How to Prevent Getting A Hoarse Voice

February 9, 2020

What do singers and speakers (as well as teachers, cheerleaders, actors, football coaches and many other voice users) have in common? They’re often overworking their voice because they can’t hear themselves adequately. This can lead to laryngitis, also called a hoarse voice. Let’s explore what causes this phenomenon and how to avoid it.

If you’re singing or speaking to a large group without a microphone, or are in any setting where you can’t hear your own voice enough, your body will reflexively work harder than you should to be heard. This is called the Lombard Effect and it can beat up your voice in just a few seconds.

The Lombard Effect can happen to singers or speakers when the sound system stops working correctly or wasn’t adjusted properly in the first place. Can’t hear yourself in the monitors? Your body will automatically start “pushing your voice” in an attempt to get more sound back to your ears. This never works and puts undue stress and strain on your vocal mechanism, leading to hoarseness in the short term and more serious vocal damage over time.

The way to stop this from happening is to practice what it feels like when you sing or speak. Sing a line in a song (or speak a line), and determine how hard you’re working on a scale of 1 to 10. Let’s say it’s a 5. 

Next, put a pillow over your mouth (I know–it’s weird) and sing or speak again. You’ll probably feel your body working harder than the 5 you were doing before. And, you still won’t hear yourself well enough. Notice how your throat and vocal folds (the medical term for vocal chords) are starting to feel–overworked.

Imagine how it would feel overworking your system like that for a few minutes and you’ll quickly see how you could go hoarse in a very short time.

How to stop your body from automatically overworking? The first step is mindfulness–becoming immediately aware that your voice is working harder than normal. The next step is remembering the workload you normally use when singing or speaking each line (this number will change if you’re using dynamics effectively.) Focus on the feel, not the sound. 

The final step is trust. Trusting that if you’re using a microphone, the audience can hear you if even if you can’t hear you.

What if you’re not using amplification and you’re sure that your 5 work load won’t get you heard? Figure out a way to work easier and still be heard. Use a small portable sound system for singing and speaking to groups (teachers have begun using these in classrooms.)  Gather folks closer to you instead of overworking to be heard across a distance. Try to reduce background noise.

As a reminder, to reduce the Lombard Effect and help eliminate overworking your voice:

  • Be aware of the feel of overworking/irritation in your throat.
  • Determine (in advance) your normal workload–put a number on it.
  • Trust that you’ll be heard when sing/speak at your normal workload, even if you can’t hear yourself. 
  • Use amplification, physically get closer to your audience, and reduce background noise

The more you practice these steps, the better prepared you’ll be in a “voice emergency.”

Mark Bosnian

Mark is an award-winning songwriter and professional voice coach with 30+ years of experience teaching people how to take center stage. He has toured nationally with the 80's hit band Nu Shooz and coached Grammy award nominees, American Idol semifinalists, and singers on The Tonight Show.