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How blowing into a straw can save your voice



I’ve always had a raspy voice that easily burns out. A loud party or long day of talking can leave me sounding like Tom Waits. But is there any way to avoid this?

To learn more, I called Diana Orbelo, a speech-language pathologist at the Mayo Clinic who helps people with voice problems.

Over the phone, she almost immediately diagnosed me as a voice loser. "Usually the throaty, chesty, deeper voices are the ones that tend to get more into trouble," she said.

Assuming I have a healthy larynx, when I lose my voice it means I've strained my vocal cords from too much use, causing them to swell up so they can't vibrate as easily to get out sound. (Think of this as a repetitive motion injury.)

"We don’t know why some people are more susceptible to voice problems compared to others," Orbelo explained. "There may be a genetic predisposition, habits we form growing up."

But there was good news: The unlucky lottery of birth didn't mean I was stuck with a weak voice. "Through training, people can learn to have a forward resonance, which tends to project well," she said.

People who talk from deep in their chests (like me) tend to put more strain on their vocal cords than people who talk from higher up, closer to the front of the face. It's possible to train yourself to become more of the latter.

The straw technique

Ingo Titze, a vocal scientist and executive director of the National Center for Voice and Speech at the University of Utah, demonstrates the straw technique. (YouTube)

Orbelo suggested the "straw technique" — strengthening your vocal cords by humming through a straw or blowing into one with a liquid ("like when you're a kid and you blow bubbles in chocolate milk").

Turns out, it seems everyone in the voice community knows about the magical straw technique — to "reset and free the voice" and "stretch and unpress" your vocal cords and folds.

The National Center for Speech and Voice says the method has "roots in Northern Europe and has been used for several hundred years." Its popularizer, Ingo Titze — a vocal scientist and executive director of the center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City — has published academic papers on the approach.

Apparently, the straw technique can not only give you a voice that's stronger and more difficult to lose, but it can also relieve a tired voice.

Watch voice teacher Tom Burke demonstrate how to blow bubbles to relieve a tired voice. (YouTube)

Christina Kang, an opera singer and Mayo Clinic voice therapist in Arizona, explained that the exercises "rebalance and recoordinate the vocal mechanism" — the 13 muscles that work with the breath to give your voice resonance.

Kang warned that I should see a doctor to make sure there's no underlying health problem with my vocal cords. (And while my voice only goes out for a day or two after lots of talking or a loud event, some people lose their voices for prolonged periods. More than two weeks could signal something serious — from an infection to cancer in the head or neck.)

Like Dr. Orbelo, Kang recommended training. "A [voice coach] can help you divert the energy in your voice to an efficient place, which is in the front of the face," she explained.

For now, I booked a doctor's appointment, and while I wait, you can find me experimenting with straws.