“Drink more water!” I think most people have been told this – dozens, if not hundreds of times. Every time I cruise my social media feed these days, there seems to be a new ad for a product that helps people track their water intake. As a voice teacher, I think this is great! If you’ve been singing for any length of time, you already know that hydration is a priority for singers (and speakers too). But why? Is it really that important?

In a word….YES!

Singing well requires several things: a clear mind, an energized body, and healthy, flexible vocal folds. Healthy phonation relies on the ability of the vocal folds to change length and thickness (for pitch) and to seal properly along the edges when they meet (for clarity of tone). To do that our vocal folds need to be supple, pliable and – you guessed it – HYDRATED.

There are two ways to hydrate your vocal folds and tract: INTERNAL HYDRATION and TOPICAL HYDRATION.

Drinking water is considered INTERNAL HYDRATION, which is an essential element to a singer’s VOCAL HYGIENE PLAN (*a daily regimen of good habits used to maintain the health of your vocal folds). Proper, long-term hydration is incredibly important for singers and speakers because:

  1. Dehydration increases Phonation Threshold Pressure. PTP is the minimum lung pressure required to begin vocal fold oscillation. In other words, dehydration makes it harder to start the vocal folds vibrating. This, in turn, leads to more effort on the part of the singer or speaker. That extra effort results in vocal fatigue.
  2. Dehydration prompts the body to release more mucous into the throat and onto the vocal folds. That extra phlegm feels caught, leading us to clear our throats. Throat clearing causes your vocal folds to collide at high velocities, thanks to the elevated amounts of breath pressure it takes to cough. The vocal folds are incredibly delicate. Repeated friction and pressure can be traumatic, causing inflammation and increased mucous production. Which – I’m sorry to say – leads to yet more throat clearing. It’s a vicious cycle.
  3. Proper hydration is essential for neurological function, which is a requirement for speaking and singing! The brain contains approximately 75% water mass, and water is what gives the brain the ability to function properly. Studies have found that cognitive function declines at 2% water loss, which can result in poorer concentration, increased reaction times and short-term memory issues. The clearer your thought process, the faster you learn and improve!

It’s important to note that hydration takes time. Full absorption can take anywhere from 75 minutes to 2 hours on an empty stomach. This is the primary reason it’s important to drink water throughout the day. Spacing out your water consumption helps you stay internally hydrated continually.

Fun fact: did you know that water doesn’t actually touch the vocal folds? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. It’s a pretty common misconception. When you take a sip of liquid it moves through your mouth, down the back of your throat (pharynx) and straight into your stomach. The epiglottis folds down over the vocal folds to protect them from the descending liquid. You know that saying, “it went down the wrong pipe”? If water or food does touch your vocal folds, you cough! This is called ‘the cough reflex’ and helps keep our airways safe.

But there is a way to hydrate the folds directly. Steam inhalation/nebulizing are examples of TOPICAL HYDRATION, which can lubricate your vocal folds and the surrounding tissue without causing irritation or coughing. Steam inhalation and nebulizing have been shown to significantly decrease PTP allowing for easier, more complete oscillation in the folds. They also increase superficial hydration, relieve muscle tension, and reduce phlegm!

The bottom line: proper hydration is not an expendable piece of your vocal hygiene plan. We need to use a combination of internal and topical hydration to keep our minds and voices working well. So, make sure to sip water throughout the day. Avoid things you notice dehydrate you (I’m looking at you, alcohol….). And utilize steam if your voice feels dry, tired or irritated.

Now go drink some water!