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A Practical Guide To Singing While Sick

As a singer, I try to avoid getting sick. I'm not talking about life-threatening illnesses, I'm talking about your everyday colds that turn into sinus infections, Bronchitis, the Flu, Strep Throat, Laryngitis, and those sorts of sicknesses. Of course you probably try to avoid it too, since we all know that being sick and singing don't really mix well, plus it's generally not fun. In the best case your voice will sound a bit strange and it will be uncomfortable to sing, and in the worse case you won't be able to produce a proper singing tone sometimes for days or even weeks! That's why we as singers all DO NOT want to get sick.

Though, there are certainly ways to try to avoid getting sick in the first place, I'd like to use this blog post to talk about what you can do when you're already sick and have to sing (for a rehearsal or a performance) and how to make the best of a bad situation, AND what tricks of the trade can help you to recover quicker.

There are many methods one can employ, and I'd like to talk about those which are technical first. If you are experiencing phlegm that is making your voice crack ( for those of you not familiar with this term, it means that due to phlegm sitting on your vocal folds, unpredictable sounds are produced which resemble a popping or 'cracking' noise which interrupts your vocal tone. Hence your voice sounds like it's "cracking") you can make doubly sure that you are singing "above" the phlegm, by lifting your soft palate as much as physically possible while you are singing, thereby maintaining a high enough production of sound which will enable your phlegm not to be disturbed (which produces the "cracking" noise). This usually can solve the problem in most cases, which will not eliminate the phlegm, but which will allow you to sing without making strange, unwanted noises. (This advice was given to me by my teacher in my Undergraduate degree, Ms. Sharon Sweet, and she said she used this tool many times when she had to sing in her career under less than optimal health conditions.)

The second technical piece of advice I can give is to learn how to properly "mark" your singing, instead of singing full-voiced. "Marking" is a term used to refer to a way of singing which protects your voice from undue strain which it would get from singing full-voiced, or in a tessitura (range) which is particularly tiring for long periods of time (aka several hours at a time without breaks). If you are sick, you can make more frequent use of this technique (which is used for protecting the voice under normal circumstances in longer rehearsal periods like staging rehearsals, etc.), since it does really allow you to still sing, but just in a more vocally safe way. Correct marking requires the use of the same support and production of your sound as normal singing, but the difference is that you allow double or triple the air to flow through your sound, making it relatively airy, thus putting less pressure on your vocal folds by only allowing them to come together in a very loose way, and not tightly vibrating against one another as they normally would. This is helpful when you are sick because it allows any swelling in your vocal folds to heal quicker because they are not being overtaxed by the pressure that normal singing would put on them.

The third thing which I can recommend, which is less of a technical tool and more of a practice structuring method, is to practice only in 15 minute increments when you are recovering from an illness. This shortened amount of vocalizing allows for your voice to rebuild stamina that it had lost from the break in practicing while you were sick, without over exerting it and causing damage which would lengthen your recovery time.

All of these things are great, but it's perhaps most important to recognize too when you should STOP singing if you're sick (or simply if you've practiced too much- being vocally tired can also happen), so that you don't cause yourself undue vocal damage. The main sign is: losing the ability to phonate. If you are singing and at any time during your sound production you have a delay in the sound (for example, you want to sing a note and nothing comes out, or it comes out very delayed- more so than you had intended) then that's a sign that you need to rest your voice and stop all singing and talking for the rest of the day, and even better if it were for a day (or two, depending) following. This is a sign that your vocal chords are very swollen and that they are not coming together fully, and this is not something that you can simply "sing through" and it will go away. No. It's a sign to stop making any noise whatsoever and take a "vocal rest" for a while. Normally this happens in conjunction with laryngitis, but if it persists for more than a few days, I'd recommend going to see your ENT.  You also should not, of course, sing when you are too physically exhausted to support properly. When you aren't singing on your supported air, you are running the risk of causing damage to your vocal folds, especially if you do this for hours on end. You also should not sing if you have taken over the counter medicine (or some antibiotics- check with your doctor or pharmacist) which prevents the proper circulation of blood, like Ibuprofen, and some decongestants are also a problem, because they dry out your mucous membranes (of which your vocal folds are a part- remember!- they always need to have a mucosal film on them to vibrate against one another properly without causing nodules, which are basically a sort of blister on the point where the vibration occurs without proper moisture or wrong technique). Be sure you are allowed to sing while on medicine, in other words.

Finally, here's the advice I have for those of you who are sick and looking to aid your body in recovering in a quick and healthy manner: (I can only tell you about what I've tried and how it's worked for me, so keep in mind that everyone's body is different.)

1.) Emergen-C: a packet of powdered Vitamin C in a high dose which is supposed to prevent you from getting fully sick if you're on the cusp of being sick, or should help you recover quicker if you're sick. (It's worked well for me in helping me not to get fully sick, but never seemed to make my recovery quicker.)

2. Fresh Ginger Root Tea with fresh lemon juice and honey: this is literally the most organic way to fight a cold, and has minimal side effects, since all the ingredients are natural. (This always works for me 100%- whether I'm sick or feeling like I'm getting sick, it helps prevent me from getting sick, and it also helps speed recovery). What I do is take a piece of fresh ginger root, make sure the skin is smooth- that signifies freshness, and then scrape the skin off with a spoon (it prevents you from removing too much actual ginger along with the skin), and then cut it into very thin slices. Submerge the slices in a pot of water- I usually use a 3 inch piece of ginger for 1.5 liters of water- and then let it sit, covered with a lid for at least 2 hours (the longer you let it sit, the better). Afterwards bring it to a boil, and then turn off the heat and let it sit on the burner as it cools down, so as to make the cooling of the "tea" also gradual. You can drink the tea once it's reached a golden color, either hot or warm, so the honey you add can melt. Only add 1 tsp of honey and 1 tsp of lemon juice per mug of tea. It WILL be spicy, so you may need to add more honey to lessen that, but it's supposed to be- it helps break stuff up. So, learn to like it! :)

3. Neti pot: this is a small ceramic pot (often) which is filled with room temperature distilled water and then into that is mixed a solution that you can usually buy in the drugstore or at your natural food store (or make yourself with high-grade sea salt) until it dissolves and then you use this solution to rinse out your sinuses by pouring it into each nostril alternatively. (This seems to work well when I'm not sick to maintain the condition of my sinus passages and rinse out the gunk that builds up there on a daily basis, but once I'm sick and my sinuses are stuffed up it has never been a match for that congestion. Normally I cannot even get it to rinse back out once it's up there, if I can even get it to enter my sinuses in the first place when I'm stuffy.)

4. Massage of the face: this is a technique that I recently found out about thanks to a colleague on Facebook who shared a link to a video of an ENT doing a technique of massage that is supposed to help drain unwanted sinus congestion and thereby ease singing. (I've tried this only recently, but it does seem to work well to combat spring allergy congestion, so that's something!) Basically you massage with the tips of your fingers in a pulling sort of motion, aiming the release of the pulling towards your ears- which allows for the fluid to drain,  starting at the inner corner below your eye socket (at the top of your cheekbones), above your eyebrows beginning at the center of your forehead, from the middle of your upper lip, and from the center of the bottom of chin towards your ears. This has proven to give nearly immediate relief of congestion every time I do it.

4. Eating fresh veggies and fruits: there is something to be said for giving your body proper nutrition while you're under the weather. It helps your immune system fight better. (Normally I eat produce which is high in vitamin C when sick- that means: Hibiscus Tea (bet you didn't know that actually has the most vitamin C out of any plant!), Green bell peppers-not cooked! (they have the second most!), Kiwis (they have a lot- they're third), and then all the normal things which most people know: citrus fruits (lemons, oranges, grapefruits), carrots, blueberries (they are good for other vitamins), bananas, garlic and onions (really great immune boosters!), and lots of green leafy vegetables (especially broccoli, kale, cucumbers, celery- did you know that celery and cucumbers are super good for cleansing your system of toxins?), apples (cooked are actually better than raw-especially if you add cinnamon- a super immune booster!, but both are better than processed foods), and last, but not least- FRESH PINEAPPLE-- a singer's best friend for reducing inflammation and easing sore vocal folds. And of course Coconut water- which helps you hydrate better than normal water.

5. Yoga: There are many poses which help to alleviate symptoms of illness. I've tried this several times while sick and have had mixed results. If I have an illness where I'm physically tired (the Flu, for example) then it doesn't help all that much to do a lot of yoga, but just 10 minutes or so makes me feel a bit more "alive", usually. On the other hand, if I have congestion in my lungs or sinuses, it certainly helps to do slow, restorative and long yoga sessions, focusing on the breathing, which slowly loosens up congestion as I go through the practice.

6. Personal Humidifier (like Vicks brand): This seems to help me only when I'm already on the upswing of getting better. Usually I put kosher salt in the water to make it a bit more breathing in friendly.

7. Eucalyptus Essential Oil in Combination with a hot shower or bath: Putting a few drops of Eucalyptus Essential Oil on the wall or floor of the shower and then taking a hot shower while breathing in the steam produced helps nearly 100% of the time when I have congestion. Actually I like the smell so much that sometimes I do it when I'm not sick just for fun.

8. Vicks Vapor Rub: (or any menthol based ointment to ease breathing when sleeping) This stuff does help if I have anything which has settled in my lungs (Bronchitis, etc..) and it helps particularly overnight, especially if I put a bit of it on my upper lip. Otherwise it's not too great during the day.

9. Lavender (either essential oil of dried flower buds in a sachet or something): This helps to lay next to my pillow during sleep, as it provides me with better breathing ability overnight if I'm stuffy, as well as a more restful sleep in general, if I'm feeling run down.

10. GeloRevoice: These are a sort of throat lozenge that you can buy in Germany (not sure where else you can get them, but you can Google it to find out) which creates a sort of synthetic protective film around your sore throat and sort vocal folds, and basically hydrates them extra, so that they can rest more effectively. It wasn't my favorite thing to use at first, but I notice that it's helpful to use these when you have a particularly sore throat or when you're experiencing swelling of your vocal folds due to your period.

11. Grether's Blackcurrant Pastilles: (Another lozenge which works similarly are Isla Moos Pastilles) These are a sort of jelly-like throat lozenge which supposedly helped the great singers of the past century and was commonly used in Europe. They taste delicious (kinda like candy) and they seem to clear up mucous build up on your vocal folds, but they do not ease sore throats.

Okay, that's literally all I can think of at the moment to say on the subject, so I hope that you get use out of this info and that you have a speedy recovery if you're reading this and are sick! :)

NOTE (12/15/15): I've just gotten directions for ANOTHER method of ginger usage from my good friend F., so here's another method to try:
Peel and thick-slice a big piece of ginger root. Boil water (start 2-3ish cups depending on ginger and if you want leftovers). Put in like half the ginger to boil. Add more ginger and water after 2ish minutes, then add water 1-2 more times, as it reduces (it'll get dark). Drink/sip a mug of it straight (strong. wipe lips, sip very warm tap water if needed!). Then gurgle a little very warm (kosher) salt water. Then eat a spoonful of honey! Et voilĂ ! (expands the tissue, astringent on allergens and mucous hiding in said condensed tissue). It's magical, especially if you have to sing.


  1. Love it Julia! Wonderful assortment of advice and so well written and explained. You should write a book!


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