Singers, while sharing many musical concerns with instrumentalists, have their own special needs when it comes to performing. We are our voices. We cannot place our voice boxes in cases and store them under the bed. How we treat our bodies can affect, for good or ill, the quality of the sound we produce.
Before addressing what to do for last minute vocal emergencies, let’s discuss the vocal athlete in training. When I am excitedly told by a voice student that they have landed a role in a musical production, or a place in an honor choir, we discuss ways to make this experience the best it can be for the student, their director and their audience.
After a successful audition, the preparations and rehearsals before the performance become a serious concentrated voice training and conditioning program. Students can be shown how it is necessary for them to observe the following voice care tips:
- Stay hydrated. 6 to 8, 8-oz. glasses of water per day; this can include herbal teas. Caffeine is dehydrating, so limit caffeine drinks and be sure to drink extra water to compensate.
- Carve out a healthy sleep schedule of 7 to 9 hours per night. Keep the same sleep-wake times on weekends. Note: this must be a priority. Homework may suffer, with weekends devoted to catching up.
- Follow a diet that will lead to optimum brain function and physical health.
- Stress fruits, veggies, and whole grains as your carbs every day.
- Eat adequate protein.
- Eat very little dairy and refined sugar.
- Get regular aerobic exercise. Walking, swimming, dancing, moving the entire body. This helps diminish stress. Avoid heavy lifting, as this can lead to neck tension and thickening.
- Of course, no smoking anything, and avoid alcohol. Both can mess up your vocal cords and your brain.
- Use a humidifier if in a dry climate or indoor area. This is especially helpful at night and is necessary for northern winters.
- Avoid breathing polluted air. Be sure your bedroom is smoke-free and well ventilated. Stay clear of areas of dust or construction.
- Wash hands frequently (viruses are spread by touch), and stay away from people who are sick.
- Participate in a thoughtful rehearsal schedule to maximize learning with minimal vocal effort.
- Silently review lines and music during any available times.
- Careful voice use during rehearsals. Avoid repeated heavy singing, and learn to “mark” with easy voice use. Alternate periods of vocal use with times of vocal rest.
- Gentle-to-mildly vigorous vocal warm-ups every day, and especially before rehearsals.
- Limit casual vocal use. Text rather than have long phone conversations. Monitor your vocal use. Is there a non-vocal option to talking? Absolutely NO vocal abuse: no yelling, cheering, screaming. Avoid using vocal fry and harsh glottal attacks. Speak to another person only when they are at arm’s length. Find non-vocal ways to show enthusiasm, like clapping, stomping, waving arms, or well-supported head voice “hooooos!”
When Symptoms Occur
But what if students are vigilant, do all the healthy behaviors, and still feel a scratchy throat or congestion coming on? Here are some tips to help alleviate symptoms:
- Get even more rest. Take naps.
- Hydrate with warm liquids, especially green tea with honey, and chicken soup.
- Suck on mild lozenges to increase saliva, and thus thin vocal mucus (which is good).
- Breathe steam from a personal steamer, or a pan of boiling water on the stove; breathe the hot steam through a towel.
- To raise your body temperature (thus killing bacteria): Take a long hot shower or sit in a hot bathtub, inhaling the steam — ideally before bedtime or a nap –then bundle up, and jump into bed with lots of covers.
- Gargle with warm, mildly salty water (a pinch of salt in 8-oz. of water).
- If you have a sore throat, do not use an “anesthetic” over-the-counter product. These products may decrease pain, but they do not cure the infection that is causing the pain. That can make you think it’s OK to sing out with infected vocal cords, and can result in injury. Also avoid aspirin and ibuprofen. They are blood thinners and may heighten the risk of vocal cord bleeding, and that is terribly serious.
- Be sure to keep up your energy with enough healthy calories.
These tips should help students get through a performance or two, but it is important to know the contact information of a voice-informed Ear Nose and Throat specialist who understands the special needs of singers. Research this before it is necessary.
For Emergencies Only
For sudden onset laryngitis one or two days before a performance, when no or very little sound can be produced, only one possible action can be taken. A doctor — preferably an ENT doctor — can prescribe a course of cortisone to reduce the swelling so the vocal cords will produce sounds. This treatment should be rare, and is not to be undertaken lightly. This is why there are people who understudy a role.
Prevention is the key to long term vocal success. Lead a healthy lifestyle, stay hydrated, get plenty of rest, eat well, exercise, and protect your Vocal Gold!
Resources for this blog:
- The VoiceCare Network publishes the book Bodymind and Voice edited by Leon Thurman and Graham Welch. Eighteen authors contributed to this “encyclopedia” of voice.
- The noted choral conductor, Robert Shaw, coined the term Vocal Gold.
Andrea Schussler has given private voice lessons in Minnesota for more than 40 years, and taught public school classroom and choral music for more than 35 years. Her conducting/directing experience includes 5th – 12th students at Mound Westonka, church choir at Trinity Episcopal in Excelsior, and more than 20 annual musicals at Grandview Middle School. She also performed with VocalEssence Ensemble Singers for eight years and was a soprano soloist for more than two decades at both the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Minneapolis and House of Hope in St. Paul.