Issachah Savage, Lalah Hathaway, Anthony Hamilton, and Nazaneen Grant, MD
Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
10 Vocal Tips From Lalah Hathaway, Anthony Hamilton & More
Washington, D.C.'s National Union Building was the place to be on May 16 for anyone interested in maximizing the musical use of the world's first instrument: the voice. Singers from various genres and backgrounds attended to learn more about caring for, resting and protecting their instrument at this vocal health clinic presented by MusiCares and the Recording Academy's Washington D.C. Chapter.
The clinic featured a conversation on vocal health moderated by singer/songwriter Tracy Hamlin with Associate Professor of Otolaryngology Dr. Nazaneen Grant, tenor vocalist Issachah Savage, and GRAMMY-winning gospel/R&B artists Lalah Hathaway and Anthony Hamilton. The all-star panel delivered a discussion that was anything but clinical, igniting the room into laughter, awe and epiphany as they shared their vocal habits, techniques, secrets, and insights.
For all you vocalists out there, here are 10 amazing insights, tips and tricks directly from the experts' lips.
1. Find What Works For You
Perhaps the most important takeaway from the clinic was that every vocalist needs to find out what works best for them, regardless of the wide variety of techniques out there. As Hamlin pointed out, "What works for one singer may be completely different for another." Savage added, "I cannot stress it enough, it is so super-duper important to really find out what works for you, and the only way you can do that is to know your instrument, and the only way to know your instrument, of course, is to spend a lot of time with it. Practice, practice, practice."
2. What To Eat On Day Of Show
Believe it or not, Hathaway confessed to not eating anything on the day of a concert, saying, "It makes me super sleepy and my reaction time is slow." Hamilton admitted he doesn't do dairy at all anymore, but he needs to eat something before taking the stage, saying, "I don't like to sing on an empty stomach, it just feels hollow." Savage added that he drops half a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water the morning of the show. All three singers revealed they'll have a cup of coffee from time to time, but alcohol before a show is a no-no.
3. The Truth About Hydration
Hydration is always a good idea, especially for the voice. Staying hydrated allows the vocal folds to stay limber and maintains the protective mucosal lining that coats the vocal folds and protects them from the natural friction that occurs during vocalization. "Drinking water is good to hydrate your whole body, but when you swallow, there's this thing called the epiglottis that flips over and makes it so the water doesn't go in your voice box — that's what happens when you choke," said Grant. "So [the water is] not hitting the vocal chords directly. Even when we gargle, it doesn't hit the vocal chords directly. Steam is actually what makes [the moisture] touch [the vocal chords]." She added that avoiding dehydrating substances — such as caffeine, decongestants and allergy medicines — is also helpful.
4. Hamilton's Secret Rider Item
"I chew really, really strong Mentos gum, two pieces right before I go on stage, always. It's on my rider," said Hamilton. When asked if he worries about accidentally swallowing it while singing, the GRAMMY winner said, "I've been holding gum in my mouth since I was a poor little boy who didn't have money for new gum. I can sleep with it," a response that drew a laugh from the room.
5. What Harms The Voice
After running through an explanation of the physical components that make up the voice, including visuals from a scope of the vocal chords, Grant outlined five main things that can harm your voice: misuse/overuse, dehydration, cigarette smoke/pollutants, acid reflux (more on that later), and allergies. She pointed out that one common way singers overuse their voice is when talking on their cell phone. Most people strain their voice and speak unnecessarily loud because they don't have any visual feedback from the person on the other line letting them know they're being heard. "Pretend like the person you're speaking to is right in front of you," said Grant. "[That technique helps] you speak a lot softer and not strain, so that's the trick."
6. Rest, Rest, Rest
How much rest does a singer need? It depends on the person and how they like to unwind. Hathaway, who has been on the road for the past two years, enjoys hanging out with her friends, family and dogs and playing video games to let her body recharge. She also pointed out that singing itself is so natural and fulfilling for her that it hardly feels like work. For Hamilton, cooking a meal, going for a drive, taking a nap, and walking for miles and miles outdoors helps him recuperate. Savage prefers to unplug from the world, especially social media, to rebuild his strength between shows, and he stressed that refraining from speaking is the best rest a singer can get.
7. How To Cool Down
For some singers, taking a moment to ramp down after a big show can make a big difference. "Years ago, when we were in school and we had physical education or gym, after exercise you always did some kind of cooldown, It's healthy to do," said Hamlin. "Just doing a five-note scale on a hum or 'oohs' really softly and it massages the vocal chords." While Hathaway and Savage admitted they don't have any routine, Hamilton joked, "I like to pour a little Jamieson on it."
8. Hoarseness Remedies
Defying convention, Hathaway says ice-cold water helps her voice when she feels hoarse. "It doesn't work for me to drink room temperature water during the show," she said. "Whatever it is that works for you, you have to find that, because your instrument is so unique, and once you find out what it can do, you're on your path." She also said that speaking on the day of a show works well for her as a warm-up, and shared tips on battling hoarseness she's learned along the way. Apparently, the singers in Take 6 wrap a towel full of ice around their neck to draw out the swelling, which helps with hoarseness, while Al Jarreau once told her to always work out on a show day to get the blood flowing.
Issachah Savage and Anthony Hamilton
Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
9. The Secret To Avoid Acid Reflux
Grant explained how acid reflux occurs and how to identify it: Heartburn is a tell-tale sign, but even a bitter taste in the back of the throat or compulsive throat clearing can be signs. She recommended avoiding coffee and alcohol, not laying down for two to three hours after eating, and staying away from certain acidic foods, such as vinegar and spicy sauces. Hamilton also shared an insider's tip on how to use gravity to help with acid reflux. "It's important to lay on your left side because your stomach hangs that way, and it helps to keep the acid down — head elevated and laying on your left, because I've been dealing with that for 20-something years."
10. At The End Of The Day, It's "God's Business"
"Music is a ladder for the soul," Grant said to the singers onstage and in the audience, quoting the writings of the Baha’i Faith. "You guys are the ladder makers." While all singers are looking for the key to unlock a great voice, the panelists all agreed that, when it's all said and done, it comes down to an intangible "it" factor. "I don't believe that having an amazing sound or an amazing voice is something that can be taught," said Savage. "You can train … but the difference in having a great voice is God's business."