Singing and Sickness Introduction

Vocal Therapy Exercises

A Few Thoughts on Singing When Sick

By Hunter Mariano

SoCal-based Singer and Creator of Voice Box Fitness
Alright, this is a long chunk of text, but it's got lots of valuable tips when it comes to singing while sick or otherwise dealing with sickness as a singer.

I wrote a lengthy email to one of my students regarding this topic. I've copied and pasted it below.

But first and foremost, it's worth mentioning that you want to be “Taking your voice to the gym” at least 20 minutes a day doing vocal exercises that encourage strength and connection between chest and head voice (e.g., the passaggio workout). The rebound and healing process will be much more efficient considering we have been taking care of our voice throughout the week and have built an overall strong voice.

If we have to sing when sick… be careful with some of the “remedies”. Things like green tea with honey and lemon are very dehydrating. You’ll be much better offer drinking water or getting something caffeine-free like Throat Coat. I’m not a doctor or licensed ENT… (definitely get yourself checked out when you're not feeling well) but it's worth mentioning that we want to be mindful of the medications we are taking as many of the decongestants are dehydrating.
Considering this, one of the good medications is Mucinex. It's a cough expectorant that also works to thin out the mucus to keep less restriction around the vocal cords and nasal cavities.
OTC pain killers are ok to use (advil, ibuprofin... these can help reduce inflammation) but are a bit dehydrating as well. Just be sure to go above and beyond on the water intake.

And finally, here is that email that I wrote to another student who was coming off of a cold a few months back… Lots of good stuff here! (copied and pasted)

“Every time I’ve caught a cold over the years, I would become extremely obsessed with not only healthy vocal care, but also my overall health in general.

I’ll share my practices when it comes to these issues, but when the voice is really messed up, my first recommendation is going to be to get checked out by a licensed ENT, or even just a quick doctor visit, just to see if there’s anything unusual going on causing the issue.

With that said… My first half of a response to you is going to start with simple nutrition. Lots of debated topics there BUT, (for an easy example) most people would agree that sugar isn’t a great friend - and for a singer, especially one who is a little under the weather or fighting something, sugar’s not gonna help. In fact, it’s going to prolong the issue and possibly cause more problems like inflammation and just hurt your immune system.

On that train of thought… Good nutrition is going to be the best prevention - but often times we start thinking the most about these things once we’re in the mess.

So, when it comes to foods during sickness, first place I go is all anti-inflammatory foods. You’ll have to kind of scout this out for yourself to find the best sources that work for you and that you’ll be able to be consistent with. Me personally, the second I feel any itch of anything in the throat like I’m coming down with something, I run to the store, I put together a giant salad filled with all the things anti-inflammatory.

Lots of leafy greens, tomatoes, even olive oil will do the trick, so I might use that as dressing. You’ve got broccoli, cauliflower, avocados, cucumbers… I’ll just load up a bowl stir it in some olive oil, and that’s my medicine.

On the flip side, stay away from all anti inflammatory foods. You can basically google a list of all of this and like I said, build your own nutrition plan to stay vocally healthy. Foods that are good for the voice. One last nutrition thing… this is the FIRST thing I do if I feel any hint of a cold starting… get some raw garlic. This is a major secret. About 2 cloves, chop it up, put it on some bread if you’d like, and scarf it down. Garlic is a powerhouse food for nipping a cold in the bud.

Ok so that’s the nutrition side of things.

For actual vocalization… When we get sick and our voice feels a little shot, it’s generally due to the inflammation at the vocal cord level. We don’t get efficient closure, therefore it comes out crackly, raspy, and strained. And, as you know, if we plow through it, the inflammation issue compounds.

So, when we feel under the weather but have a singing obligation coming up… the goal should be to try and regain function , not overdue it trying to fix the voice entirely. If we’re truly sick, our body will need to go through the healing process, that includes our voice. So what does regaining function mean? It means using the exercises (same ones you’ve grown accustomed to) to try and find closure at each coordination (chest, head, pharyngeal, mix, compression)

The specific exercises that I personally do in these moments: 
  • Hooty Ee… (mostly focusing on the first passaggio, just doing sirens up and down, not necessarily to a scale)
  • Hooty Wee wee wee… (same approach as above)
  • Lip rolls/tongue trills… (aiming to keep the sound heady and light and not too extreme on the range, mostly focusing on the middle)
  • Humming and placing tone in the pharyngeal space
  • Vocal fry (trying to bring it up to some of that light pianissimo stuff we talked about)

These 5 exercises might be the extent of what I do to warm up - but the time I spend on them varies… if I feel like I’ve got the function, then I’ll generally stop it there and try minimizing my talking until it’s time to sing.

All in all, it’s a little bit of a balancing act. On one hand, I don’t want to NOT warm up when sick, even though the vocalization might seem taxing at first… it will be much more taxing to dive into actual singing without the proper warm ups.

But I also don’t want to exhaust myself with warm ups - because that could introduce some inflammation if I have a tendency to squeeze through them a little bit…

Ultimately, if I can find a bit of that pianissimo with the vocal fry right around an Eb, E, or F… that’s the function I’m looking for… then I know I’ll have a little something to press into when it comes time to sing.

For the actual singing… recognize that adrenaline will kick in, which is good on one hand, but deceptive on another (you might not realize how hard you are pushing)

As long as you pay attention to your volume, intensity, and where the sound is resonating (aim for the mask, little bit of that pharyngeal resonance to carry the tone)… you’ll be able to get through a set list without damage.

Monitor your voice after… lots of rest if you need it (especially if you think you pushed)… but keep up with those 5 exercises each day to bring connection back to the voice.

The only time you should stay silent is if you have full blown laryngitis where you can hardly get a whisper out in the mid to upper range. Most of the time you don't need extensive vocal rest, just a day or two to help get that inflammation down. Then you can build the connection back it up with those exercises.

Let me just say this part again, a lot of this deals with issues that a doctor or certified ENT can help with… so I wouldn’t neglect that part, ha. But, these are definitely the practices that I generally go through when I find myself in these situations.

Hopefully this all helps, feel free to shoot me any questions for clarification on anything I said… I know it’s a TON of text. But I figured it would be easier to review in this way rather than a voice message, ha.”

Ok y'all, there you have it. These are my go-to practices for fighting sickness as a singer and prepping my voice for singing when it's not feeling all that great. Ultimately, you'll want to do some experimenting to see what sort of remedy works best for you.