Being a Singer During a Bushfire Crisis

Help…I’m a singer!
What do I do when my air quality is HAZARDOUS??? 

Today is Friday 10 January, and I look out the window at a sky that is bluer and clearer than it has been for weeks.  I can see further and identify objects with more clarity than has been possible since the NSW bushfire emergency began in early December.  This vista belies the news I am being given on the apps and websites, which is that the threat remains, and wind conditions later today pose a risk.  And yet, I am gifted a moment of pause, a breath, to reflect and draw together conversations I have been having over the last ten days.

“It is 9am on New Year’s Day, 2020. I live in Canberra, Australia, where catastrophic bushfires have been feasting on the devastation of drought conditions to leave us breathless…both figuratively and literally.  An eerie yellow glow perseveres as the smoke filters sunlight.  The streets are quiet, as everyone is staying indoors.  Some are perhaps watching the news and catching up on the scale of devastation in New South Wales and Victoria.  Others are probably just trying to breathe.  The www.health.act.gov.au website shows our air quality is 10-15 times safe levels right now.”

– Sharon Tree, Glengrove Studio Facebook post, 1 January 2020

Since that post, I have been collating ideas and strategies as I personally start singing, teaching, and supporting students again.  

Fight, Flight or Fright

Our voice, of course, rides the current crisis with our whole body.  Physical tension, shallow breathing, dry throat, dry cough, heart palpitations and chaotic thinking are probably the very least that many of us are experiencing.  The peculiar blend of distressing elements leads to varying levels of response from our sympathetic nervous systems.  The physiological hard-wiring that is intended to enable our survival takes over.  This is a normal response.

Each of us in Canberra have experienced one or more of the following:

This means that at some time, probably sooner rather than later, it will be good for us to attend to a process of dealing with the psychological distress.  This might take the form of personal therapies like journaling, meditation, return to exercise, deep breathing, resuming your regular routines; or it might be better supported through talking therapies with a trained counsellor or psychologist.

Upper Respiratory Tract and Laryngeal Impacts

Some people have pre-existing health conditions which have been exacerbated by the air quality.  People who may have been in the process of recovering from an upper respiratory tract infection are noticing that their recovery is delayed.  Perhaps a dry, hacking cough is taking hold and leading to laryngitis.  And those with existing asthma conditions are having to severely manage their plan.

I strongly urge people in these situations to seek medical help if they are not able to manage their symptoms with existing medication.

When in doubt…treat your voice as though you’re recovering from a bad chesty cold…and add in tips related to air quality management

For those of us without other medical conditions, the following thoughts and strategies should be useful.

Basically, remember that your voice is housed inside your larynx which sits at the top of your trachea.  This means that every breath you take must pass between your vocal folds en route to your lungs.  Hazardous air includes particles that your vocal folds and lungs are not used to, AND it is dryer and more dehydrating than usual.

Top tip 1…improve the air quality by:

Top tip 2…HYDRATE HYDRATE HYDRATE!!!!

Apart from all the usual and wonderful reasons I give you for drinking plenty of water, now here are two more…

Top tip 3…minimise coughing

Top tip 4…don’t freak out!

The medical advice I am reading online is that your lungs should recover from this temporary set back.  It takes years of exposure to polluted air quality to suffer devastating setbacks.  And that scenario, thankfully, is presently unlikely.

Other tips:

But I’ve got a gig…!

At the start of this week, I was contacted by a community Musical Theatre performer I coach. This actor/singer is in a holiday production of a Disney musical which opens tonight, so was looking for ideas on how to take care of the voice under these smoky conditions during production week.  I’m delighted to report that by following these strategies, my student’s voice has survived production week and is ready to open.

Tips for returning to lessons and singing practice:

As you resume your singing practice and regular lessons, I recommend taking some time to check in with your WHOLE vocal instrument – body, mind, voice, soul and spirit. It will whisper to you what it needs if you will take the time to listen to it.

Do something positive

Just before Christmas, I saw the film Frozen 2.  I was particularly struck by Princess Anna’s song “The Next Right Thing”…and it’s philosophy has stuck with me.  I cannot fix much on my own.  But I can make one small choice at a time to do my part.  And as we all know, many hands make light work, so the cumulation of everybody’s “next right thing” will make a difference.  

Ideas include:

What I am doing for my own voice

My voice has absolutely felt the effects of the smoke.  I notice that it needs a lot more TLC and will not be pushed into work before it is ready.  I personally cannot manage singing on days of hazardous air quality.  

My specific strategies…

If you have any specific questions that these ideas don’t cover, please email me on info@glengrovestudio.com.au .  

Sources:

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Conversations with clients of Glengrove Studio

Conversation with Jenni Reeves of Resonance Voice Studio, Jindabyne

Scearce, L. (2016). Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation: A practical approach to vocal health and wellness.  Plural Publishing, San Diego.

www.health.act.gov.au

https://esa.act.gov.au

https://truhealthmedicine.com/healthy-living/wildfire-smoke-inhalation-detox

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