Dear Dr. Jahn,
I’ve heard that the water you drink never actually touches your vocal folds. So why does it feel so good to drink water during my gigs, if the water isn’t even coming in contact with them?
You’re absolutely right: the water you swallow does not touch your vocal folds.
Indeed, if it did, you would start to cough and choke, as happens when your drink goes down ” the wrong way”.
The vocal folds are sensitive to touch, and spring into action to protect your trachea and lower airway from anything you might eat or drink.
So where does the water go? Well, there is a lot more to the vocal tract than the vocal folds.
The mouth, the tongue, your pharynx, including all of the structures above and behind the laryx – these all are involved in singing.
From the pharyngeal point of view, singing is little more than muscular effort, vibration, and a constant drying flow of exhaled air rushing past.
All of these activities are made easier by lubrication, both of the mucous membrane surfaces (as water rushes by) and internally (as you rehydrate).
The cooling and possible increase in humidity in the vocal tract from drinking may further facilitate the vocal effort.
There is yet another aspect to consider, however. When you sing, especially with some strain, you contract one set of muscles, often over a period of time.
The act of swallowing activates another set of muscles. During the swallow, the singing muscles get to relax, and even get a bit of passive stretch, which feels good—a bit like relaxing a tightly clenched fist after a minute or two.
And here is the most interesting one: swallowing stimulates the vagus nerve, a nerve that is has many functions, including slowing the heart rate.
In moments of high effort or excitement, this cardiac effect may feel welcome.
Taken all together, the very act of swallowing gives you and your larynx a “breather”, a moment of respite before you start to contract the singing muscles again.