How To Sing If You Are Sick Or Fatigued

July 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Singing Articles

As I sit here in my flu induced incapacitated state, I thought I might write an article detailing how to sing when you are sick or not vocally 100%.

There have been many times in my life as a singer where I have had to sing while under the effects of a nasty flu or fatigue from a heavy vocal session the night before.

For most singers the first reaction to this situation is PANIC! This is a naturally reaction to such a situation.  Negative thoughts immediately start to rush through your mind:

  • “I’m going to embarrass myself”
  • “If I cancel I will let so many people down”
  • “I could damage my voice”
  • “My reputation will be tarnished”

These are all thoughts that I have had myself over the years and they are all valid thoughts.  However it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.  There are certain things you can do to give yourself the best chance to get through a performance with little to no evidence that you weren’t at your best.

The First Question You Should Ask Yourself

How serious is it?  Are your symptoms affecting your vocal ability or not? It is very possible to sing through a simple cold or virus.  As long as your vocal cords aren’t being affected, physically your voice and performance ability shouldn’t change.

Let’s say that your voice has been affected and you are finding it hard to sing, you have lost range and control.  What then?  Don’t panic just yet.

Your first step is to go and see your Doctor.  I know that sounds like a no-brainer but so many singers put this off until the last minute.  If it’s an infection to your sinus (like what I have right now!) throat or chest, the earlier you get on medication the quicker you will be back at your best.

Medication

There are many lozenges and remedies on the market that will relieve pain and inflammation.  You need to keep away from anything that contains alcohol or menthol as they can dehydrate the voice and make it ever harder to sing.  You also need to avoid anything with antiseptic in it.  Yes antiseptic will numb the pain but it will also numb the control of your voice.  What I suggest in the form of self medication is:

There are plenty of lozenges on the market which are singer friendly.  I recommend Slippery Elm Cherry Lozenges. If in doubt ask your pharmacist.  A quality vocal spray is vital to replace saliva and relieve dryness in the throat.  I use Farleys Entertainers Secret Throat Relief Spray which is readily available on the net.  Honey and lemon drinks are great soothe the throat and clear the nasal cavity.  Here is the recipe I use:

  • Squeeze 2 Lemons
  • 1 Tablespoon of Honey
  • 2 Dissolved Paracetamol Tablets
  • 1 Cup of Boiling Water

Every 10% Helps

There isn’t an instant miracle cure that is going to get your voice back to its brilliant best.  There are however other things which I called the 10 percenters that when combined can take you from the despair of being 40% vocally fit to a more manageable 80% vocal fitness.  I have already discussed the use of self medication which will usually get you an extra 10%.

Steaming your voice is a great way to relieve swelling, dryness and nasal congestion.  There are a few ways you can do this:

  • A Hot Shower (with exhaust fan off)
  • The Pot and Towel Technique
  • Steam Inhaler
  • Humidifier

A hot shower first thing in the morning with the exhaust fan off is a great way to get your voice heading in the right direction.  By closing the room off and turning the exhaust fan off you will create a sauna effect which will add instant moisture to your throat and help clear your sinus.  I always combine this with a gentle vocal warm up for an instant 10% improvement to my voice.

Throughout the day you should continue to steam your voice as it will help reduce any swelling in your throat and vocal cords.  There are a few ways you can do this:

Have multiple hot showers throughout the day, which isn’t the strategy I advise.  Your family or housemates won’t appreciate the lack of hot water at the end of the day, or the massive energy bill at the end of the month!

Use the Pot and Towel Technique. This involves boiling a pot of water and sitting with your head hovering over the steam.  Placing a towel over your head and pot will keep the steam from escaping and create a mini sauna for your face.

My preferred steaming technique is the use of a personal steam inhaler. They are compact enough to take with you to your gig or dressing room and unlike the pot and towel technique you will isolate the steam to your throat and nose and not your entire face!  I recommend Mabis Healthcare Steam Inhaler

A humidifier is a device which will add steam to a room.  It is especially effective for use at night while you are sleeping.  The moisture in the air will help to relieve waking up with a dry scratchy throat.  I recommend Vicks UV 99.999% Germ Free Humidifier

Steaming your voice throughout the day and before a performance will help you gain an extra 10%.

The Importance of a Vocal Warm Up

Warming up your voice is always a good idea.  When you are sick or fatigued it is VITAL.  Not all warm ups are created equal.  The vocal warm up routine that you would normally use when vocally fit will be too strenuous on your swollen and sore throat.  There is a particular system of warming up that I use when I am sick.

  • Step One: Gentle warm up to get the vocal cords vibrating.  I do this in the shower first thing in the morning so that the steam helps wake the cords up.  I do gentle hums and vocal fry to start, then some lip roll slides.  All at low volume.
  • Step Two: Maintain vocal silence until midday and repeat the gentle warm up with slightly increased volume.  I will do this for 10 minutes.
  • Step Three: 15 minute vocal warm up including lip rolls, vocal fry, and resonance exercises.  I do this about 1 hour before I have to sing on stage, usually in a hot shower!

With the Full Day Vocal Warm Up I know that my voice will improve by 10% by performance time.  It is important that you maintain vocal rest throughout the day.  This will give your vocal cords time to rest and recover.  A full Emergency Vocal Warm Up is included in my Ultimate Vocal Warm Up.  You can check it out HERE

Watch What You Eat

Certain foods can have a positive and negative affect on your voice.  You need to avoid foods which are going to cause a reaction in your throat.  These include:

  • Spicy Foods
  • Dairy Products
  • Salty Products

Spicy foods can cause acid reflux, which causes stomach acid to make its way up into your throat and effectively burning your vocal cords. Dairy products will create mucus in your throat.  The coughing action required to get rid of it will irritate your cords. Salty products will dry out your throat.

Foods that will help you if you aren’t feeling great include:

  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
  • Unsalted Almonds
  • Lean Meat
  • Pasta
  • Plenty of Water

Fruit and vegetables are very high in water content.  This will help your body stay hydrated.  Almonds are a great source of energy as they are high in protein.  Lean meat and pasta is also high in protein and carbohydrates.  Singing can take a lot of energy so these foods will help you physically get through a performance.  Water will contribute to the hydration of your throat and body.

By eating the right foods and drinking plenty of water you can gain an extra 10% to help you perform close to your best.  If you drown your sorrows in the bad foods it will have you back at square one in no time!

So Let’s Do The Math.

In isolation all of these suggestions can make a small improvement to your voice.  If you do everything you can to get your voice to a reasonable singing state, most of the time you will get through a performance with no one even realising you are sick or fatigued.

  • Singer Safe Medication 10%
  • Steaming Your Voice 10%
  • Vocal Warm Up Routine 10%
  • Eating and Drinking Right 10%

By combining the above strategies you can improve your incapacitated voice by up to 40%.  So even if you are only feeling 40 or 50% vocally fit it is possible to get to 80 – 90% which is certainly “performable”.

The Worst Case Scenario

There will be times when you have to face the fact that your voice isn’t up to singing.  This could be either prolonged vocal fatigued or a complete lack of voice caused by laryngitis.  Sometimes you have to make tough decisions and you need to make them based on the long term ramifications rather than the short term.

Singing when you physically are not up to it can lead to long term problems.  You can be scarred physically (vocal cord nodules) and mentally.  What would you rather do:

Perform anyway and risk vocal damage and have your reputation as a quality singer tarnished.

OR

Cancel the performance and inconvenience few people.

I hope this article has given you some ideas on how to sing when you are sing or fatigued.  These strategies have helped me through many inconvenient periods of illness when I have had to perform.

Singer’s Survival Products:

Thayer – Slippery Elm Lozenges

Farleys Entertainers Secret Throat Relief Spray

Mabis Healthcare Steam Inhaler

Vicks UV 99.999% Germ Free Humidifier

I don’t leave home without mine!

Ian Castle

To download this article as a pdf right click here and choose “save as”.

To enrol in my Free Vocal Training click here.

The Ultimate Vocal Warm Up

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Comments

10 Responses to “How To Sing If You Are Sick Or Fatigued”
  1. Diva Gordon says:

    And then if all else fails you can get your singing partner to cover for you and make a hasty retreat to the piano. ;-)

  2. rachel says:

    when is voice rest get to be to much?

  3. Kalli says:

    Hi Ian,

    This article was helpful! I’m an Australian vocalist living in Singapore and tried to order the steam inhaler and the spray, however Amazon won’t ship them to me in Singapore. Any idea if where in Australia I can get hold of these items?

    Cheers.

  4. Aussie Vocal Coach says:

    Hi Rachel,

    It depends on your vocal condition. If you have just pushed too hard during a session and you are feeling strained, 2 or 3 days of vocal rest should allow your muscles time to recover. If your voice has been sore for more than a week I would take a 2 week vocal break with minimal speaking. In the worst case scenario (vocal nodules) it can take months of complete vocal rest (no speaking) to fully recover without the use of surgery.

    Hi Kalli,

    You can order the spray here: http://www.entertainers-secret.com.au/
    Most chemists will have some type of steam inhaler for purchase so that would be your best bet.

    Ian :)

  5. Ted says:

    Hello Ian,

    You have set me on the path of discovery! I’ve learned more from you in the past several weeks than I have in 20 years, technique, structure,terminology…etc. Everything that you have said “Not to do” I’ve done more than once and of course suffered the consequences. It is a bit spooky when you book for 2 nights back to back and the first night the monitors are terrible! In the morning, I have woken up with nothing left but a squeek from essentially yelling all night. I was lucky to notice after steaming in the shower that I felt some relief! So, back to the shower I went! I remember spending most of the day steaming things up!

    I can’t wait to try your lemon & Honey drink!

    There are a couple of questions that I would like to ask but I am not sure if the way I try to explain would be clear. I’ll be back with those questions later.

    Thank you Ian,

    Ted

  6. Aussie Vocal Coach says:

    Hello Ted,

    So glad that I can help expand your knowledge and get you and your voice heading in the right direction. The honey and lemon drink works a treat. I also “gargle” the mixture so it coats my throat and cords.

    Ask me anything, I’ll do my best to give you an answer.

    Ian :)

  7. Karen Davey says:

    Hi Ian !
    loving the 8 week programme. It was uncanny that you sent the vocal healthcare article as I woke up yesterday with virtually no singing voice! Unfortunately my day job requires the use of my voice for 8hrs a day which means it is very tired by the end of a busy shift. I found I hand’t been drinking as much water as I normally do (warm water so as not to damage teh chords) I have also found gargling with Sandersons Throat Remedy works a trea combined with your tips (ps tastes disgusting but does the trick) You have been an invaluable source of inspiration, looking forward to 2nd half of the course

    Thanks again Ian for the lessons (I will definately look you up if I find myseld back in Oz one day)

    Karen xx

  8. Dana says:

    Oye’! I googled “Singing while sick” and this poped up! Thanks for the helpful hints. Between playing tonight and having to do it again tomorrow for a St. Patty’s day bash my poor strained chords are stressin’! Beenon antibiotics and steroids. Awful. I will use all these tips to make it thru the weekend and then I’m taking a break.

  9. Cecilia Valentim says:

    Hello Ian!

    I´m from Portugal and our main problem is in the summer the air-conditioners!

    Thank you for the tips, they are helpful and I´m gone live mine that I believe you may know it already ;)
    I´make ginger tea with infused bachelor’s button (Gomphrena globosa), you can add lemon and honey.
    During the day I drink like it was water, at night warme with de honey and I don´t use my voice, you will feel better in the morning.
    Do it as many days as possible, Ginger is the best!
    Best regards and I hope you get better soon.

    Cila V

  10. Im a singer 67 years old still in pretty good condition, Ive been working in Night clubs for over 47 years Im a pretty good all around singer and performer, Ive done quite a few Impressions of singers and actors, and that has caused some havoc on my cords, because Im still working a doing about 50 shows a year, and I do drink some booze on the gig, which isn’t a good idea, so Ive backed off on that,and Ive taken some of your advice on Steam, Loz, and warm ups, Ive always had a regiment of what I’d do before a gig, but I got complacent over the years, only to have to pay for it in the end, Ive always been a belter type of singer , but around 10 years ago, I had to back off change some keys, and learn to be a little bit more layed back an it’s worked you truly have helped me about 50% and I thank you for that

    Frankie Cirell Andre&Cirell

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