You’re singing…and sweating. A friend says smugly: “I drink 12.5 glasses of water a day”.
You can’t be bothered. All of this measuring sounds like a lot of work. What’s the big deal about drinking so much water?
Dr. Ron Scherer explains: “I ask my students to clap their hands hard – there is a slight stinging sensation. Then, I ask them to do the same thing with a little soapy water: no sting. When you’re singing, your vocal folds are essentially slapping together. What the singer needs is a “cushion” between the folds and this is achieved by having a nice mucus coating on the vocal folds. This coating requires proper hydration.
“If you are not well-hydrated the vocal folds can become irritated more quickly, leading to redness and swelling. For physicians, this is called a ‘predisposing condition’ – leading more easily to vocal fold changes and issues”.
So, an inadequate intake of water is certainly not ideal for a singer. Vocal Coach Melissa Cross adds: “Maybe you don’t care about being ideal; you can still do a show. But why not strive to be at your optimum for performance?”
How Much H20?
Most experts recommend six to eight glasses of water a day, but there is no “magic amount”.
Everyone’s body is different and glands work in unique ways. As a general rule of thumb, Scherer says: “The more you use up water, the more you have to ingest to maintain a good balance”.
Singers use up more water if they are sweating during performances, or simply working in a hot, dry venue. It’s easy to become dehydrated without even knowing it.
Speech Therapist Ruth Epstein urges singers not to wait for the interval and then rush and drink all that they can: “Water should not be “glugged” as a punishment but sipped throughout the day and throughout the performance”.
But there’s another variable to account for when assessing water consumption: the amount of caffeine you’ve had.
Watch Your Other Fluids Tea, coffee, coke and other caffeinated beverages tend to dehydrate the body by increasing urine production, known as the ‘diuretic effect’.
The singer needs to compensate for caffeine consumption. Marcus Coneys, MD, says: “One rule of thumb is that 10 fl oz of coffee needs 10 fl oz of water to replace this extra loss from diuresis”. Coneys warns that the extra water needed to compensate for caffeinated drinks is a problem with vocal performance: “A singer can’t keep leaving the stage to urinate, can they? So best avoid caffeinated beverages before and during performances”.
You’ll know if you are drinking the right amount of water if you “pee pale” – though this is not a perfect measurement as multivitamins can color the urine and stress can cause urine to be excessively pale.
Don’t worry about the exact amount of water to drink—worry itself is not good for one’s health. Keep to six to eight glasses a day, but adjust up to take account of performance movement and caffeine intake.
Hot, Cold, or Room Temperature?
There is no magic number in terms of the amount, but is there a magic temperature?
The vocal folds do not need to have the water at a certain temperature to be lubricated. However, vocal folds are not the only part of your body responsible for your sound.
The muscles and mucus in one’s nose, mouth and throat (the pharynx) have a great deal to do with determining the singer’s sound quality.
Dr. Coneys explains: “Muscle function can be inhibited by very cold fluids while very hot fluids may cause the mucous membranes lining the pharynx to swell slightly and the muscles to relax too much”.
These effects may be negligible for some vocalists but it’s why the experts say that room temperature is best.
Your H20 Checklist.
• Drink six to eight cups a day (but this is not a “magic number”)
• Adjust the amount of water you consume to take into account sweating and caffeine
• Have enough so that you ‘pee pale’
• Room temperature is better than hot or cold
• Sip rather than glug
• Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink
Ruth Epstein PhD is Head of Speech & Language Therapy Services and Consultant Speech and Language Therapist (ENT) at the Royal National Throat, Nose & Ear Hospital in London. She is also the Director of the MSc program in Voice Pathology at the Ear Institute, University College London.
Ronald C. Scherer, PhD is a voice scientist and educator in the Department of Communication Disorders, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. He teaches courses on voice disorders and voice and speech science. His research interests include the physiology and mechanics of basic, abnormal and performance voice production and the methodologies involved in such research. For more about Dr. Scherer’s work, click here.
The editor also thanks Marcus C. D. Coneys, MD for checking the accuracy of many aspects of this article. Dr. Coneys is an anesthesiologist and pain clinician in Red Deer, Alberta.