After the gig, you never see a sax player toss his $5000 instrument on the ground and let it get kicked around by the sound man a few times before throwing it into a garbage bag and dragging it to the car. Gigging singers often treat their instrument like it’s a $5 kazoo.

Broadway singers and those on tour often describe how landing their first nightly show changed their approach to vocal hygiene; they suddenly began doing all the things on this list religiously. For me, as my children got out of diapers and I started gigging more, I began to have to work harder to avoid losing my voice. It’s nothing too complex, really. Here’s what to do:

1. Don’t smoke. Don’t use drugs, illicit or prescription. Beware of taking antihistamines when you are sick, as they’ll dry your voice right up.

2. You probably shouldn’t drink either if you’re serious, but fine, you can drink so long as you match each glass of alcohol with a glass of water. Of course, Sinatra broke these rules to no ill effect, as did many of his era. Few have the stamina for consistent self-abuse, however. And what about your friends and family? Stop drinking now, you miserable bum!* Wait, where was I? Oh yes…

3. Eat whatever you like. Except nuts right before a recording session. They get stuck in your mouth and throat.

4. Go ahead and enjoy coffee. NWalnuts are great for you, just not right before you singothing wrong with coffee, it’s an antioxidant. Yes, have milk too, it’s good for your bones. Oh, and eat gluten. Don’t get too distracted by people telling you things are bad for your voice. You are probably not allergic to anything — even if you are, first get rid of the known irritants. Start with the big stuff (cigarettes, drugs, alcohol) before you freak out about wheat or corn. Just eat delicious fresh food in moderation, ok? You only have so much time in a day to focus on diet.** You want to spend it focused on beautiful sounds and music.

5. Protect your ears. These $11 Etymotic Research musician earplugs work for me when I perform with the 19-piece orchestra. They only attenuate 12 dB, but I usually have to take them out when I sing lead.

6. Get a good microphone that enhances your particular voice (gives sizzle to a dark voice, mellows a bright one). I use a Sennheiser e945, but you might be perfectly happy with a Shure SM58. You can go higher end, to condenser microphones, in quiet gigs, but for most clubs and sound systems where you don’t have your own engineer, you will be better off with a $100 dynamic vocal mic. The sound engineer is your friend. Be very very nice to this person and gently insist on getting the right mix so that you can hear yourself. Other musicians may grouse about you being a diva. Ignore them.***

7. Get a lot of sleep, whatever is the right amount for you. In my case it’s 8 hours.

8. Don’t yell. Don’t cackle. Don’t talk too much either. Social media can be a good substitute for talking. Consider whether you talk efficiently in a register that is resonant (that would be around the note you say “Hey!” on). Some singers have had great success with speech training to solve persistent problems. I’m saying this like it’s easy for me. This is probably my biggest struggle.

9. Depending on the demands on your voice, you may have to be more consistent about warm-up/warm-down and embrace vocal rest. Read this short piece on Broadway star Mary Martin’s silent weekends. Check out Singing Success for some great speech-level voice exercises and videos. With experience, you should be able to sing for 1-3 hours without going hoarse; if you are losing your voice, then you may need to learn speech-level techniques.

10. Drink a lot of water. Try a glass when you get up, one when you go to sleep, one with every meal, and as much as you need while performing.

yer basic humidifier

11. Buy a humidifier if you find your vocal cords feeling dry (here is the model I bought). Mine are like a barometer. If I find my voice is dry I drink water for a day, but I’ve been known to run the humidifier for a week or so at night. It will probably destroy the furniture around it, in addition to making a sound you may not be able to sleep to. Hey, nothing is free.

12. Get regular exercise. Your whole body is your instrument.


* Apologies to the 95% of the population who are not alcoholics. But you do probably depend too much on alcohol to have fun. Ever heard of the contact high?

** My diet recommendation: Masai.

*** Yeah, fuck ’em (not literally, though. Never do anyone in the band).