Dance teacher Lisa McCabe had never thought much about her voice before summer 2019. That’s when she started sounding oddly shaky, quiet or high-pitched whenever she spoke in front of people. “I thought it was just nerves, even though I wasn’t nervous,” she recalls. But by Christmas, she couldn’t speak above a whisper.
Eventually, McCabe, who owns and directs the San Diego–based studio and virtual dance program Lovely Leaps, was treated for a rare vocal disorder called spasmodic dysphonia—but not before she had to upend much of her teaching schedule, all because she suddenly couldn’t rely on her speaking voice. “Lesson learned,” she says now: “Take care of your voice so you don’t have to go through this!”
“Just as you prepare your body physically to teach, you need to set yourself up vocally to have a good class,” says Christine Murphy Estes, MM, MA, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist who specializes in treating voice disorders and works with many performers and instructors. Estes says there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to vocal warm-ups (and cooldowns), so pick your favorites among the following: gentle humming, lip trills, blowing bubbles through a straw, or even some light and easy singing to yourself.
How you treat your body in the hours before teaching can also have a real impact on your vocal stamina. “Hydration is really important,” says Dr. Linda Dahl, an ear, nose and throat physician who works with Broadway performers: “When you’re talking a lot, you’re mostly taking in breath through your mouth, which dries out your vocal cords.”
Dahl adds that mouth breathing exacerbates the situation, so consider a steam inhaler or nebulizer to directly hydrate your vocal folds. And if you’re regularly losing your voice, consider whether a diet high in alcohol, sugar, acidic foods or caffeine might be a culprit.
Estes advises patients to figure out if their teaching environment contains potential for vocal overuse: Is the heat or air-conditioning noisy? Can you invest in a microphone or headset-speaker combo to carry through a cavernous studio?
Once you’ve managed any external factors under your control, it’s time to take deep breaths—literally. “Breathe from your belly, instead of from your neck or your chest,” says Dahl. “Release tension in your neck and abdomen as much as you can.” Excess tightness will unnecessarily strain your voice.
Teaching virtually? You’re probably overusing your voice without even realizing it. “When we talk to screens, we tend to talk too loudly,” says Estes. She suggests lowering your computer volume because you’ll automatically speak less loudly to match. A good-quality external microphone can also help you conserve vocal resources.
But it’s not just about volume. Where in the body you think about placing your voice (or what singers call “resonance”) can affect how quickly your voice fatigues. Rather than thinking about your voice exiting the body through the throat or chest, imagine speaking through “the mask,” or the area from your top teeth through your nose and forehead region. If this sounds confusing, Dahl suggests enlisting a vocal coach to learn and practice more.
Estes says that a smart overall strategy is to imagine that you have a vocal budget, instead of treating vocal stamina like an unlimited resource. One way to spend that budget wisely is to lean on nonverbal teaching cues (think snapping, clapping, strategically pausing the music, or hand signals) whenever possible. Avoid demonstrating and talking at the same time. And think about your vocal budget in your non-teaching life, too: Right before five hours of classes might not be the best time for a long phone call!
Vocal abuse doesn’t just happen in the studio. Many people subconsciously pitch their voices lower or higher in different life situations. Estes says you can find your proper register by saying “mm-hm” to yourself and noting the pitch you naturally land on. In daily life, do your best to speak in that natural register.
Following all this advice won’t guarantee that you never lose your voice again. But Estes says you should pay attention to any sudden and drastic change in your speaking voice, or to hoarseness and discomfort that lasts longer than two weeks. “Often when patients come to me, it’s with damage that’s built up over a long time,” says Dahl, “which is the kind of damage that’s harder to treat.”
McCabe certainly wishes she’d prioritized her vocal health sooner. “I’m part of a group for preschool dance teachers, and they talk about losing their voices about every other week,” she says. “This is an issue that needs to be addressed! As a teacher, you need your voice just as much as you need your legs.”