Until last week I thought I’d safely run the gauntlet and dodged all the winter colds and lurgies. I had hints of sore throats that didn’t amount to much, but last week I got caught with the works.
Singers/speakers (i.e: everyone!) often wonder when they should stop voicing, or what they can do to prevent illness/recover quickly and effectively - and, spoiler alert: I’m not going to be able to give you a clear answer on that! But I can tell you how I manage illness and recovery. Here are few things I’ve learned:
Rest is top of the list!
At the first sight of a sore throat, or pre-cursor to winter illness, I aim to get the down time in! Resting, relaxing and monitoring how I’m feeling. So yes, work commitments mean I may be at work, but I make sure I rest in between. The main thing I do is monitor the situation - see where this illness is gonna go.
Know when to stop
I’m afraid you just need to be prepared to cancel at some point. In an ideal world we wouldn’t work when we’re ill. But stuff happens.. however, the moment I think my voice is struggling, that’s it. I stop work. And I hate it, but people tend to be very understanding.
Laryngitis: No singing/teaching. That’s an absolute for me, but I do try to use my voice as normal when I have to speak - definitely not whispering, which can exacerbate issues. But I will rest my voice lots and lots.
Drinking my way though it
I drink loads. But not alcohol/hot toddies. Alcohol is just not going to help, I’m afraid. Caffeinated drinks are still fluids and I do love a cup of tea, but the dehydrating properties of caffeine will negate some of the positive benefits. I keep to regular sips throughout the day to avoid drinks just going straight through, leading to lots of trips to the loo!
I don’t worry about upping my vits or taking any kind of supplement - when the lurgy has hit I just let it run its course. As of writing this article there is still no cure for the common cold, and no amount of sudden imbibing of vitamins has any proven benefits (yet.) I may have a hot honey and lemon, but this is really for the comfort factor. That said, there is new research that says that honey could be beneficial to coughs: https://www.nhs.uk/news/heart-and-lungs/honey-not-antibiotics-recommended-coughs/
I personally will never underestimate the benefit of doing things that feel nice/the placebo effect: We may be doing things that have no proven benefit and I think that’s fine. But I don’t rely on these things to ensure I will make that concert date. Some people may try numbing pastilles/medicine to get them through a concert but I’m fortunate enough to have not felt the need to do this, as there are risks of damaging your voice because it has been numbed.
Steaming/nebulizing - I do this!
Lots of research has been done around getting additional moisture to the folds and this has proven benefits. Steaming is good: Make sure the water is off the boil (not at 100 degrees - this could scald your vocal folds.) steam for 10 mins (no longer) and no voicing for 20 mins afterwards, to allow for any potential swelling in the vocal folds due to heat subside.
Or you can invest in a nebuliser and use saline: I do this and I think it really helped me get through a nasty patch of illness last year. Here’s a good, well researched article about nebulisers and saline from the Naked Vocalist peeps: https://www.thenakedvocalist.com/upgrade-your-vocal-steamer/
It doesn’t matter what you wear..
I don’t wear a scarf to protect my vocal cords (as a singing teacher once told me I should do.) I may wear a scarf because I feel cold, and that is the only reason.
THE PATH TO RECOVERY.
Don’t push it
I find my voice is good at picking up on my physical well-being (and emotional! - but that’s another blog) If I’m a little off-colour, I’ll often hear it in my voice and it reminds me that I mustn’t push myself. (“Life lessons from my larynx”.. a catchy name for an autobiography!)
Don’t do any speaking/singing that induces a hoarse/scratchy feeling (once described as “carpet burn in the larynx” by an astute 13 year old that I teach!)
Straws and sirens
When my voice is more stable I will start gently exercising my vocal folds by doing some more voicing through straws, ensuring I maintain a relatively low effort. This is a really safe way to get the voice working: Totally awesome in so many ways, I use them with all my students and myself. There’s lots of great articles about straws out there, but the original straws research and exercises come from Dr. Ingo Titze: https://youtu.be/0xYDvwvmBIM - but it’s a good idea to learn about straw phonation with a vocal coach who is knowledgeable about straw work. Paper, glass, bamboo and metal straws are now available, so there’s no need to use plastic ones.
I aim for a 1/10 effort in the larynx comfortably quiet. This gives me an idea of where my larynx is at, how my vocal folds are feeling. And if i detect loss/cracks or breaks, I keep repeating the exercises until my voice sounds better.
IF IT ALL GOES SUPER PEAR-SHAPED:
For anyone who feels they’ve “pushed it” a bit, or their voice is not coming back after three weeks, or have any concerns, go to the GP and ask for an ENT referral. For singers, there are a number of specialist NHS clinics around the UK who can offer joined up care for rehabilitation: the British Voice Association has a list of these:
TO MAINTAIN GOOD VOCAL HEALTH:
Get a session with a vocal coach. Whether you sing or not, it’s great to know how to protect your voice and learn how your voice works - the vocal cords are merely one part of the whole system. If you can learn how your whole body is used in voice production, you can feel confident that you know how to keep singing happily and healthily - and know when its time to have a rest. If you are struggling with voice issues and your health practitioners are not providing answers, try getting in touch with the BVA (see link above) or the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine: https://www.bapam.org.uk
In a nutshell, I feel vocal health is important for everyone, regardless of whether they are professional singers or not. Our voices are unique and therefore an expression of ourselves. So when the voice isn’t working, or hurts, this can be upsetting. I think we as all get illnesses, it’s good to recognise what’s going on and how to respond. We can’t see or always feel what’s going on in the larynx, but we should do what we can to minimise the effects of colds, coughs and flu. We’ll get these viruses and we’ll usually make full recoveries within a couple of weeks. We just need to listen to our bodies and give ourselves time and rest to ensure a full recovery.