Liquid Courage

It happens several times a night in every Karaoke bar across the nation. Someone staggers up on stage, primed to the gills with liquid courage, and can barely speak let alone sing. His or her friends are having a good laugh over it but it brings up a scientific question: If one drink helps to shake off the nervous butterflies and perform a little better, will ten drinks make you an amazing singer? (answer at bottom)

I offer the question to illustrate how diluted our thinking can be regarding alcohol and singing. Can alcohol ruin your voice? Yes. Can alcohol improve your singing? Yes, if used sparingly. Don’t get me wrong, to some people alcohol is poison and must be avoided. Most of us, though, are not alcoholics. Still, we tend to divide into two camps — heavy drinkers or non-drinkers. This all-or-nothing attitude misses the point of what makes someone a compelling singer. Excessive drinking will not make you the next Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin. The bottle did not make them; it brought them down.

On the other hand, non-drinkers are not necessarily more productive or better performers. I’ve been in many situations (studio, rehearsal or stage) where the tension between four or five very sober musicians squashed any potential for creativity. A short drink is not the only way to reduce tension (meditation, fist fights), but sometimes it’s the quickest way to get past the petty stuff and get on with making music. In the studio, when all efforts have failed to relax a rigid singer, I’ve been known to suggest a cocktail break. The puzzled singer often asks, “Won’t alcohol hurt my voice?” To which I reply, “I’m talking one drink, and nothing would hurt you more than releasing this track with the vocal as it stands now.”

As always, make your own decisions regarding what goes into your body. So let’s go over the facts. Alcohol is a drying agent. The vapors evaporate some of the mucous which lines your throat. Tension, either from poor technique or nerves, restricts saliva ducts causing a similar dry condition. One drink is not enough to strip your throat, but may release muscles/attitude enough to re-hydrate. As with all foods, be aware of negative reactions. Besides the alcohol, wines contain tannic acid, which can dry your throat. Beers contain fungus and grains that may stuff your nose. Bourbons and whiskeys may be too harsh, causing more harm than good. Alcohol is not a cure-all, nor is it something to fear. Unlike other vices such as coffee, soda, cigarettes, marijuana or cocaine, it’s also a fact that a moderate amount of alcohol is good for you.

Things change dramatically, though, if you attempt to dowse your fears with binge drinking. Becoming drunk means your blood is toxic. This is never good for singing. Your body sacrifices fluids in order to flush out, leaving your vocal folds dry. If your system rejects all that courage (translation: vomits), stomach acids burn the folds and throat muscles. It takes more than 24 hours for your system to rebalance after a binge, which means the rest of your weekend is shot. On the performance side, you are lowered to the dulled reflexes and skewed judgment of a drunk driver. You may think you’re singing great, but a cell phone video of your rendition of “Margaritaville” might be harder to endure than the hangover. Which leads to the answer of the opening question: Yes, ten drinks will make you an amazing singer — to anyone who’s had eleven!