When Sickness Attacks: A (Busy) Singer's (Realistic) Guide to Preserving Your Voice

The Plague. Yes, getting sick is pretty much the worst. I grew up with a tough Mama who was of the belief that if you got up and got moving, you'd likely start to feel better; and I'm really thankful to this day for that mindset. But sometimes, we get sidelined by The Plague, and if you're a singer, this can be frustrating at best and highly inconvenient at worst. So. Here's the Singer's Guide to kicking those babies, and, most importantly, to preserving your voice if you've absolutely got to do a gig. Because time waits for no wo(man). 

First Twinge: H20 / Rest / Vitamin C

While we all know there's no cure for the common cold, there are a few things you can do during the first glimmers of a cold that I've found can nip that baby in the bud (ooh, catchy) and greatly reduce the severity and duration of it. This is my holy-grail-trifecta. Repeat after me:

H20

Rest

Vitamin C

These three seem pretty basic/obvious, and maybe you were looking for something more in the way of a magical healing spell (I'm working on it), but, as I usually tend to find about most things: they're classics for a reason. H20 obviously keeps you hydrated and yes, we all know water is the magical elixir of all of life's solutions, usually, but the REASON it is so important to take this seemingly-mundane and self-evident step is because it is the first crucial step in either a domino effect of very good things or very bad things. If you're hydrated, it thins out the mucus that is building up in your body. If the mucus is thinned, that means you won't have things like post-nasal-drip happening. If you don't have post-nasal drip, you won't be coughing as much. If you're not coughing as much, your vocal cords aren't slamming against one another with as much frequency and severity. If your vocal cords aren't slamming against one another, they won't get swollen. If your vocal cords aren't swollen, you're less likely to go hoarse or lose your voice completely. I think you see where I'm going with this. SO MUCH of what makes a cold miserable (and then leads to losing your voice), can be mitigated/eased by simply drinking, in completely-non-scientific terms, a metric shit-ton of water. Of course, all the caveats about not OVER-consuming water do need to apply here. Listen to your body and don't get crazy....but do get hydrated. 

Vitamin C is of course the classic cold-fighting hero we always hear about. And while Vitamin C won't eradicate the cold altogether, it can help, again, with decreasing the length of the cold and the severity of its symptoms, which are usually the culprits in voice loss and vocal damage. It's the symptoms - the scratchy throat (shoutout again to our bud H20!), the stuffed-up nose (shoutout to our bud H20!), the coughing (shoutout...okay, you get it) - that cause us to do all manner of overcompensating to sing around them when we're sick. So...best to minimize those symptoms as much as possible, so we're not having to twist ourselves into vocal pretzels to try and sang. Whenever I feel a cold coming on, I load up on Vitamin C. And get high-quality supplements, or better yet, get your Vitamin C straight from the source: citrus. Whole citrus (even more so than juice) works the very best to deliver you the maximum amount of Vitamin C's benefits, so eat your Vitamin C if you can. Otherwise, I use Metagenics Ultra Potent-C and love it. If VItamin C bothers your stomach, make sure to take it with food, and again, listen to YOUR body: don't take a ton if you know you don't absorb it super well. Find the dosage that works for you, and then take. that. shit.

Rest.....this one is, honestly, the hardest one for me to do. It was the hardest one for me to even try; but, I really do think it's the shining star that allows the other bits to get in there and do their work. Read above about by Mama, but also: I'm a hardworking, hustling, Virgo. "Doing" is in my nature pretty inextricably. It's HARD for me to allow myself to really just do....nothing. But I've learned over the past couple years that if I can take a day (or as much of a day) and REST, whilst hydrating and loading up on Vitamin C, that it does wonders for how my body responds in the next days of the cold. Your body is fighting off a supervillain -it needs to not be preoccupied with handling a bunch of other bodily tasks whilst it fights said supervillain. So...this is your chance to Netflix, or read a book, or just nap, or take a bath....whatever feels good and, most importantly, relaxing to you. 

Vocal Rest

If you're able to get away with not talking as much as possible leading up to the gig (this is your chance to be all overly-dramatic diva and ring a bell for someone to fetch you your water with lemon, or whatever strikes your fancy), DO IT. Your vocal cords need all the help they can get. Let them be divas. Move phone calls to emails or other chats if you can, and just try to generally reduce how much you speak. If you DO need to speak, try to speak "on your cord." This means slightly elevating your pitch whilst speaking so that you're not unwittingly speaking in that vocal fry zone. Elevating your pitch will mean you're more properly engaging your vocal cords, not pushing to get your voice out while speaking, leading to more strain for when you need to put them to work to sing. It's generally the way you should be speaking anyway....but really pay attention to it now while you're trying to preserve your voice for the heavy lifting. 

So....that's my initial one-two-three punch. 

Singing While Sick

Can you warm-up, and practice, sing a gig, or just sing in general while sick? The usual and most basic answer most vocal teachers will say right off the bat is: NO. However, I want to add a caveat to that, especially for my professional singers. Here's the deal: it is always better, if you can, to avoid singing while you're sick. Remember all those symptoms that cause you to overcompensate when singing while sick? Those conditions are not optimal conditions for your instrument to be playing around outside in. When you are sick, your instrument is literally compromised - so there's that. It isn't going to sound the same, or work the same. You will lose notes for the time being - either at the top or bottom of your range. Your mix will feel more strained. Bad habits of squeezing, pushing, and reaching will invite themselves back into the party because your good technique took the night off. The voice is a tough little badass of an instrument; but it's also very delicate. Vocal cords are the size of a dime in women, and a nickel in men: those little ladies are doing a whole hell of a lot of heavy lifting, and that's on a good day. Longterm damage can be (and has been) done with just a single night of bad technique. I don't say this to scare you, but to give you a reverence for, and proper understanding of, your instrument. So. These are all things to consider. 

However...being a professional singer myself whose voice is literally her livelihood, sometimes, I can't take a night off. Sometimes I am partway through a tour. Sometimes a rehearsal has to happen. Work must be done. So, in this case, here are some helpful tips for ensuring the least possible damage, while needing to utilize that voice. 

1. Warm-Up! I mean it.

Warming Up is CRUCIAL on nights you are not in best voice. Like stretching for a marathon, your vocal cords need to be (gently) stretched out, limbered up, and taken for a little vocal-walk prior to the show. Singing scales where you comfortably can (don't push voice too high or too low right now - this isn't your Mariah or Freddie moment, people) - and singing them on OOH or EE vowels will be the most beneficial. 

2. The Head Voice: Your Best Friend

Here's another mind-blower: when you're sick, The Head Voice is your best friend. I know what you're thinking, but check it out: the Head Voice is actually the healing part of your voice. Since you're only using the inner edges of the vocal cords to sing up here, AND the vocal cords get their full stretch from front-to-back, it's very healing for the voice to sing up here. When people come in with trashed and troublesome voices, I ALWAYS check in on their Head Voice - having them sing (lightly, but with engagement of the cords) up here, and diagnosing any technique issues associated with singing up here. A lot of the time, we find some major placement issues, or a lack of development in this register - and I make a game plan to get them working in their Head Voices, stat. So. When you're sick, warming-up, gently, focusing on OOH and EE vowels, and singing in Head Voice, are all good rules of thumb.

3. Don't sing your heart out (not this time)

If you have a rehearsal you just can't get out of, there is no shame in not singing to your full level when you're sick. Communicate to your bandmates that you are under the weather, but that you didn't want to bail (though is rescheduling is an option/it isn't an urgent rehearsal, I'd recommend that). Let them know you will do what you can vocally, but that you'll likely be sitting out parts to preserve your voice. Anyone worth their salt won't push you or press you on that. Your voice is YOUR instrument, and YOU are in charge of protecting it and advocating for it. Just as they wouldn't let someone haphazardly play their instrument, don't ever let anyone bully you into doing something you're not comfortable with (this extends to many things, but I'll stick to vocal health for the moment!). Now, heads-up: if your band is anything like my band, and are your best friends who also enjoy ragging on each other all the time, they'll likely give you shit. Especially if you're a female, and especially if you're the lone female in the group. Say something sassy back and stand your ground. They understand. They're just being jerks. ;)

So, what are you going to do? You mark your parts. Maybe sing just the starts of phrases or crucial words that the rest of the band may cue off of. Sing what feels comfortable, at a comfortable volume and dynamic level, but the point here is to keep it easy-breezy. They just need to hear the basic vocal structure; they don't have to hear you belt it out right this instant. You can communicate things verbally if you don't feel up to singing them. Don't sing the super-belty parts; utilize Head Voice in place of a belt or mix. And stop immediately if you feel anything whatsoever hurt or tweak: better safe than sorry when it comes to our voices.

When you have to sing at a gig, maybe you don't belt quite as much. Utilize your Head Voice more than Belting (remember who your best friend is right now!), which can be really hard on an already-compromised voice. Maybe you find ways to deliver a strong performance that aren't as focused on the vocals - tap into the emotion of the song in a different way; interpret the repertoire in a more intimate, vulnerable, stripped-down way. Maybe you can focus on standing and delivering your vocals more than moving around, if you're a very physical performer like me. Performing for me on a good day is already really physical; add sickness to the mix, and it's usually best that I am focused on delivering my vocals. So, you change it up a bit. This might even be a really great opportunity to connect with your songs and audience in a different way. 

4. Drink a ton of water

Just reminding ya.

5. Change the setlist

If it's possible, changing the set list to include less-vocally-demanding songs can go a long way, too. If it's appropriate for the gig, doing a bit more of a mellow set is a great idea (and sometimes gives you a chance to sing songs you don't normally get to do/sing them in a new and different way, all cool potential bonuses). Or, change keys if your band is willing and able. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is just a couple half-steps. 

6. Ensure you can hear yourself

Make sure you have an adequate monitoring and microphone situation so you are certain you can hear yourself. Since your ears may be clogged (thank you again, mucus!), a poor sound situation on top of this can make it extra-challenging to hear yourself. Do yourself a favor by getting a soundcheck (if you can), and asking for more of your vocal in your monitors if you need to hear yourself better. Taking a little extra time now to ensure you can hear yourself, and asking for what you need (don't be shy!), will help a lot when you're in the moment of the performance and potentially overwhelmed by all the things happening all at once. This is actually just a great rule of thumb for any performance, I wanted to highlight it here too so you remember - in the midst of feeling awful, it can be hard to remember all the differing factors happening inside your body. 

7. Be on your best behavior

I know, so boring! Being sick is BORING. I get it. But. You want to keep your voice and I want you to, as well. So....be on your best behavior. What does that mean? Well. I realize this might be a bit of an idealistic proposition, but I'll just say it, and then you can't say I didn't at least try to impart the good decisions unto you. Your best behavior means listening to your body and taking care of it. All the H20, healthy food, vitamins, salt-water gurgles (see below), sinus-steams (see below), and remedies that make you feel better are SO crucial to do. Remember, while you're not curing the cold, of course, it's those symptoms we are trying to manage. Eyes on the prize, babies. It also means refraining from things such as drinking the alcohol, smoking the cigarettes or the marijuana, or doing the drugs. Far be it for me to be your Mom, so I won't tell you how to live your life. But, maybe while you're sick, think about these things. K? And lastly, "best behavior" means sticking to your very best Vocal Practices behavior. Making sure you don't push your voice in ways that you know are harmful, or pushing yourself too hard/far because you *really* need to sing that gig or get that note out. No gig or note is worth potentially damaging your voice for life. So take it easy. Listen to your body. 

Sickey Apothecary

Salt Water Gargle

For: sore, scratchy throats

Things you'll need: salt, warm water

Dissolve 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water. Gently gargle the water. Guaranteed to make your raw throat feel instantly better. Not recommended for young children (read: under 6), as they amy not be able to gargle properly. I'm personally not a big fan of lozenges, as I feel like the sugar in them almost just perpetuates the problem, so try this instead. 

Herbal Steam

For: cough, congestion, sinus pressure, clogged ears

Things you'll need: a large pot or bowl, water, tea kettle (if using a bowl as opposed to pot), 1 tbsp. of desired herbs (some good ones are eucalyptus, lavender, rosemary, oregano, thyme, peppermint, basil), towels

Boil about an inch of water in pot or tea kettle. Once water has boiled, remove pot from heat and place on a flat, sturdy, stable surface. Place on top of a towel so its not hot on the countertop/surface. Add dried herbs you want to use. Stir well, and cover for 1-2 minutes. Lift lid, ensuring the temperature isn't too hot for your face. Lean down and place face over pot or bowl, covering your head with a towel to trap the steam in. Try to allow as little air to escape as possible. Breathe in the steam deeply and slowly for 10mins. You can inhale through the nose and out through the mouth, or just through the nose. Experiment to see what loosens things up the most. If mucus falls into the pot or bowl (I know, gross, but this is the whole point here!), just let it. Once finished, thoroughly clean the pot or bowl and dispose of the mixture. Of course, the normal caveats apply: be careful with heat and steam, and never reuse the water/herb mixture. Use caution with boiling water and any hot surfaces. This is also not recommended for young children, and pregnant women should consult their doctor before working with any kind of herbs. 

Tea

People frequently ask me about tea as a remedy for the cold. Tea is great, but do remember caffeinated teas are dehydrating; many people think they're also hydrating since they're drinking water, but this is, sadly, not the case. So just make sure you're still supplementing with the appropriate amount of water whilst drinking your tea. My favorite tea for singing is Throat Coat by Traditional Medicinals: made with slippery elm and licorice & marshmallow root, it's like magical slippery hydration for your vocal cords. I swear by Throat Coat when I need to sing on a ragged throat. 

Medicine: What Should I Take?

This can be a bit of a tricky one. You want to take something - anything - right now to alleviate your symptoms so you don't feel like death-warmed-over; and so that you can get back to singing already. The reason it's tricky is because a lot of medicines will either a) dry you out or b) exacerbate the symptoms down the line, alleviating them momentarily, but then bringing them back with a vengeance once the medicine wears off. My first line of defense is honestly to try to head the sickness off at the pass, as I detailed above. That's always been the best method for me. However, I get when the sickness sets in, and you have to sing, you'll pretty much do anything to get your voice to sound and feel at least somewhat normal. So, with that in mind, I'd recommend taking a decongestant about an hour or so before you need to sing, if you're really stuffed-up, congested, and it's causing you to sneeze/cough/sniff/blow your nose constantly. Make sure not to overdo it - the price you usually pay for drying the symptoms up momentarily is that they come back a little more intensely after the medicine has worn off, so keep hydrating and be prepared for that. Natural expectorants can be great for getting a lot of mucus out; just be prepared to be MORE snotty when using these, as their job is literally to get the mucus out. As far as lozenges and throat sprays go....I'm honestly not a fan. I know there are a lot of these "miracle" sprays out there that numb the throat, etc, and these sound like a great idea....but think about it. Numbing your throat is going to dull your pain response - making it that much more likely that you'll push your voice, without even the benefit of realizing that you could be hurting yourself. I also have found that they irritate my throat more. So. I'd recommend against them, and go the more natural route. 

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Well. I think that concludes this super-thrilling, super-fun manifesto about mucus and bodily fluids. Yay!

I hope you all have a healthy, herby, cozy Holiday Season.