“Mucus is our body’s equivalent to fly paper, it lines the nose trapping the dirt and germs stopping them from damaging the lung. But it does better than just sticking to them – mucus is loaded with protective proteins that kill and disable germs, like bacteria and viruses.”from “The Secret Life of Snot”
I hope it won’t gross you out too much, but we’re gonna talk snot…and phlegm…and saliva…and how on earth we can influence these fluids for great singing. What really are the tools you need to manage that tickle in the throat that drives you so crazy?
It seems that the words “mucus” and “phlegm” (and their colloquialisms 🙂 ) arise in singing lessons a LOT! And for good reason. The vocal instrument absolutely adores operating beautifully when the consistency of our mucus is just right.
I hope that by the end of this blog you will:
- understand why thin mucus is better than thick (for your voice and for overall health).
- know what you can do to thin your mucus when it is thick.
- have some ways to move excess mucus (from allergy, dehydration or illness) out of your body apart from coughing or throat clearing.
“…with adequate hydration and consistency of mucus, the effort to produce voice is less and your vocal folds are better protected from injury. Imagine the friction and heat produced when two dry hands rub together and then what happens if you put lotion on your hands.”Karen Hall
Mucus, Mucosa & the Vocal Folds
Mucus and mucosa sound like interchangeable terms, but there is a difference. Together they form vital tools that should be working for you.
- Mucosa is moist tissue that lines certain parts of the inside of your body.
- Glands in this tissue release a thick fluid called mucus.
- Mucus is a sticky, gelatinous material that lines your lungs, throat, mouth, nose and sinuses.
Our vocal folds (or cords) dwell within the cartilage scaffolding of the larynx. As air flows over them, they vibrate to make sound (phonation). Because of the nature of their soft tissue layers, they work best when the mucus and mucosa in and around them is thin and healthy.
“Vocal folds (sometimes called vocal cords) consist of structured layers of tissue: epithelium, lamina propria (superficial, intermediate and deep), and the thyroarytenoid muscle. Each layer has a different degree of viscosity and density that allow the surface (referred to as the cover) to move independently of the deep layers (referred to as the body). It is this structured composition that enables the vocal folds to oscillate in a wavelike fashion, creating what is open referred to as the mucosal wave.”Kari Ragan
“The vocal folds are bathed in mucus, which acts as an important lubricant to protect them from the heat and friction of vibration that occurs when you talk or sing. The mucus should be thin and slippery to be lubricating. Dehydration can make the mucus thick and gooey.”Leda Scearce
What is “just right” if you’re mucus? Well, like the cereal ad promises – “not too heavy, not too light”.
In its healthy state, mucus should be the consistency of your saliva. If it is “too light”, you’re probably dehydrated. If it is “too heavy”, you might be sick, or having an allergic reaction, or even a response to an injury. AND…there is a nano second between “too heavy” zooming into protecting what was “too light”.
This means that the singer needs a process of managing their mucus to support well-oiled vocalising. This includes:
- how you keep your mucus thin and watery
- how you remove the thick gooey mucus safely
- how you manage illness and medication (click here to check the impact of your medication family)
So – what causes mucus change?
Have you noticed the way in which the consistency of your mucus (phlegm) affects your singing? The more dehydrated we get, the thicker it often becomes as a mechanism of protection. And that leads to a range of vocal challenges.
What do you notice about the consistency of your mucus right now? Self-awareness is the beginning of management.
The thickness of your mucus is impacted by:
- illness (temporary or chronic)
What you can do to balance your mucus consistency:
- drink water – the vital ingredient to maintain thin, healthy mucus
- inhale steam – helps to transform mucus consistency from thick to thin
- understand what optimum hydration feels like in your body/voice/mind
- understand your medications/illness
- manage your coughing
- avoid vocal strain/misuse
- avoid medicated lozenges
- don’t medicate unnecessarily
- avoid throat clearning
- speak at optimal pitch
- know how your body reacts to various foods/beverages
- don’t smoke or use recreational drugs
- minimise alcohol and caffeine.
“The best general advice I could give you would be to drink ~1ml of water for every daily calorie you consume. So someone consuming 2000 daily calories would need 2L of water daily…For performers I would add to this an extra 150ml or so per hour of rehearsals/performance to account for excess fluid loss from expiration and physical exertion.”Duncan Rock
How do I know if my mucus is out of balance?
The following sensations might help you spot that your upper respiratory tract is struggling.
- lump in throat
- desire to clear/cough
- overt symptoms
- change in nasal drip (external/internal)
- producing phlegm
- dry mouth, nose, skin on fingers
- sizzle, crackle in tone
- glitch on a pitch here and there, a sign that a small amount of thick phlegm is sitting on a vocal fold
- dull resonance from mucus change in nasal/sinus cavity
Cough Vs Throat Clear…a question of mechanics
“Coughing is one of the most abrasive things you can do to your vocal folds…it bangs your vocal folds together forcefully. This violent reflex activity soon leads to swollen vocal folds, and a much less functional voice…A tiny sip of water every time you feel as if you’re about to cough can sometimes cut down the amount of coughing…and less [coughing] is always better.”Pat H. Wilson
While coughing is the body’s reflex to remove thick phlegm from our upper respiratory tract, the action involved is so detrimental to the voice that it’s vital to trial and practice another, calmer, way of shifting it.
Thinning the mucus is step one. Shifting it is step two – and is achievable through steaming and gentle straw phonation or lip trills.
If you are too ill to lip trill or vocalise on straw bubbles without coughing, you are too sick to sing. Go to bed and let your body fight the virus and restore it’s energy to recover.
Clearing the throat isn’t a viable alternative as it is equally or more violent on the vocal folds.
Cough is a strong clap together of vocal folds + a surge of air pressure, leading to shifting of mucus higher in the vocal tract, hopefully out into the mouth.
Throat clearing usually has little or no air flow to assist in shifting the mucus. So the forces exerted to shift it come from aggressive (sometimes violent) collisions of the vocal folds. But the resultant shift is often only to another part of the vocal tract. And so the tickle cycle begins again.
“Each incident of phonotraumatic behaviour, whether it is a throat clear or a holler, increases vibratory collision, friction, and compression of the vocal folds over the course of the day. If you consider the analogy of counting calories when on a diet, and you have a limited number of calories you can consume in one day, you avoid higher calorie foods. Frequent moments of throat clearing by the end of the day add up to a lot of excessive vocal calories. Every vocal calorie that can be cut out of a singer’s daily vocal diet will add up to a lot of saved voice use over time, paving the way back toward vocal health and optimal voice functioning.”Wendy D. LeBorgne & Marci Rosenberg
Ok – so I have that tickle…if I can’t cough or throat clear, what can I do?
Well, the answer probably depends on where you are and what you have to hand.
Singers should always keep some of these items with them for an emergency tickle.
- Lip trill or straw phonation
- highly successful in generating airflow to move the mucus without damaging vocal fold collision
- Steam/saline spray/nasal irrigation
- to thin the mucus and make it easier to shift out of the body
- Gum/unmedicated lozenges
- to activate salivation and healthy laryngeal secretion
- to soothe the tickle
- to sip/swallow and soothe the tickle
- to improve dehydration
Benefits of Swallowing
If we have a behavioural pattern of coughing or throat clearing, it may take some intentional practice to choose to swallow instead. Frequent swallowing is worth it, though, as the benefits are significant.
- Shifts phlegm
- reduces coughing
- clears thick phlegm
- lubricates the vocal folds with their own supply of thinner mucus
- Systemic hydration
- all liquid swallowed will have a rehydrating effect on the body
- it will help every cell of every system in your body
- your vocal folds will move more flexibly
- this will help you avoid vocal fold injury
- Soothing effect
- sips of water
- non-medicated lozenges
- chewing gum
Armed with this information, I encourage you to take two steps:
- Take stock of what you are doing right now
- do you think your hydration needs adjusting?
- do you have any coughing/throat clearing behaviours that could be altered?
- do you need to review your go-to support items and medications?
- Make a plan to trial some changes
- write down all the areas you’d like to experiment with
- choose a couple of strategies for each area that seem like habits that would work for you
- now choose just 1 or 2 new habits to trial over the coming week
- set yourself a reminder to come back to your plan/list and review what worked and what you’d like to trial next
Let me know how you’re going! I’d love to help you support this change. If you have any questions, let me know (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
British Society for Immunology. The Secret Life of Snot from https://www.immunology.org/public-information/immunology-related-activities-and-resources/the-secret-life-snot
Hall, K. (2014). So You Want to Sing Music Theater: A Guide for Professionals. ( Project of the National Association of Teachers of Singing). Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland.
LeBorgne, W.D. & Rosenberg, M. (2014). The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing, San Diego
Ragan, K. (2020). A Systematic Approach to Voice: The Art of Studio Application. Plural Publishing, San Diego
Robinson, D. (2016). YouTube clip 7 Tips to Thin Mucus (https://youtu.be/lXB0wu_WX4o)
Robinson, D. (2018). YouTube clip How bad is clearing the throat for singers? (https://youtu.be/sDHlhmgslGg)
Robinson, D. (2018). YouTube clip Learn how vocal cords work for speech and singing (https://youtu.be/ZLgAQTMgZ6g)
Scearce, L. (2016). Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation. Plural Publishing, San Diego.
Tree, S. (2019). When Am I Too Sick to Sing? Blog: https://www.glengrovestudio.com.au/2019/05/21/when-am-i-too-sick-to-sing/
Tree, S. (2019). Why Does Water Matter? Blog: https://www.glengrovestudio.com.au/2019/07/23/why-does-water-matter/
Williams, J. (2019). Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults. Compton Publishing, Oxford.
Wilson, P.H. (2010). The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual (2nd Ed.). Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney