One thing I say frequently to my students is this: “One big reason we work on technique is so we can sing when sick.” I like to regale my students with the story about the time I sang an hour- long recital with pneumonia. Smart? No! But I survived, through sheer force of will and a foundation of good technique. This post discusses many preventative measures you can take so you can avoid becoming ill and what to do when you find yourself ill during the days leading to an audition.
Be Kind to your Voice
The number one cause of vocal hoarseness or fatigue is not illness: it is the mistreatment of their singing OR speaking voice. How many of you return from the Homecoming game, your favorite band’s concert, or even a lengthy rehearsal experiencing vocal fatigue? Let’s talk about why this happens: When you overuse your voice, just like any other muscle group in your body, it becomes swollen. The result of swollen “cords” is two fold: First, the cords are harder to make vibrate without extra support (air flowing past them). Second, extra air escapes when you sing, since the cords no longer meet as cleanly as they did when you were at your healthiest.
If you’re feeling the fatigue, here are some helpful hints on how to treat your voice during the week of your audition:
- Speak in a supported head voice (a higher pitch and with no vocal fry)
- Athletics and music spectators: no screaming or misuse of voice. Clap, wave your hands! Whoever you’re yelling at probably wont hear you anyway.
- Try to avoid clearing your throat or coughing. Try this: clap your hands together. Now do it over and over again. After a while those hands will be red, swollen, maybe even dry. It is best to clear your throat (if necessary) with a hard ‘h’ sound, swallowing and drinking a glass of water.
Everyone around me is sick!
Natalie enjoys walking around the choir room in the days leading up to auditions yelling “Stop touching each other!” You can’t get sick if you don’t come in contact with germs, so stay away from sick people! It’s not *mean*: you’re not a doctor and it’s not your job or obligation to hang out with your sick friends. This is ONLY for their benefit and not yours, so if they’re a good friend, they’ll understand. Your health needs to be your number one priority. Also, please wash your hands and stop sharing food and drinks (and lip gloss) *even* with healthy people. And if you’re the sick one, get thee away from other humans.
One frustrating thing we hear in the studio is ” Well, I have allergies, so *shrug* “. There are MANY remedies for both the cause and the symptoms of allergies! Use them! Also, allergies normally effect people according to a season, so be observant and vigilant. Know your body, get tested, and plan ahead. Allergies are much more predictable and treatable than a head cold which can strike at any time.
Find the allergy medication that works for you. Many people find that they have to rotate every few weeks or each season, as one might lose it’s effectiveness. Use your neti-pot and THEN a nasal spray.
That being said, remember that all pills are systemic: it’s impossible to take something and have it only effect one small part of your body. And each medication has side effects, which you need to weigh against the greater benefit and only use what medicine you absolutely NEED. For example, if you have post-nasal drip, you don’t need Claritin-D, all you need is a decongestant, such as Mucinex or a prescription guaifenisin, not an antihistamine which might make you sleepy, etc.
We also recommend you discuss with your doctor and use the following things only as a last resort and hopefully not at all *while you’re singing*: Asprin, Menthol or any numbing throat sprays, and steroids.
Drinking plenty of water always helps keep your voice in top shape, but only if you hydrate consistently. I am puzzled by students chugging water immediately prior to singing or taking sips of water between warm-ups. Think of the water you drink as having it’s greatest effect the next day.
Using a cool mist humidifier helps keep your vocal cords happy. A humidifier helps keep the moisture in the air and prevents your vocal cords from drying out. Steaming can also help keep the vocal cords from drying out and open up your sinuses. They even make personal steamers for when you’re flying which is notoriously hard on the voice.
Do you think hot tea helps the voice? Be careful: most of these have TONS of caffeine which is a diuretic (dehydrates you). Believe it or not, a cup of black tea can have more caffeine than a cup of coffee! You’ll want to avoid caffeine as this is a sure way to cancel out all of the water you have consumed. Drink herbal tea (meaning flowers or fruit) and avoid chamomile if you have allergies, some bodies mistake it for it’s cousin, Ragweed.
Lemon and citrus in general can also have a mild drying effect, which might be what you’re going for, depending on your symptoms (post nasal drip, for instance). We recommend honey for a soothing effect, which consumed often (a local variety) can also help with allergy symptoms.
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense! Taking a multivitamin and eating vegetables is a great way to stay healthy. While we aren’t doctors and don’t know for sure what will help you, we do have some favorite supplements we personally take in this situation. For extra measures in the weeks preceding an audition, I recommend Wellness Formula. When I find myself fatigued vocally I take Bromelain (pineapple extract) and/or sip pineapple juice as it acts as a natural anti-inflammatory and has been proven to be as effective as cough syrup, with the bonus of being all-natural and packed with vitamins. A combination of pineapple juice and unflavored coconut water packs a one-two punch of hydration and relief.
I have to sing tomorrow and I have no voice!
I have received many frantic texts and emails from parents and students about what to when you are sick and/or do not have your full voice. Below are some helpful things to do (or not) dealing with illness during the week of your audition:
- Go on vocal rest (No speaking, either!)
– Your voice is likely fatigued and vocal chords are inflamed, so avoid using them to avoid any more inflammation.
- Get plenty of rest
– Sleep is essential so your body can focus on fighting whatever is attacking it. Stay home from school if you need to and this doesn’t disqualify you from auditioning.
- Mentally practice/Audiate/visualize
– When you are resting your voice, you can still practice your music. Practicing your music without singing can include exercises like audiating (mouthing words without speaking/singing). You can also plan for extra breaths you may need by marking up your score with extra breaths.
Often, we find that the illness affects your mind more than your body. It’s always frustrating to not sing at your best, but remember that the judges may not know you and your less than 100% may still be enough to pass the audition. Just don’t let your mental frustration or anxiety about what sound might come out get in the way of all of the hard work and preparation you have done up to this point.