Winter and show biz don’t mix. Biting winds and piles of snow keep potential audiences at home and make things difficult for load-ins. Then there’s the additional burden of protecting your voice while everyone around is coughing and sneezing. As a singer, you can’t afford to succumb to the average two colds a year. Even if you’re a trouper and refuse to cancel, your instrument will be compromised and susceptible to harm. Not to panic, injury to the vocal folds is reversible, but taking time off to recover will put the brakes on your band’s momentum. Prevention is the answer. The good news is, for every cold-forming scenario, there is a counter measure. The bad news is, by the time the first symptoms show, it’s too late.
The germs which cause colds are always around. Constantly washing your hands and avoiding contact with others is not enough. The best defense is to keep your immune system strong by eating right (fruits and vegies), hydrating (two liters of water per day), sleeping (around six hours), and exercising for better circulation. Staying warm is also an important factor. In frigid conditions, your body works hard to retain heat. Dressing in layers, with a hat, water-proof boots and a scarf allows your body to focus energy on fighting off incoming infections. Use your brains. Wait until you stop sweating before going outside after rehearsal, and, leave a coat stage-side if a club requires a load-out directly after the set.
The winter holidays are a notorious time for coming down with something. Heavier foods and less physical activity increases the amount of toxins in our system. After a while, our bodies will clean house by producing mucus. So, find a way to stay physically active between Thanksgiving and Christmas — and watch that third piece of pie. However, an abrupt change in lifestyle can also bring on a similar cleanse reaction. People who quit smoking cold-turkey or dramatically change their diet can expect cold-like symptoms to follow. I don’t want to discourage anyone from becoming healthier, merely suggesting a gradual change if you’ve decided to clean up as a New Year’s resolution.
Stress, of all the causes of illness, is number one. Juggling work or school with rehearsals and gigs, eating on the run with zero sleep, disrupts metabolism and forces the body to run on adrenaline. Anxiety saps vitamins, dehydrates, and leaves you vulnerable to whatever is around. That’s why colds always arrive right as your preparing for the big recording or showcase. Yes, you should be well rehearsed, but there comes a point where the push becomes counter-productive. Rest, like hydration, is an inseparable component of vocal ability. It’s important to remember that stress is 100 percent internal, and is always reduced by saying the word, “no.” So, for your voice’s sake, open up your schedule — and chill.
I know it’s seems uncool to worry about health, but ask anyone who has toured for a length of time — getting sick on the road sucks. It is not inevitable that you will catch a cold every winter. Hold firm to a belief that you will not get sick. If it’s too late for this season, then for next. Adopting healthy habits now will pay off in spades in the future when you’re in demand. There is no remedy as effective as prevention. I’m sure your mother already told you most of these things, but that was so you wouldn’t miss school. I’m telling you so you won’t miss a gig. Big difference.
Okay, now let’s pretend that, despite your best efforts, you’ve come down with a nasty, aching, head clogging cold three days before an important gig. Is there anything you can do besides crack open a bottle of Jack Daniel’s? The answer is yes, but they aren’t nearly as much fun. To minimize the effect a cold has on the voice you’ve got to act quickly. Keep in mind that congestion, mucus, is what your body produces to flush out toxins. Over-the-counter medications (anti-histamines) dry up congestion but prohibit the necessary house cleaning. They also dry mucous membranes, like your vocal folds, which will cause you to lose your voice. So, reach for the decongestants as an absolute last resort. However, it is better to experiment with medications at rehearsals, rather then waiting until gig day. You should always know the effect something will have on your voice before you use it under the spotlights.
If you have time, instead of squashing the symptoms, help speed up the cleanse. Flood yourself with water and real juices to thin the congestion, lubricate your folds and flush your body. The juice should be freshly squeezed in order to get the most benefit. The best types during a cold are Orange (vitamin C), Celery (retains fluids), Cucumber & Cranberry (cleans acid deposits) and Carrot (vitamin A). If you’re not into juices, take supplements. The water-based vitamins like C and B complex are the first to be depleted when you’re fighting a cold. Unfortunately, a Mountain-Dew slushy has no vitamins, but does give a great brain freeze.
An important benefit of hydrating is that it may keep a cold from reaching your lungs. Throat clearing and coughing, which normally accompanies a cold, is very irritating to the vocal folds. The delicate membranes in and around the larynx become swollen and rigid, which is why your voice gets so deep and restricted. Inhaling steam will help loosen congestion in the lungs as well as soothe the vocal folds. Be careful when inhaling steam, you can burn your lips and nasal passages. Gargling with warm salt water will also help draw phlegm away from your larynx. (If the salt is collecting at the bottom of the glass, you’ve put in too much.) This is a good routine to get into daily, to clean and increase circulation of the mouth and throat. Teas, honey, or any other coating therapy may soothe soar muscles but will not heal the vocal folds. To reduce the swelling and get singing again, you’ve got to vocalize (warm up).
Low volume, barely audible, humming is a great way to start. Let your larynx choose the pitches. It’s better to stay with one single note (whichever is most comfortable) than to push or force the range. Allow plenty of time for your voice to loosen. Rushing the warm-up when you have a cold will greatly reduce the longevity of your voice and make conditions worse the next day. I once did a ten hour warm-up for a forty minute set. Refer to the warm up routine in lesson three, but remember, it’s not what you’re singing to warm up, it’s how.
Sleep as much as you can during the days leading up to your performance, even if that means skipping rehearsals. But, on gig day, don’t hibernate. Get up, take a long hot shower and do some light stretching and exercising to get your blood circulating. Mentally prepare for the long day ahead. Yes, it would be much easier to numb yourself with a bottle of Jack, but your condition the next morning will be twice as bad. The bottom line is, if you want a career as a performer, you’re going to have to learn to sing with a cold. Might as well start now.
Every car comes with an owner’s manual which instructs you to pull over immediately if the oil light on the dash illuminates. A better idea, if you’re in the habit of waiting until the trouble light comes on before taking care of your engine, would be to put a “for sale” sign on the vehicle. Allowing a car to run without enough lubrication is a sure recipe for trouble down the road. The same is true for singers who don’t keep themselves hydrated. Without adequate protection, the activity of singing causes the membranes in the larynx to swell. The problem is friction. The body has a natural solution, however, if we would only follow the owner’s manual for our bodies.
Keeping yourself hydrated is an all-day affair. Often, we wait until we’re thirsty to reach for a drink. This is too late for singers — especially once you’re on stage. It takes at least twenty minutes, on an empty stomach, for water to cycle around your system and show up at the membranes where it’s needed. Other beverages take longer because they must be digested. This means drinks on stage don’t take effect until after the set. So why does it feel like a quick swig of something between songs offers immediate relief? Two reasons: The first is that there are receptors in the throat which signal the brain that fluids are on the way. The second is the physical action of swallowing.
Contrary to belief, nothing we swallow touches the vocal folds. All of the potions singers consume in an effort to wet their whistle are channeled away from the larynx by the epiglottis and sent down the esophagus. It’s just as well. Like the eye, the larynx should be awash in saline, not tea or honey. Even if your drink seeps down to the vocal folds, the air stream created to sing promptly blow-dries the area. If you are driving your voice hard, or are nervous, the muscles in the throat tighten. The tension closes the saliva ducts designated for the larynx. Like blinking, swallowing changes the muscles’ position for a second and allows the ducts to open and relubricate — that’s if you are hydrated in the first place.
Two thirds of your body weight is water. It would make sense, then, to replace what’s lost with the same. A general rule is to consume 1Ú2 an ounce of water for every pound of body weight per day. The water you eat counts, so if you’re not fond of drinking the stuff, load up on high-water content foods like raw fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, beer, coffee and sodas don’t count. Even though each contains mostly water, their ingredients trigger the body to flush itself, leaving you with less water than before. Certain foods will also drain your internal water supply. Since digestion is the number one priority of the body, when we fill up on low-water foods like breads, crackers, chips, cheese and prepared meats and potatoes, the throat and larynx are robbed of hydration to make up the deficit. Basically, if you have to have something to drink with a meal, the foods you are eating are too concentrated. A good routine would be to hydrate well before a meal so you won’t feel the need to dilute your digestive process. I know this goes against the ever-so-common practice of eating and drinking at the same time, but that tradition was not put in place so we would sing better.
Athletes hydrate well before a game so their muscles don’t cramp; singers should do the same. Maintaining a lubricated larynx means you’ll be able to swallow during a song without sucking on a water bottle. Remember, rehearsals are no easier on your instrument than gigs, so get into the habit of staying hydrated. If your budget is tight, there’s nothing wrong with tap water. It’s a good idea to filter it, though, to remove the chlorine. It’s best to drink water at room temperature to avoid tensing throat muscles. No matter what style music you sing, you will notice a significant improvement in your vocal longevity once you get yourself up to specs. A good measure of a proper water level is clear urine. Since there is no light on our bodies to warn us when we’re running low, let the following statement be your mantra, “Don’t wait — to hydrate”
David Bowie has a fast one. Mary J. Blige has a slow, sultry, one. Maynard James Keenan doesn’t have a trace of one. Singing with vibrato is a matter of taste. Having a choice is a matter of control. For most singers, the subtle, rhythmical movement of vibrato feels more like fate. When you want vibrato, it hides on you; don’t think about it, and it shimmers on the end of a note. Vibrato brings vitality to a voice. Sound without variation is boring. Compare a refrigerator to a fly buzzing around. The steady hum of the compressor quickly becomes background noise while the bug gets harder to ignore. With the exception of rappers and singers like Beck who don’t sustain notes, those without vibrato tend to rely on overdrive to create excitement. This often leads to blow outs. The more vocal colors available on your pallet, like vibrato, breathy, nasal and gritty, the easier it will be to paint an interesting portrait of a song without killing yourself.
The mechanics of vibrato are simple and reflexive, which is what makes it so elusive. Picture the fret hand of a guitarist sustaining a note. The finger movement alters the length of the string creating a slight waver in pitch. Things are just a little more complex with the voice. Like a stringed instrument, the tension of the vocal folds is varied rhythmically, creating movement in pitch. Along with this tension change, though, is a variation in the thickness of the vocal fold. The combined movements of pitch, volume and tone are what set vibrato apart from tremolo (change in volume only) and wobble (change in pitch only).
Tension squashes vibrato. Not just the obvious neck bulging stuff, but subtle everyday stiffness can neutralize it as well. Like the freedom required to wiggle your finger when sustaining a note on guitar, vocal vibrato requires muscle independence. Backing off the air pressure is the first step to releasing your voice. Let the ability to produce vibrato be your guide. Lay down flat on your back and place your hand on your belly button. Breath so that your hand rises and falls. Now sing a comfortable note and look for the presence of vibrato. If the pitch is stiff notice what your abs are doing. Are they contracting to drive the note? Check the behavior on various pitches. If you push too much from your stomach, the muscles surrounding the larynx will brace and vibrato will be lost. Reduce the volume and try again. The goal is to reduce the air pressure to the point where flexibility is found. Don’t be alarmed if this only happens at very low volumes. With practice, you’ll be able to increase the volume without loading the neck with pressure. Strike the proper balance during a song and vibrato will blossom. That’s why it tends to come in at the ends of notes; once we feel safely on pitch, we ease off the pressure a bit.
Another check for vibrato-eating throat tension is to rotate your head in a small circle when singing. Pretend you are tracing the outline of a quarter with your nose. Does the rotation stop when you begin to sing? Is it stiffer on high notes? Again, reduce the volume until you find the correct air pressure. Neck tension is not a requirement of singing loud or high. We often see singers so locked up in the neck that they literally have to shake their heads or jaws in order to create vibrato. In the same way, a guitar player who needs to shake the guitar to move a note must be applying a death grip on that fretboard. There’s nothing wrong with using force to make a strong statement. Too often, though, the statement it makes is that we are overcompensating to mask weakness. Be brave and do the dirty work in private. Use vibrato as your guide and discover the power within.