A Quick Start Guide to Protecting Your Voice at Protests
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
I know many people have been out chanting and shouting and singing at protests recently, which is amazing! However, if you haven't trained your body for that level of use, you can easily strain or even lose your voice. Since not everyone has the time or money to invest in lessons, I thought I’d share a few quick tips and some exercises that you can practice at home to help strengthen your voice and develop the stamina to keep making noise for as long as it takes to be heard.
For anyone who doesn’t know: I started training as a singer about 15 years ago. Then for several years, I taught voice, acting, and musical theatre for young people. I don’t teach this particular skill set to adults very often, but I’m happy to share what I can! If you have any questions about the information I go over in the rest of this post, please reach out to me privately and I’ll be happy to clarify, suggest additional exercises, or direct you to other resources.
Tip #1: Relax your face and neck.
The first thing that you want to do is relax any unnecessary tension around your primary vocal mechanisms so that you’re starting from a healthy place. A lot of us hold tension in our faces and necks, especially if we’re stressed or upset. If you’ve been crying, or maybe carrying a heavy backpack down a march route, you’re going to need to work a little harder at this bit.
Exercise 1: One great exercise that you can do right where you are is to work on releasing your jaw. Your jaw muscles actually attach at your temples, as shown in the image below. If you put your fingers on your temples and then clench and unclench your jaw, you can probably feel those muscles flexing. So, wherever you are right now, try to let your jaw just hang from the temples on down. Sometimes I run my hands down the sides of my face starting at my temples as a physical reminder. This is something you can do regularly throughout the day, so check in with yourself. "Am I clenching my jaw? Yes? Okay, let’s release that." Over time, it’ll become more natural.
Diagram showing jaw muscles in red. Source: https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/ss/slideshow-tmj-tmd-overview.
Exercise 2: The next exercise I want to share with y’all is a little more involved, so I've detailed the steps below. This is a helpful one for releasing neck tension and getting your spine aligned correctly.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees straight but not locked.
Roll forward, starting with your head and following one vertabra at a time, until you're doubled over at the waist as if you're touching your toes.
Let your arms hang down from your shoulders and imagine space stretching out between each of your vertebrae.
Staying in this position for a moment, shake your head no.
Then shake your head yes.
Now grab your each of your elbows with the opposite hand (so that they don't brush the floor) and gently sway back and forth, again, focusing on releasing any tension down your spine. The range of your sway doesn't need to be more than a few inches for this to work.
Next, release your arms and just hang for a moment.
When you’re ready, slowly roll up keeping your neck relaxed and your head down until the rest of your spine is straight.
And you're all done!
Tip #2: Get a good breath.
The second thing I want you to work on is getting a good breath before you start chanting. If you’ve been around choir folks or actors, or even taken a public speaking class, you may have heard people say something like “project from your diaphragm!” Basically, all that means is to be conscious of your breath. Your diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle right under your lungs. When you breath in, it moves downward, creating a vacuum that causes your lungs to expand and squishing your abdominal organs down a bit to make space. When you exhale, including to speak or sing, it pushes back up. That’s why, when you get a good breath, you’ll see your stomach expand more than your chest.
Image of the rib cage, including diaphragm. Source: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmra1007236
What folks don’t talk about as often is that your lungs also have tons of space to expand into your back! Your rib cage can actually flex to allow more air in. You may already be breathing this way without noticing, which you can figure out by sitting or standing in a neutral position, placing one hand on your stomach, and another on your back, and then breathing in.
Exercise 3: If you’re having trouble breathing into your back, try holding that same neutral position, but tensing your abs so that your stomach can’t expand much, then breathing in. You may feel your ribcage flex in the back or notice your shoulder blades moving apart from each other. Take a few more breaths that way to get used to the sensation, then relax your abs and try to let the air fill both areas at the same time.
Tip #3: Use your breath well.
The next thing we’re going to work on is using your air. This means engaging all those same muscles we just worked with to take air in, only in reverse.
Exercise 4: One of my favorite exercises for working on this is hissing.
It may help to put your hands on your core so that you can feel the muscles tightening as you push the air out.
Take a nice, big breath in, then hiss it out forcefully, pushing air between your teeth.
Try to use every last bit of air you’ve got! You’ll probably start to really feel those core muscles contract at the end. That gradual squeezing feeling is what you want when you’re chanting or singing.
Exercise 5: Keeping your hands on your core muscles so that you can feel any movement, make some short, sharp sounds like “ha-ha-ha.” Try it multiple times at different volumes.
Tip #4: Resonate in your mask.
I have a couple more general tips to share after this, but the last thing I want you to work on regarding vocal production specifically is where your sound is resonating. This is the most complicated piece to figure out for most people who are new to vocal training.
If you think about any instrument, it’s going to have some sort of mechanism for starting sound vibrations and some sort of cavity where the sound can bounce around. Imagine a violin, for example; the vibration comes from the bow running across the strings and the sound resonates in the open body of the instrument. Your voice is exactly the same! Vibrations are created when air runs across your vocal cords and the sound resonates in different cavities in your body.
Broadly speaking, the higher a pitch is in your range, the higher in your body the sound is going to resonate. Your lowest tones will be down in your chest, then the middle of your range will be in your nasal cavity. We tend to call resonating in your nasal cavity "singing into the mask" because it vibrates your cheekbones and eye sockets. The highest notes in your range will move even further up, to your forehead and the top of your head. Most folks who aren’t serious singers are never really going to use these highest resonators, so no need to worry about them today.
Diagram of the face from the side, including nasal cavity in pink. Source: https://www.voicescienceworks.org/resonance.html
For protests, you want your sound focused in that middle, mask range. Most folks are going to have the easiest time producing a nice, loud, healthy sound when resonating in the mask. The pitches that will sit comfortably in this part of your body may be higher than your usual speaking voice, especially if you were assigned female at birth and haven’t taken testosterone. A lot of cis women have learned to speak in lower voices in order to be taken seriously at work, and of course lots of trans masculine people purposefully lower their voices for reasons of gender expression. If you tend to speak at the low end of your range and are comfortable modulating your voice up at protests, especially when you’re in a crowd and it’s hard to pick out individual voices, I’d encourage you to do so. For those of you who need to focus on that lower register for the sake of gender expression, I will say that it is totally possible to have a loud, healthy sound that resonates in your chest and your jaw, it just takes longer to learn and may require individualized work with someone who specializes in that aspect of vocal training.
One other thing to note about pitch is that you don’t have to match the person calling the chant or the crowd around you. There’s a tendency for everyone in the crowd to drift towards the same pitch, but you don’t have to stay there if it isn’t comfortable for you. Find the range that’s natural for your voice and hang out there. You’ll be able to be louder for longer that way.
Exercise 6.1: Let’s try an exercise that’ll help push your sound up and forward into the mask. This one is called an open-mouthed hum.
Relax your jaw so that your mouth is slightly open (keeping in mind what you learned earlier about the muscles attaching at the temples), then touch the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth as if you were saying an “ng” sound and hold it. Something like “marchinggggggg” or “chantingggggg.” Notice that the sound you produce on the "ng" has a pitch that you can control.
On that open-mouthed hum, make a siren sound across the middle of your range. There's no need to push your voice particularly high or low, just slide back and forth between some pitches that are comfortable for you.
If you put your fingers on your nose and cheekbones while you’re doing this, you should be able to feel the vibration.
Try it again and put a little more air into it.
Try the siren once more, but this time, separate the back of your tongue from the roof of your mouth just a liiiiitle bit to make an "ih" sound. Keep everything else, including your lips, your jaw, and the rest of your tounge, in the same position.
If you want, try this a few more times and focus on making the sound really nasally and gross. It should feel almost like you're scrunching up your nose and taunting someone with a “nyah, nyah, nyah.” At a protest, you should be wearing a mask over your nose and mouth anyway, so no one will notice if you make weird faces while you’re chanting.
Tip #5: Hydrate really well.
Drink liquids throughout the day, before, during, and after any heavy use of your voice, but remember that water isn't a quick fix for soothing your throat when you start to get hoarse. When everything is working properly, beverages and air are coming into your body through different tubes, so anything you drink won’t be running directly over the irritated area. You need to hydrate continuously so that the moisture has time to make its way around your body.
What to Drink:
Water and sports drinks are best in this context.
Juice and lemonade are good too, especially if you need some sugar for quick energy.
What to Avoid:
Caffeine is a diuretic. It's going to make your body to lose moisture, so have your coffee or soda beforehand if you want it, but don't rely on it for hydration during the protest.
You may also want to avoid anything that encourages mucus to form or move around. For a lot of people that's dairy and dairy substitutes like almond milk or soy ice cream. Spicy food can do it too. In general, any extra gunk in your throat is going to gum up the works, and it'll make your body want to cough to keep your airway clear, which can cause additional irritation.
Tip #6: Rest and recover!
Rest is an important component of all movement work and you, specifically, person reading this right now, deserve rest! Read that a couple more times just to make sure you've really absorbed it.
If, during an action, you notice your voice starting to get tired and hoarse, do what you can to take the pressure off immediately. Chant more quietly, hand off the megaphone, switch to singing instead of chanting if that's more comfortable, whatever you can do to prevent the issue from getting worse.
Soothing a Tired Voice: Afterwards, if your voice is hurting from overuse, you need to care for it just like you would soak tired feet or brace a twisted ankle.
When you get hoarse or lose your voice, getting enough sleep and hydrating helps, but the best thing you can do for it is to simply rest so that you don't aggravate the injury. Wait until your voice returns to normal to go out and start chanting again.
While resting your voice, you may be tempted to whisper, but that's actually pretty harsh on your vocal cords. If you need to speak, you're better off doing so quietly and gently, but not whispering.
Another great thing to try is steaming, like in a hot shower or over a pot of hot water.
You can use cough drops to sooth any discomfort, but be careful that you don't let them trick you into thinking that you've healed when you haven't yet. They're treating the symptom, not the cause.
If you notice that you're losing your voice frequently, it starts changing pitch or tone unexpectedly, or you persistently have less volume than you used to, you may want to seek additional training and/or medical care to make sure there isn't anything more serious going on.
To recap: you want to relax your face and neck, get a good breath, use it well, focus your sound in your mask, hydrate continuously, and rest when you’re done. If you need to come back to this post to review, please do! Practice this stuff regularly so that it sinks into your body and becomes a habit. Be patient with yourself and don’t expect yourself to retain it all at once.
I hope you found this helpful! Remember that you can reach out to me if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to help. Stay safe out there!