We’ve all been there. A few days before your big performance, a cough starts and you’re in full panic mode. All the holistic remedies you’ve accumulated throughout the years aren’t working and you feel yourself getting sicker by the hour.
By the time your performance comes around, you’re all stuffed up with a sore throat and coughing up a fit. Either you’ve canceled it or, if you’re like me and refuse to cancel anything, have sung through the best you could with the ever-so-phlegmy sick voice. In that situation, that’s all you can really do, the best that you can do.
In the past, I have done countless auditions, juries, and performances because I have chronic bronchitis and asthma. As the saying goes “health is wealth” and especially with something as bodily focused as singing, bodily health is just as important as vocal health.
In order to be healthy, you must be very kinesthetically aware of your own body and its limits. Personally, the game changer for me happened after taking an allergy test with my doctor and finding out that I was allergic to everything under the sun.
I realized my limits, started taking Flonase and Claritin regularly during the spring and winter times, upped my weak immune system by taking vitamins and herbal immunity supplements, and as a result, I got sick less often.
Unfortunately, not everyone is the same, but being proactive is important when it comes to singing while sick or even preventing being sick in the first place. Drawing from my frequent personal experience I will teach you some tips on how to sing with a cold and some sick singer remedies to clear your sinuses for singing.
First Things First… Preventive Measures
Maybe you’re reading this and you’re worried that you’re about to get sick. Good, now go and drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated is VITAL to both bodily health and regular health. Water will flush out any toxins and germs that are affecting your immune system and will hydrate your vocal cords so they are properly protected while singing.
A singer who is feeling sick should be drinking way more water than normal. A singer who is feeling sick should also be sleeping more than normal. It is recommended that when you are sick you should be getting 8-9 hours a night in order to recover and detox from an oncoming cold.
Many people like to drink tea when they are feeling sick. Although this indeed does feel good on the sore throat, this could dry the vocal cords out and can cause even more unhealthy singing. Only drink tea when you have a phlegmy throat.
Otherwise, just drink hot water with honey, lemon, and/or ginger. NEVER drink anything cold when you are sick or when you are about to sing in general, this can promote strain in the throat and undo the “warming up” that you do with your voice beforehand.
As mentioned in the introduction section, I have a weak immune system, so when I started taking daily vitamins it drastically decreased the number of times I’ve gotten sick.
When I personally feel a cold or cough coming on, I also like to take echinacea extract twice a day in order to boost my immune system and combat the illness. These combined with all the things mentioned above should help prevent an illness from coming on and making your life a lot harder.
Okay but I’m Already Sick… What Do I Do?!
The first thing to do is to get to the bottom of the source. Is it from allergies? A cold? The only way to really find out is through your doctor. Then, medicate as needed.
For those of you of legal age, I have been saved plenty of times by ordering a hot toddy at the bar before a gig (notably while I was having one of my bronchitis episodes and I had an audition in the afternoon AND a 2 set jazz gig at night and I could NOT sing through my phlegm).
During one of my show runs last year, I developed a pretty nasty cough. Singing with a cough can be difficult, but one remedy that I found quite helpful was eating all-natural ginger chews when I had some downtime backstage in between scenes.
Any natural ginger products will help, but because of the healing, antibacterial, and warming properties of ginger, it soothed my throat enough for me to get through a scene without coughing up a lung. The same idea can be said with singing with a sinus infection.
Purchasing a bottle of Singer’s Saving Grace throat spray from Walgreens has saved my voice plenty of times as well. Make sure to get the non-alcoholic version, as alcohol can dry out for vocal cords.
It contains root extracts herbs such as Licorice, Echinacea, Osha, Yerba Manson, and Ginger to coat your throat with a protective layer when you sing so it is not dry and irritated.
Same idea with Throat Coat tea. It contains the same ingredients along with slippery elm in order to help heal your sore throat and coat it with a protective layer when you sing.
Another thing that has helped me during my times of need is a facial steamer that you can get on Amazon intended for spa. It blows hot steam in your face, and breathing it in helps moisturize your vocal cords when they’re feeling dry, which will especially help on how to clear your sinuses for singing.
Personal steam inhalers work too, but they tend to be more on the pricey side. This can help with warming the voice while hydrating it at the same time. It can shake out any excess phlegm and can be an easy alternative to standing over a pot of boiling water with a towel covering your head like I used to do.
Other Tips and Tricks
- Do NOT take cough drops with menthol in them or any products with alcohol. These can dry your vocal cords and promote inflammation which is what we are trying to get rid of when you are sick.
- Avoid any foods that are spicy to avoid aggravating your sore throat and promote coughing.
- Always drink ROOM TEMPERATURE water. Ice water or water that is cold can promote strain and undo any “warming up” that you may have already done.
- Warming down is just as important as warming up, especially when you are sick. Sing exercises that include long, sustained notes to cool down your voice after a big performance to cool down your voice, just like you would if you were exercising on a treadmill.
- The more vocal rest you can get before the performance the better! Which means try not to talk as much as you can throughout the day. This may result in you having to use a whiteboard to communicate (I have done this at school many times. My fellow vocal majors understand but I’ve learned to ignore what people with other majors think)
- Do NOT clear your throat. This promotes inflammation of the throat. Instead, inhale and exhale with your mouth closed and make sounds like Darth Vader. This will shake off the phlegm from your throat without causing any further damage.
- A healthy body results in a healthy singing voice. Make sure to eat right and exercise to keep your mind sharp and your body strong to meet the demands of singing and performing.
- During the actual performance, do NOT overcompensate by oversinging, Sometimes when we know our voices are not in the best shape, we try to overcompensate by singing louder. This promotes strain and can result in long-lasting damage to the voice. The entire concept of healthy singing is a sound that is supported but free from any tightness or strain. Even if you have to “float” (switch to head voice) for some notes, that is better than damaging your voice forever. It is important to always think about the longevity of your vocal career.
- It is okay to JUST SAY NO. Although this is an article for singing while sick, it is an absolutely hard thing to do. I myself am still learning how to say no and stick to my beliefs of what my limits are, but it is good to draw the line when you simply can’t. If you truly believe you physically are not able to perform, don’t do it. Always put your own health first. There are always opportunities around to perform, but you only have one voice to use.
In the end, you can only do the best you can do with circumstances provided, and the bottom line is in order to help yourself you have to know how you operate in and out.
Again, everyone’s body is different and reacts to remedies differently, so the best approach is to find the right regimen for yourself and stick with it.
If you follow these tips, tricks, and recommendations, you will not only be able to power through singing while sick as best as you can but hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid a similar dilemma like this in the future.
See also my tips for singing as a beginner and my cool post on the right posture when singing.