How to care for your voice: Eight practical suggestions for preachers
I just signed up for voice lessons. No, I am not planning to stop preaching and become a professional singer! Rather, I want to learn how to care for my voice in order to maximize and preserve my impact as a preacher for years to come. Most of us received little or no instruction in voice care during our college or seminary training. Many of our preaching professors assumed we all knew how to take care of our voices. They were wrong. That is why I have dialogued with several voice professionals in order to discover some practical suggestions about voice care for preachers.1
Your voice is a miracle of creative genius. Your vocal cords are quite small, somewhere between 18–23 millimeters in size, with this miraculous and priceless instrument housed within your larynx. Your vocal cords vibrate hundreds of times per second when speaking. Continuous misuse or abuse will damage them, and sometimes that damage becomes permanent.
If you would like to protect and preserve your vocal cords and keep your voice working at peak performance, here are eight practical suggestions for voice care.
Warm up your vocal cords
Athletes use a warm-up routine before vigorous exercise. This reduces the risk of injury to muscles and ensures peak performance. Likewise, your vocal cords are muscles, too, and they need to be “warmed up” before use in order to realize their maximum potential and avoid injury.
A simple warm-up exercise for speakers involves humming on a descending scale. Your lips should be touching, with your teeth slightly separated. Feel the buzzing sensation when humming. You can also vocalize various syllables on a descending scale. Try using buzzing sounds like vi, vi, vi, vi, vi; va, va, va, va, va; vo, vo, vo, vo, vo; or bede, bede, bede, bede, bede; or ze, za, zo, zu. Start in the middle of your range and descend to your low range. Then go to your high range and descend to your middle range. You can also do lip trills (make a brbrbrbr sound, vibrating your lips naturally and easily). A few minutes devoted to a vocal warm-up routine is time well spent.
Gale Jones Murphy, a renowned Christian musician and motivational speaker, offers this practical suggestion for a vocal warm-up routine for preachers. Before a busy day of preaching, one of the best times and locations to warm up your voice is while taking a shower. The steam and humidity are great for the vocal cords. Sing the melodies of some of your favorite hymns or Scripture songs with ee vowels, remembering to relax your jaw. This focused warm-up routine can also be a time of spiritual reflection as you associate the melodies with the spiritual messages of the songs.2
If you find yourself running out of breath in just a few seconds during your warm-up exercises, then you need to pay special attention to the second suggestion below.
Practice proper breathing techniques
The vibration of your vocal cords requires consistent, continuous airflow— this reinforces why proper breathing techniques are essential for peak vocal performance. Be mindful of proper breath management because too much pressure wears down the vocal cords. However, too little pressure has the same negative effect. Here are several breathing exercises to help you develop effective breath support:
• Inhale deeply, allowing your ribcage to expand and your diaphragm to lower without raising your shoulders. Then exhale slowly with a hissing sound, gently pulling in with your abdominal muscles for a consistent airflow through your vocal cords. Think about sucking through a clogged straw while inhaling. This will help your air intake to flow slowly and smoothly.
• Inhale deeply, then vocalize “Choo, choo, choo” with a loud whisper, using your abdominal muscles to pull in and up with each word. Learn to associate the use of your voice with good breathing techniques. These breathing exercises also help minimize upper body and neck tension and fatigue.
• Lie on the floor with a large book on your abdomen and breathe. The book should ascend and descend as you inhale and exhale. You can also practice this breathing exercise while lying in bed.
• Explore the extremes between too much air pressure and too little air pressure. Exhale with a loud hissing sound (too much air pressure). Then exhale with no hissing sound (too little air pressure). Develop muscle memory for an appropriate breath support that produces better tone quality. Practice reciting sermons with passion without developing tension in your throat.
• Learn to breathe deeply. Engage in activities such as brisk walking, biking, and other aerobic exercises that require you to breathe deeply. Panting can also help you to breathe deeply. Start slowly, then speed up. Feel your whole torso moving when you pant, not just your chest. Deep breathing gets the diaphragm to lower, which produces a more efficient and pleasing tone. Intentionally wake up your body by deep breathing prior to a speaking appointment.
Practice good posture
Good posture is essential for efficient voice production. When your physical alignment is poor, you not only look awkward to your congregation but you also impair proper breathing techniques. Have you noticed preachers who slump over the pulpit? That is an example of poor posture. When you have proper body alignment, you should be able to drop a line from the top of your head, past your ear, the point of your shoulder, the highest point of your pelvis, just behind your kneecap, and just in front of your ankle. Proper posture enables you to have good balance, move freely, and provide efficient breath support.
Provide adequate hydration
My colleague, Dr. Evan Chesney, often coaches me in good voice care with a single word: “Hydrate!”3 Most of us are aware of the fact that our bodies are made up of approximately 60 percent water. Lost water needs to be replaced daily, and the best way to hydrate is to drink pure water. Other fluids, like juices, are not good substitutes for pure water because your body processes these fluids as food and treats them differently.4
Adequate hydration with pure water becomes particularly important for the lubrication of your vocal cords. Make sure that you are well hydrated before speaking and, if necessary, drink additional water during breaks. Room temperature water is preferable because chilled water will cause the vocal cords to constrict. When preaching three times in a row, my regular preaching routine, I make sure that I drink at least 16 ounces (0.47 liters) of water prior to my first sermon and an additional 16 ounces of water between each sermon. I thought that I was doing well until Reyna Carguill shared with me that she drinks 64–128 ounces (1.89–3.79 liters) of water in the four hours preceding a major event.5 This requires some intentionality, but adequate hydration is well worth the effort in order to avoid damage to inadequately hydrated vocal cords.
My voice teacher, Mark Becker, shared a story that illustrates the importance of adequate hydration.6 A preacher requested Becker’s assistance because he noticed that his throat was beginning to get sore during his speaking assignments. In asking for help, the preacher demonstrated wisdom because soreness is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, and you could be damaging some aspect of your physical being. After careful analysis, it was discovered that the preacher was sipping water during his sermons. Rather than providing adequate hydration, this sipping habit was simply washing away the natural lubrication from around his vocal cords, resulting in soreness. When the preacher began to drink adequate fluids prior to speaking and on breaks, rather than sipping water during his presentations, he was able to speak all day without soreness of any kind.
Get adequate rest
Has anyone ever said to you, “You sound tired!” When you are tired, one of the first parts of your body to be affected is your voice. Adequate rest is essential for optimal voice performance. Reyna Carguill makes a point of getting extra rest two days before a major event. Preachers also need to give their bodies some rest reserves. Be intentional as well about providing rest for your vocal cords. Have you heard the expression “Silence is golden”? That is true, not only in times of conflict, but also when you want to provide good care for your voice. Vocal rest becomes very beneficial for your instrument. Be silent for an extended period of time. Some preachers have the mistaken idea that whispering rests the vocal cords, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, whispering is more stressful on your vocal cords than speaking. So take time to just be silent. Rest.
If you have a demanding speaking schedule on a particular day, schedule time for your vocal cords to rest. Ask someone else to welcome the visitors, give the announcements, lead the songs, and offer the morning prayer. Make room for others to serve, while providing rest periods for your voice at the same time.
Provide healthy fuel for your body
Your whole body supports your voice so make sure you provide your body with healthy fuel. Everything you eat and drink either sustains or alters your nutritional balance. To maintain the proper chemical balance in your body, you need the appropriate nutrients. Enjoy a healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes. Be aware of foods and beverages that can damage your instrument; for example, spicy foods and fried foods can cause acid reflux that damage the vocal cords. Also, be aware of personal food allergies that can affect vocal performance. Avoid overeating as overeating results in shallow breathing and lack of energy. Adequate and appropriate nutrition prior to speaking helps provide the needed energy for peak performance.7
Keep your whole body toned
Exercise is also essential for optimal vocal performance, for exercise will keep your body toned and enhance your core strength. Many muscles are engaged when speaking, and a well-toned muscular system will help you maximize your impact as a communicator. Dr. Julie Penner strongly encourages all of her voice students to take an exercise class that concentrates on strengthening the core of the body, namely the innermost abdominals.8 This exercise class also involves stretching and controlled deep breathing, all of which results in freedom and support of the voice and helps the speaker or singer become more supple in body and voice.
Take some voice lessons
Every preacher could benefit from taking some voice lessons from a good vocal coach. Dr. Evan Chesney shared a lesson he learned early in his career: “My first teaching experience began when I taught remedial English at Southern Adventist University. After my first week of teaching, I had pretty much trashed my voice, which was very frustrating since I was a vocal performance major. My voice teacher pointed out that I needed to learn to speak the same way I sing. Applying the same techniques when speaking that I used in singing— proper posture, abdominal breath support, proper vocal placement and projection—relieved the stress on my vocal cords, and I didn’t have any more trouble.”
Your voice teacher can help you avoid voice strain and provide some helpful strategies to protect your precious instrument.9 Old habits die hard, but it is possible to change with discipline and practice. If you are experiencing a vocal disorder of some kind, your voice teacher might suggest you consult a physician because your vocal cords could be damaged and may require complete rest or even surgery.
Your voice is a precious gift. Do not misuse or abuse it. Make an effort to practice good voice care. Be determined to use your voice to bring honor and glory to God.10
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1 I am grateful to Mark Becker, Reyna Carguill, Dr. Evan Chesney, Gale Jones Murphy, and Dr. Julie Penner for their significant contributions to this article.
2 Gale Jones Murphy serves as a choral teacher at Brentwood Academy in Brentwood, TN, and is minister of music at Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nashville, TN. You can learn more about Gale’s music and teaching ministry at www.galejonesmurphy.com.
3 Dr. Evan Chesney serves as the minister of music at the Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church in Apopka, Florida.
4 Alcohol and caffeinated drinks are also detrimental to optimal vocal performance. Alcohol causes constriction of the blood vessels in the vocal cords, causing a reduction in vocal control. Caffeine causes dryness in the throat and impairs a healthy rest cycle.
5 Reyna Carguill is a professional operatic soprano.
6 Mark Becker teaches voice lessons and directs choral and handbell activities at Forest Lake Academy in Apopka, Florida.
7 A healthy lifestyle is an important part of caring for your voice. An excellent resource for whole person health is CREATION Health, which is produced by Florida Hospital. You can learn more about CREATION Health at
8 Dr. Julie Penner is the director of voice activities at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee.
9 Preachers need to learn how to use a microphone correctly. You should not adjust your speaking voice in an attempt to find the appropriate volume or tone. That is the job of the audio technician. Take time for an audio check. The equalizer levels (EQ) are different for speaking versus singing. Female voices may require less treble and male voices may require less bass tones.
10 An excellent user-friendly book on the use and care of the voice is The Performer’s Voice by Meribeth Bunch Dayme (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005). For a more technical book on vocal pedagogy, Dr. Julie Penner recommends Your Voice: An Inside View by Scott McCoy (Princeton, NJ: Inside View Press, 2006). A helpful Web site on voice care is www.your-personal-singing-guide.com.