Human brains love to have patterns, formulae, methods for working stuff out. We search for reliable ways of making decisions for our own welfare and to enable us to live the life in front of us. But the patterns around our health can often be elusive and ambiguous – not the black and white processes we’d prefer to rely upon.
For singers, our physical health is a priceless asset. Without it, our art is compromised at best, and silenced at worst. It is our job to tease out the half-truths from the facts about when it is safe to sing and what remedies can reduce symptoms or shorten the life of a virus.
How can you decide whether it’s safe to sing or not?
In consultation with a general practitioner who is also a singer, the following thoughts have been compiled to help your decision-making and introduce you to fact-based filtering of the advice that comes your way. I hope to empower you to:
- Experiment with patterns you can rely on
- Learn to assess your individual symptoms as they present in the here and now
- Make good choices about how to treat your symptoms
Whether it is hayfever, colds and flus, or being overworked and stressed that is ailing you, common sense should apply to your singing. No matter what other people say, you need to know how your body behaves when it is unwell, and what restores it to good working order.
Be a scientist
Next time you are unwell, try keeping a journal or note in your phone to gather data about yourself. If possible, repeat the journalling exercise over the course of a year, and compare your reflections on each illness to produce a bigger picture. Notice:
- your symptoms – physical location, severity, how long they lasted
- how much rest you got
- which remedies brought relief
- which remedies seemed to shorten the duration of the condition
- any other life circumstances, such as work or personal stress
- the impact of the illness on your vocal tone, concentration and capacity for practice or rehearsal
When am I too sick to practice?
- I am extremely tired in voice and body and mind
- I am very hoarse
- I have been coughing a lot and feel a need to clear my throat often
- I can’t breathe deeply without coughing
- I have a migraine or severe headache
- I feel nauseous/am vomiting/have diarrhea
- I’m not concentrating on the way I’m singing
- I have abdominal pain or discomfort that compromises my breath management
A great way to decide whether to sing or not is to run through your warm-up routine. A good warm-up can help thin out mucus and stimulate energising brain activity. You may realise that you do actually have enough energy or that your voice is clearer after some lip trilling.
On the other hand, it may confirm that you are too sick to sing and enable you to choose to rest.
When am I too sick to attend a rehearsal or lesson?
- all of the points listed above
- I think I am contagious
- I am sneezing a lot
- I’ve had or think I’ve had a fever in the last 48 hours
- I’ve had diarrhea in the last 48 hours
- I am still coughing up phlegm after 4 days
What can I do to get better?
- drink plenty of water (2-3 litres a day)
- inhale steam to hydrate your nasal cavity, throat & larynx
- if you have hoarseness, a sore throat or laryngitis, inhale steam for 5 minutes every 3-4 hours
- avoid dehydrating substances like caffeine, alcohol, tobacco etc
- sleep with a humidifier in the room
- gargle 3 times a day to dislodge pathogens in your throat and tonsil region
- use either plain water; warm salt water; or 1 cup warm water with 1/2 tsp each salt, bicarb & maple syrup or honey
- can reduce the length and severity of symptoms
- Eat clean
- increase use of potential immune system boosters, like vitamin c, garlic, ginger, horseradish & propolis
- choose a well balanced diet
- increase use of vegetables and fruit, especially those with high water content
- reduce proportion of sugary or processed foods
- Soothe the symptoms
- drink warm-hot water (add lemon and/or honey if desired, or a herbal infusion)
- use glycerin-based lozenges (avoid mint, menthol, or medicated ones that dry the vocal fold tissue)
- try zinc based lozenges or fresh pineapple (flesh or juice)
- try saline nasal sprays or rinses to reduce sinus congestion and inflammation
- Manage your coughing
- use steam or lip trilling to thin and shift mucus
- learn to cough productively to shift phlegm up and out of your vocal tract
- avoid clearing your throat, as this is more damaging to the vocal folds than coughing
- use lozenges or chewing gum to manage throat tickles
- your body tells you what it needs if you listen to it!
- sleep allows the body to direct it’s energy to recovery
- avoid loud talking, cheering/screaming/yelling or talking in noisy environments
- Medicate appropriately
- avoid aspirin-based medications
- only use products that numb pain if you are not speaking or singing
- seek medical advice on which are the best products for your current set of symptoms – beware of using old medication from a previous condition, or from a friend or family member
Support your speaking voice with good vocal habits (especially breath support and bright resonance).
NEVER whisper, half-talk or try to ‘protect’ your voice – you’re either well enough to vocalise securely, or you should be resting the voice completely.
Symptoms I can still sing with:
Broadly speaking, a singer can learn to sing with mild symptoms that impair your breathing, vocal tone or capacity to resonate. It is a skill that should be learned as part of your vocal training. With suitable coaching and experience, a vocalist can learn to manage the following symptoms:
- blocked nose/sinus
- occasional coughing, throat clearing
- mild headache
- mild abdominal discomfort
These lists are just a starting point to consider your health and your voice in a new way. In the next blog, you will learn a range of vocal ‘tests’ that can help you to assess your vocal capacity in the face of mild symptoms.
Communication with Dr Bethan McDonald
Tipsheet “Healthy Voice Habits” by Margaret Jacobs, Speech Pathologist
LeBorgne, W. D. & Rosenberg, M. (2014). The Vocal Athlete.Plural Publishing, San Diego.
Wilson, P. W. (2013). The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual (Second Ed.) Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney.