but sometimes it definitely feels like it. Just like how a car needs oil to run smoothly, your vocal cords need to stay hydrated and lubricated in order to function right.

Sure, we've talked before about how you can stay hydrated while performing, but the cold weather can often require you take things a step further in order to safeguard this aspect of your vocal health. Too many nights breathing in that dry air may cause issues, even if you make sure you have plenty of water and soothing tea throughout the day. This can be exacerbated if you also go out during the day and breathe in even colder, drier air.

Luckily there are a few different solutions to help prevent damage and keep your voice healthy. A good humidifier in your bedroom (and any room in the house that seems to be too dry) can work wonders. Just make sure it's clean and free of any mildew or mold (they can be prone to collecting it, unfortunately), as running one that's contaminated will just make you sick. Depending on what kind of heater you have, you can even fashion your own humidifier. Where I grew up, we had a cast iron wood-burning stove in the living room, and our humidifier was a cast iron tea pot filled with water set atop it. But you can also purchase electric humidifiers of various assortments at the store, which you can place in any room, no old fashioned stove required.

If you don't have a humidifier, or are traveling and just unable to have access to one, a neat trick to help keep the air you breathe humid while you sleep is by using one of those things all of us have become familiar with by now: a face mask. You can also use a shirt or other fabric draped over your face, even just pulling the sheet up over your nose and mouth while you sleep helps (I've done all of these, and can definitely attest to their effectiveness). A mask, however, is a bit more secure throughout the night and less likely to slide down or off. Yeah, it's not super fun to have to wear one even in sleep, but personally I'd rather that than wake up with a voice so raspy I could sand wood with it. Try to find a mask that's very comfortable and just cloth, as you don't need anything that's medical grade for this.

While out and about, either a mask or a traditional scarf are perfect for keeping out the cold, dry air. Just make sure that scarf stays over your mouth and nose. Both in this instance and while sleeping, the purpose is to trap the warmth and humidity of your own breath. Again, due to certain events in recent years, we're all probably familiar with how it feels to wear a face mask for a while and how it can be unbearably hot and stuffy in the warmer seasons. But what makes it uncomfortable then is exactly what we need now in the cold months (though, honestly, a face mask can help a lot with allergies in the spring, too).

If for any reason you aren't able to take any of these measures and you breathe in so much dry air that you can feel it making your throat a bit sore and your voice a bit rough, hold off on talking much until you can fix it. Take a hot shower with lots of steam, find a warm room and sip a soothing tea (or even just hot water) for a bit, or at least find a way to cover your nose and mouth and breathe like that for a while. Any one of those options will help re-hydrate your vocal cords until it is safer to use them. Then, if you are going to be talking for a while or you have a job to record, be sure to carefully work through your warm-up exercises before you start. If you feel any pain during warm-ups, stop and go back to whatever method you were using to address the dry throat issue, or try another method. Only once you can safely make it through warm-ups should you then dive into performing. And don't forget to keep a beverage handy that will keep you hydrated while not coating your throat.

Remember that your vocal cords are your instrument, and just as a violinist wouldn't use a bow without rosin, you shouldn't work your voice with a dry throat. Being cautious and prepared can help you avoid damaging or losing your voice, and keep your vocal performances strong all year long.

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