Coxswains: Professional Voice Users
March 6, 2013
No matter how we try to define what a coxswain does, it always involves something along the lines of "yelling at people." So when the annual bout of laryngitis comes around, coxswains are out of a job.
We take speaking for granted, since it is usually an effortless process that has worked since we were less than a year old. For coxswains and other professional voice users (think singers, teachers, and cheerleaders), speaking is one of the most important parts of the job. Just like we expect our rowers to take care of their knees, backs, wrists, and shoulders, coxswains must also take care of their voices.
As a former Division 1 coxswain, I understand the schedule: it's midway through the season and you are leaving for Philadelphia on Friday, have heats and semis on Saturday and then the final on Sunday. You sound like a frog but unfortunately vocal rest in not an option. It is very tempting to just drink some tea with honey, grab some cough drops and jump in the boat.
Ignoring your symptoms, however, can lead to permanent vocal damage that can cause changes in voice quality and could require surgery, the same position famous singer Adele found herself in recently. By first understanding how most people breathe and talk, and then comparing that to how coxswains perform during a race, you should be able to learn ways to prevent vocal damage and get back into fighting shape, never missing a stroke.
When we talk our diaphragm relaxes, causing the lungs to deflate, sending air out of the trachea, past the vocal folds. The vocal folds come together to vibrate, creating sound that then travels up to the oral cavity and out of the mouth. Normal everyday talking is smooth and easy and requires little effort. When we project our voice, however, the air is pushed out of the lungs faster allowing the words to be louder. It is essential to have proper breath support when speaking for a long period of time or when projecting. Proper breath support is obtained by contracting the diaphragm to fill our lungs. This is easy when we are standing or sitting but not so easy when you are wedged into 15 by 36 inch box, with your knees to your chin.
In the boat's cramped space, we further restrict the space for our lungs to expand by leaning forward. As a result many coxswains resort to thoracic breathing- breathing with the shoulders not the abdomen. This creates tension in the upper body. Tension causes the muscles that surround the delicate vocal folds to cramp, stretching the vocal folds, which can cause vocal nodules(vocal nodules are blisters on the vocal folds that can turn into calluses); vocal nodules that can end a career. You can see where this is going.
Now to the important stuff: how to prevent harming our vocal folds.
Most importantly you must learn to breathe! Practice breathing first by lying on the ground and putting a book on your stomach- you should be able to see it rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. In order to do this in the boat, you must breathe against your legs. It is hard and uncomfortable but it can prevent long term damage. Sit in the same position as you would in a boat and practice, watch in a mirror to make sure that your shoulders are not moving.
Stay hydrated! You tell your rowers to drink water all the time- you should be drinking water in between each piece or race, too! Your vocal tissue needs to be hydrated to keep everything moving smoothly. Drinking four bottles of water while in line before weigh-ins does not count as hydrating. Essentially, you should be drinking 50-60 ounces of water throughout your day. 5 am practices in the winter do not help either- to keep your environment hydrated, sleep with a humidifier.
Be careful about what medications/drugs you are taking. Decongestants and other cold and flu medications are supposed to dry out your nasal passages. That is good for allergies and coughs but dries out the tissue. Remember, alcohol and caffeine are considered dehydrating drugs as well!
Stop clearing your throat! Every time you clear your throat you are slamming your vocal folds together, this constant slamming creates irritation which makes it harder for your vocal folds to come together when you are speaking normally. If you feel a tickle in your throat, drink some water instead.
Do not whisper. Whispering stretches the vocal folds and can be just as damaging as screaming. Look at yourself in the mirror whispering. Do you see the strain in your neck, the effort that it takes? Whispering for people with voice issues is bad news.
Stress management! Being a coxswain is extremely stressful- don't let anyone tell you otherwise! If you carry stress in your neck and upper body, you will be creating tension in the muscles that involve speaking and we have already established that is not good. Massaging your neck and shoulders can help relieve the tension that is already there.
Lastly, do some vocal warm ups. Just like singers- you are dependent on your voice to get the job done. You would never see a singer start belting it out without warming up, so why would you jump out of bed at 4:45 am and start yelling? On the bus to practice, say "hummmmmm" a few times. The first few times hold the "m" as long as possible, then take a deep breath and repeat. Try to feel the vibrations behind your teeth. Now say "hummmm" again starting quiet, get louder, and the quiet down again. Next do some pitch glides, hold a vowel, like "e", start your voice high and go low and then start low and go high. Then repeat these, saying "hunnnnn".
Other techniques can be taught by a Speech- Language Pathologist (SLP). If you experience changes to your voice, or loss of your voice that lasts for more than a week, think about seeing an otolaryngologist (ENT). The ENT will be able to look at your vocal folds and determine if you already have vocal nodules and provide further information about contacting an SLP for voice therapy.
Coxing is a great job—hard on the voice, great for personal growth and skills that you will use for the rest of your life. If you learn to take care of your voice, you could be the next Olympic gold medalist.
Andrews, Moya L. (2006) Manual Of Voice Treatment: Pediatrics to Geriatric.
Colton, Raymond, Casper, Janina K. & Leonard, Rebecca. (2011) Understanding Voice Problems: A Physiological Perspective for Diagnosis and Treatment.