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:
- Hazardous air quality and the hottest day on record.
- Witnessing threat to life and property, trauma to people and animals, devastation and loss of life and property – either through social media, news outlets…or in person.
- Emergency evacuations while on holiday in our neighbouring NSW coastal areas.
- Immediate news of loss of property and life – either personally or in our circles of family and friends.
- Vigilance about the smoke (quick…close the windows, the wind changed!)
- Deep concern over our future.
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:
- breathing through your nose, when possible, to help filter a small amount of foreign particles and reduce the impact on your throat.
- using an air purifier.
- wearing a P2 (or better) mask.
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…
- Having sufficient water in your system will revive the healthy thin mucus which covers your vocal folds and enables them to function at high speeds without injury.
- Drinking plenty of water will help your body flush toxins from your system.
- click here for a refresher on ways to hydrate
Top tip 3…minimise coughing
- Protect your vocal folds by minimising the severity and duration of your coughing.
- Completely avoid throat clearing.
- Find the least vocally damaging ways to thin mucus and clear your lungs, eg steam inhalation
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.
- Breathe to relax…Find a place with minimal smoke where you can breathe deeply – this will help manage psychological distress as well as prevent tension in your throat.
- Try to maintain your body alignment so your throat can relax.
- Follow the advice of medical and emergency authorities AND wear a mask if you go outside.
- I personally avoid singing at times of hazardous air quality unless you’re thoroughly protected from smoke inhalation and there is a justifiable need.
- Sipping your favourite herbal throat tea to soothe a throat that is feeling compromised.
- Try not to isolate yourself. Social interaction is very important at this time.
But I’ve got a gig…!
- I would strongly recommend avoiding outdoor gigs when there is unhealthy air quality or worse.
- Otherwise, proceed with caution and follow the principles above.
- Don’t overdo your practice and fill it with unnecessary repetition.
- Don’t speak unnecessarily.
- Use a lot of mental practice for preparation.
- Include straw phonation, either dry or wet.
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.
- Breathe deeply and align your body.
- Get on the floor, on the balance board, on the Swiss ball.
- Open up your ribs and your shoulders.
- Stretch out your neck, stand tall and balance your head over the top of your spine.
- Attend to your warm ups thoroughly and with balance.
- Start with straw humming and lip trills over small intervals.
- Gradually increase the work until you access your whole range.
- Pay attention firstly to how your instrument FEELS. Where is there tension, imbalance, constriction? What can you try in order to shift that?
- Then pay attention to what you hear. Are there any crackles, yodels, husky or hoarse tones? You might need 24 hours of vocal rest.
- Don’t rush your voice. It may take several days of gently increased workload and rehab before its back to match fitness. This isn’t the same reboot as your usual return from summer break!
- Pick a new song or song – find the balance between expressing your existing emotions and embracing an empowering, hopeful lyric.
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.
- Donate cash to Red Cross, Anglicare or Salvation Army bushfire appeals (communities are specifically requesting this).
- Prepare your own bushfire plan, be ready to evacuate – just having a plan will reduce anxiety.
- Donate blood.
- Reach out to specific friends to provide moral and actual support .
- Process your own psychological response.
- Knit, crochet or sew pouches for wildlife.
- Visit our local towns who are now struggling and spend money in their shops.
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…
- When the air quality is hazardous, I:
- minimise talking
- breathe more through my nose than my mouth
- stay in a room with an air purifier on, all windows and curtains closed
- use a P2 mask outside if I absolutely have to go out.
- Increase my regular daily intake of water by at least 600-1000mls.
- Avoid physical exercise on days with hazardous air quality (I use the AirVisual app as a guide).
- Get outside when the weather does improve.
- Drink my favourite brand of throat tea.
- Suck honey & eucalyptus lozenges (just a generic brand from the supermarket).
- Journal, acknowledge, process all the thoughts and feelings.
- Keep my bushfire plan active (evacuation bags, documents and list ready).
- Limit my viewing of televised news and Facebook, using the ABC News and FiresNearUs app and the ESA website for the latest information..
- Sleep with an air purifier on a low setting.
- Use eye drops.
- Be grateful for things I’ve been taking for granted…electricity, access to information, blue sky, food staples, when my clothes don’t smell like smoke.
If you have any specific questions that these ideas don’t cover, please email me on [email protected] .
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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.