In our last article on Vocal Hygiene, Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate! Why hydration is important to singing , we discussed how extremely important it is to the health of our voices to make sure our bodies consistently maintain a generous level of fluid intake, to ensure substantial hydration at all times, which keeps the vocal folds moisturized, limber, protected, and ready for action.
But what exactly do I mean by “fluid intake”? Besides water, what kinds of specific liquids are healthy for the voice? Which ones can be harmful? How about foods? What can or should we eat before we sing, and what foods should we try to avoid, to help us maintain optimal vocal ability and health?
Let’s answer these questions by first introducing another important physical element to the list. We’ve already familiarized ourselves with the diaphragm and the vocal folds : now, let’s become acquainted with the SALIVARY GLANDS.
The salivary glands are found in and around the mouth and throat, and are activated when the taste buds detect elements of taste-perception (sweet, sour, bitter, salty…) in the mouth and top of the throat. The salivary glands then secrete saliva (also known as “spit”), a liquid oral substance which aids in the breakdown of the food in the mouth.
What many people don’t realize is that salivary glandular ducts are not ONLY present in the mouth; there are salivary ducts located DIRECTLY on the vocal folds themselves.
When the salivary glands are stimulated and the mouth starts to “water”, the salivary ducts located on the vocal folds release a lubricant, and the folds are INSTANTANEOUSLY re-hydrated and re-moisturized.
I mentioned in our last article on Vocal Hygiene, Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate! Why hydration is important to singing , that from the time you actually drink something, to the time the moisture actually reaches and benefits the vocal folds , it takes about twenty minutes. So, it’s very useful, and extremely cool, that if you know how to appropriately stimulate your salivary glands even moments before you are about to sing (or even DURING a vocal performance), you can moisturize and lubricate your voice in mere seconds.
So…which foods and drinks work best when it comes to stimulating the salivary glands and keeping the vocal folds moisturized?
To start with, the best things to imbibe for salivary gland stimulation are those which are either very sweet, or contain a “sweet-tartness”. Studies have shown that sweet and tart flavors stimulate the salivary glands more than any other flavors.
I’m sure your dentist is going to kill me for saying this, but one of the very best tools are hard candies, particularly those with a fruity sweet tart flavor. Jolly Ranchers, fruity Lifesavers (not the minty kinds), lollypops…all fantastic for instantaneously moisturizing the folds. I’ll never forget how one of my vocal mentors had a large bowl of Jolly Rancher candies on the table right in front of his piano, at all times. I would suck on them both before the lesson, and during it (not in the middle of singing, of course; when we were in between songs and exercises, or just chatting), and I was blown away by what a difference it always made. I utilize the tool of stimulating the salivary glands even today, before and during singing, either in a recording session or at a live performance.
By the way, one of the most well-believed conceptions of vocal hygiene is that singers should avoid SUGAR at all costs, because it “coats”, or “closes up” the throat. That, my dear friends, is what is known as a WIVES TALE. There have never been any studies that I’m aware of that have shown sugar to have any detrimental effect on the voice at all (and believe me, I’ve looked). Conversely, I have seen several studies (and have heard of many more) that show how beneficial sweet flavors, often those containing sugars, can be for salivary gland stimulation, and keeping the voice lubricated and limber. I’ve been recommending hard candies to a multitude of singers over the years, and have seen nothing but positive results.
Please, let me be clear: when I talk about hard candies, I do NOT mean “Halls” menthol throat drops, or anything similar. Those are NOT good for the voice. I’ll explain why in the next article about vocal hygiene, Dietary “Don’t-s” – What foods & drinks are NOT good for the voice. Keep an eye out for it.
What other foods are good for aiding salivary gland stimulation? Toasted bread and crackers are fantastic (as long as the crackers don’t have any salt on them; more on that later). When you eat un-salted crackers (I personally enjoy graham crackers) or toasted bread, some of the mostly-masticated particles and crumbs remain in your mouth and at the top of your throat, consistently stimulating the salivary glands for a while even after you’ve finished eating them. The same goes for foods like bananas and apples.
For those of you who want to avoid the sugar in hard candies, I find that raisins, craisins, dates, and other dried fruit are a great alternative. And while we’re on the subject, I find that regular grapes can also be great.
How about actual meals? What should you have for a regular meal if you’re planning to sing? How much should you or shouldn’t you eat? How much time should you allow for digestion between eating and singing? Should you eat at ALL, or should you sing on an empty stomach?
We’ll start with the last question first. As I’ve drummed into your brain in previous articles, singing is an athletic activity . It requires fuel, so singing on a completely empty stomach is not a great idea. Always have something good in your system before you sing.
Now, since we know singers are athletes , you should keep that in mind when you decide what you want to eat, how much, and when. Would a marathon runner stuff him/herself to the gills with fried food five minutes before a big race? Of course not.
A good rule of thumb is to allow at least an hour, if not two (two is better) between when you eat and when you sing. That will give your body ample time to digest the fuel you’ve given it, without inhibiting your performance later on. Digestion takes energy, so you don’t want your body’s resources occupied with digestion when it should be giving all pistons to your performance.
You also don’t want to have a full stomach when you sing, because a full belly will inhibit proper diaphragmatic breathing , and can also cause gas and cramping (not unlike trying to run or do anything else athletic on a full stomach). Before you plan to sing (and for general health), you should eat until you are COMFORTABLY FULL, no more. Don’t stuff yourself. Eat until you are satisfied.
What kinds of specific foods should you eat before you sing? As a rule, you’ll want to gravitate towards foods that the body can easily break down without great effort. Whole foods, with vegetables and fruits, are terrific. Eggs are great, too; high protein content, and easily digestible due to their low density. I also find that things like fish and lean chicken are good, as long as they are not too spicy or salty in their preparation. I’ll address why to avoid salty or spicy foods before you sing in a later article on vocal hygiene, Dietary “Don’t-s” – What foods & drinks are NOT good for the voice.
And, how about drinks? Juices that are not super-high in added citric acid are great for stimulating the salivary glands. Apple Juice, Grape Juice, Pineapple Juice, Cranberry Juice…all fantastic. It’s often good to dilute them about 50% with water; they will not lose their ability to initiate salivation, but it’ll save you from imbibing all that sugar.
Also, there are juices that are high in natural Citric Acid, but are not pasteurized, which are also very good. Freshly squeezed Orange or Grapefruit Juice, freshly made Lemonade (from real lemons, not from a mix), can also be great choices.
Often when I’m on stage doing a show, or in the studio laying down vocal tracks, I will have a bottle of apple or cranberry juice, diluted 50% with water, at arm’s length at all times. Anytime my throat begins to get dry, I take a swig, or even a little sip, and it fixes the problem lickety-split.
I’ll get into drinks to avoid (juices high in Citric Acid that ARE pasteurized fall into that category) in the next vocal hygiene article, Dietary “Don’t-s” – What foods & drinks are NOT good for the voice.
Now, as long as we’re talking about drinks, let’s talk about TEMPERATURE. Is it good to drink liquids hot? Cold? Room temperature?
The answer: Hot, Warm, or Room Temperature are great. Cold liquids should be AVOIDED before and during singing. I’ll get into why in a later article entitled Vocal Hygiene: Tools & Practices.
As long as we’re quickly mentioning the benefits of hot liquids, we have to talk about hot TEA, another of the most common and well-believed conceptions of vocal hygiene. Is hot tea with honey and lemon as great for the voice as all the “old wives” seem to think?
I’m happy to say that, yes: hot tea with lemon and honey, is, in fact, terrific for the voice. Again, we’ll get into why *hot* liquids are beneficial in a later article, but for now, take my word for it…they are. As for honey…talk about a FANTASTIC salivary gland stimulator! It’s one of the very best. And freshly squeezed lemon, in addition to also being just stellar for getting those vocal folds moisturized, is also great for killing any wayward bacteria that may be plaguing the throat.
The best kinds of teas are those that are naturally decaffeinated; most herbal teas are great. Teas with caffeine, or those that are chemically decaffeinated, are not quite as good, but can still be beneficial.
The effect of caffeine on the voice will be covered in the next vocal hygiene article, Dietary “Don’t-s” – What foods & drinks are NOT good for the voice.
Have a question about singing technique, voice training, or performance, or an article you’d like to see written? ASK DAN.