Basics of Singing 5: Vocal Health

Anyone who has sung for a while has experienced that dreaded time when a performance is upon you, but you have come down with a sore throat, cold, strep, etc. There are professional singers who use methods to manage their voice in order to perform in any condition. I once saw a singer perform a difficult musical program, and afterwards learned from the person that she had laryngitis! Anytime a singer is sick, it will affect the voice; however, following certain steps will insure the best possible performance under these circumstances.

In my experience as a vocal coach, I have heard every reason why a singer does not sound their best in a performance. The typical reason given is “I have a cold.” There is a standard in the professional world, where if a singer is auditioning for a gig and cites any illness, they are usually disqualified instantly. However, I have also heard full performances of everyday singers, and afterwards they admitted to being sick, which went unnoticed in the performance. This is the preferred method of vocal judges of any kind: to be pleasantly surprised that the singer could even sound better than what was just sung. Here are some specific dos and don’ts for when you have to sing with a sore throat or cold.

First of all, let’s look at what happens to the voice in the case of a sore throat. The cold virus typically begins to manifest itself in the throat, causing dryness and irritation in the back of the throat. The larynx and vocal cords swell a little, and become inflamed. This inflammation either increases over the next few days, or gives way to a congested nose and nasal cavity, sometimes lasting for weeks.

In the first stage of the sore throat, the average person typically drinks less liquid (“it hurts to swallow, so why go through that?”), and clears the throat often. This results in a throat that hurts more, so the person finds the quickest relief in cough drops with menthol, which is a numbing agent. Of course, as soon as the cough drop wears off, the person’s throat seems to hurt more, and so pops another cough drop. This vicious cycle continues for days, eventually giving way to the congestion phase: constant sniffling, sore nose, nonstop mucus, and misery. In the singer’s case, these problems can compound quickly, as singing with a sore throat seems to increase the pain, and the voice sounds more raspy with each passing day. Cold medicine seems to help for a small period of time, but the problems don’t go away for a while. And if there is a performance during this period of time, all the symptoms of the sore throat and cold get even worse, sometimes resulting in no voice at all.

There are several techniques to eliminate the cold with minimal pain and suffering. The first thing to realize is that trying to eliminate the symptoms with medications that numb the throat as a singer is dangerous. Remember, the throat is sore because the vocal cords are dry and inflamed, so the problem must be addressed with decreasing the dryness and irritation. Drinking lots of water is the easiest way to decrease the dryness, and using cough drops that increase lubrication of the vocal cords will assist in the inflammation. An example of these cough drops is Halls Vitamin C drops, which also give the body vitamins to fight the infection.

There is even a good and bad way to cough with inflamed vocal cords. Coughing “naturally” is the best way. The opposite is clearing the throat. When a person clears his or her throat, the process involves closing off the throat and causing an explosion of air across the vocal cords. This just gives temporary relief from the mucus on the vocal cords, but increases the irritation, which in turn causes more coughing.

Another technique to assist in the elimination of the sore throat is to change the environment in the throat to a more hostile one for the virus. This is accomplished in several different ways. One is to gargle with either salt water or mouthwash. Both solutions work to kill the germs. Drinking a tea with lemon and/or honey also changes the acidity level in the throat to one less friendly to the virus. Another effective way is to change the acidity level of the entire body. Biologically, our bodies function the best when the PH level of the blood is not acidic (a PH slightly basic, or just above 7, is ideal). Sadly, most people’s diets involve consuming foods that are acid in nature. The foods that are not acidic are…vegetables. Therefore, changing the diet during a cold to more vegetables and less processed foods will give the body more tools in the fight against the disease.

Breathing properly can also assist the body in the elimination of the disease. The body continuously gets rid of toxins in the cells through the lymphatic system, a fluid system that does not have a pump like the circulatory system (the heart).  The lymphatic fluid moves using internal body movement. Generally, people become less physically active when sick, which compounds the problem. Deep breathing techniques give that movement within the body to move the toxins out. I will give one example here, but there are many (check out some in yoga breathing techniques). The ratio of breathing is 1:4:2. Breathe in to a count of 5, then hold your breath for 20, then exhale slowing with a hiss for 10. The base numbers can be higher or lower, depending on your personal breath control. Do this ten times, three times a day. It also increases blood flow and energy level as side benefits.

One other simple technique to relieve a sore throat is to rest the voice and body. In extreme cases, singers will go on what’s known as “vocal rest,” or the total elimination of talking for a period of time. The resting of the voice decreases stress on the vocal cords, allowing the inflammation to subside more quickly. Resting allows the body to fight the disease more efficiently.

With the case of congestion, drinking plenty of water will not add to the mucus, where dairy products increase mucus in the body. If you have heard from a vocal coach not to drink milk before a performance, the reason is the creation of mucus, which coats the vocal cords. Many of the medications to eliminate mucus have the side effect of drying out the throat, adding to the existing irritation. One method of mucus elimination without the side effects is a Neti pot. These can be purchased at your local drug store or chain store such as Walmart or Target. The Neti pot can be used several times a day to flush the mucus out with a salt water solution. Using a Neti pot instead of constantly blowing your nose also deceases inflammation in the nasal passages. If you have ever had the experience of feeling congested, trying to blow your nose, and nothing comes out, that is because the nasal passages are inflamed, blocking the air flow. An added advantage to the Neti pot is eliminated the thick mucus in the back of the nasal passage that won’t come out any other way.

Many of the things to avoid are opposites of the above-mentioned solutions. First, do not drink anything that dries out the throat. Examples include beverages with caffeine or alcohol. Second, do not sing forcefully (with any tension), which will increase the inflammation. If necessary, sing lightly (also known as “marking”) until the performance. Any singing without tension will have minimal effect on the inflammation of the throat. Finally, any substance that would increase mucus or inflammation should be avoided. Smoking cigarettes can also increase mucus and inflammation, so if you smoke, try to limit your smoking while sick. On a quick side note, smoking also affects the voice when a person is not sick in a variety of ways (breath control, mucus, a coating on the vocal cords which changes the sound of the voice, and decrease in vocal range, to name a few), so eliminating it altogether would have a positive affect on the voice.

For some people, battling constant sore throats becomes the norm. If you find you are fighting a sore throat on a regular basis, it may be time to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor. You may have a different problem other than a cold virus, such as vocal nodes, or bumps on the vocal cords. There are many levels of vocal nodes, and the earlier a person treats them, the better.

The majority of this lesson on vocal health focused on sore throats and colds, and there are many types of vocal issues for singers. This course is meant as an overview, and not intended to provide medical advise for all types of vocal issues.

Supplemental Videos

Assignment on Videos

After watching the demonstration video, enter the secret number at the top of your assignment.

Write in complete sentences answers to the following questions.

1. In your own words, what was the content of the video?

2. What are two things you found most interesting about the content of the video?

3. Think of a singer you have seen and heard. Who are they, and what do they demonstrate in terms of this concept?

4. Name 3 positive things you do while singing that relate to this concept.

5. What 2 things can you improve on relating to this concept?