For decades singing teachers have been hounding their students about drinking enough water and staying hydrated, because it was good for their bodies and good for their singing. We have rightfully accepted that good advice, though I know few singers who follow it to the letter or as fully as we probably should. Cue my side eye to the nearly empty coffee cup sitting beside me as I type this. We know and accept that adequate hydration is good for our singing, but why? How does hydration actually work to make our singing better? Let's explore the physiology!
Your body is made up of a lot of water. Like, A LOT. Just about every structure has water as its main building block. So naturally, it makes sense that we need to replenish the water that is lost through evaporation through our skin, cell turnover, and other natural processes. Our bodies don't create water, so it must be introduced from the outside.
Now, it's not regular tap water that is in our cells. The body takes the water that we ingest and infuses it with salt and other chemicals to make it palatable to our cells. That happens in the gut as the water is absorbed and transformed by the small intestine. That process is really cool, and maybe I'll get more into it at another time. But for now, it's enough to know that our bodies change the water's composition a bit to make it more useful.
Let's fast forward through the process to how you actually get your vocal folds hydrated. (This part is really neat!) We have two main ways to hydrate the vocal folds: topically and systemically.
Topical hydration is just what it sounds like; it's dropping water onto the surface of the vocal folds, usually through the use of a steamer or nebulizer. Small droplets of water float through your throat and get deposited onto the surface of the vocal folds. This kind of hydration can be effective, but is very temporary, with its effects lasting anywhere from just a few minutes to a few hours. Please note that nothing you drink physically touches the vocal folds. It can feel good in your throat to drink hot tea or whatever, but the act of swallowing triggers the larynx's protective mechanism to clamp down over the airway and keep foreign substances out of the lungs. (Watch my YouTube video about how the epiglottis saves your life.)
Systemic hydration is a longer but much more effective process. It starts when you drink or eat something, then through the body's digestive process the water is extracted and transformed in your small intestine and flows through the blood stream to wherever it is needed in the body. Specifically at the vocal folds, the blood vessels carry the water to the innermost layers of the vocal folds, and then it travels up through the layers (it turned into mucous along the way) until it reaches the top layer, the epithelium. Then these teeny tiny pumps take the mucous from the layer underneath, and shoot it out over the epithelium, where the mucous spreads out and lubricates the surface of the vocal folds.
Here's why adequate hydration is super duper important for vocal fold health: The thickness (fancy word: viscosity) of the mucous that is being pumped out over the epithelium is in direct relationship with your overall level of hydration. If your body has enough water to spare, that mucous will be thinner and easier to pump out over the epithelium. If there isn't as much water to make the mucous, it will be thicker, more viscous, and harder for the pumps to get it out onto the epithelial surface. And what's more, the thicker the mucous, the stickier it is. Thinner mucous lets the vocal fold edges slip and slide over each other easily. Thicker mucous makes the vocal fold edges sticky and harder to release from each other. That means more friction on the edges of the folds, and that can lead to irritation of the epithelium. In extreme cases, that friction can lead to a hardening of the tissue and lumps and bumps like nodes or polyps. You want your vocal folds to be slippery, and not sticky.
When I learned about the process of hydration and how it works, it encouraged me to be more focused on keeping a good level of hydration. Just that extra bit of knowledge gave me a *why* behind the *what.* I hope that can be true for you and your students, too! To help drive the point home with your students, feel free to download and share the image below. Slippery vocal folds are the best!