As a singer-songwriter, I’m always looking for tips from people in the industry about vocal health and wellness. I have learned a lot from my close friend, singer-songwriter Nikki Jean. After collaborating with Lupe Fiasco on his single “Hip Hop Saved My Life,” Nikki joined Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour and had to perform consecutive nights in front of large audiences. One of the best tips from her and other singers in the spotlight, is the importance of vocalizing and diet. Nikki recently performed on the David Letterman Show and invited me backstage to watch vocal coach Wendy Parr warm her up before taking the stage. Wendy has trained an impressive list of talented recording artists across genres from Regina Spektor to Kelis. What struck me most about watching Wendy work was how much of Wendy’s instruction went beyond scales and incorporated a mind, body and spirit approach to mastering the human instrument. I interviewed her and wanted to share the advice:
Do you believe that diet affects the voice? And if so, what should singers strive to incorporate into daily eating or avoid?
Absolutely, diet impacts the overall wellness and function of the whole body so it’s best to create a way of eating that supports your individual wellness, providing nourishment and vitality. Some things that adversely affect the voice: drugs, alcohol, smoking, caffeine, dairy and sugar. That being said, enjoy your life! Sometimes it’s about choices and timing. Alcohol for example swells the vocal cords, this doesn’t mean don’t ever have a glass of wine, but it’s best not to drink 48 hours before a gig or recording. It can damage, injure and just plain make it much harder to sing. Smoking and caffeine are dehydrating, dairy can cause mucus and phlegm.
Have you noticed a correlation between exercise, such as Pilates or Yoga, and breath control? Would you encourage your students take up either practice?
Both pilates and yoga are great for singers for so many reasons. I’m a big fan and long time practitioner of yoga. Overall wellness, suppleness, flow of oxygen to all the muscles, mental stillness, overcoming challenges, present moment awareness… I could go on and on…we actually calibrate the breathing by correcting the function of the cords and larynx. We are born with the body doing its job without our “help”. A lot of learning is unlearning habits that get in the way and allowing the body to do it’s job again…making music a part of your life improves the quality of life.
Should a singer vocalize every day? In your opinion, how much singing is too much in a 24-hour period?
Yes, working out daily keeps the singer in shape. Duration depends on the singer’s skills and current health and habits. For new students who are learning from me, changing old habits and learning new healthier ones, I recommend 15 minutes of vocalizing a day and another 15 minutes of working on songs. Repetitive, attentive and effective workouts far outweigh long ones that reinforce bad habits. A little bit of quality practice daily can create major improvements.
Practice and growth are much more than just doing scales. Singing is about sharing yourself through song so many skills are valuable to develop – being inspired, listening to music, learning rhythm, how to allow your emotions to come through a melody, improvisation… creating a full and enriching life.
Is complete vocal rest before a performance a good idea? If so, for how long and to what extent?
This really varies on the singer. Rest is always important. Silence the day of a show, conserving your energy is wise (whispering is worse than talking), then warming up for about 20-30 min about an hour before the show, waking up the voice and getting physically and mentally focused.
Wendy is also a songwriter. Her song “Dreams on Fire,” co-written by AR Rahman, is featured on the Grammy and Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. To read more about Wendy and her vocal technique please visit: www.wendyparr.com
This interview took place on September 21, 2011