Q. I have the strangest vocal issue. It actually seems to have nothing to do with my vocal cords and more to do with pressure in my nose/sinuses; however, the majority of the time it blocks breathing in my nose and my voice ends up very forced sounding. It also causes some strain, so as you can imagine, I don’t sing much anymore. This has been going on for months. My ENT told me my turbinates are swollen and that it’s an allergy issue; however, my allergies have never affected me this way in my life (I also get crushing sinus headaches and dizziness). If I go for a while without singing, the swelling seems to go down, but just the act of warming up gently (and I don’t mean singing a song) seems to cause my nose to tighten and swell. Every once in a while my airway opens up and I can sing fairly well and have the time of my life, but a day or two later, I’m right back to where I was for weeks. Do you know any singers who have this problem? I’ve tried nasal steroids, the netti pot, colloidal silver, antihistamines, sudafed, etc. Nothing seems to work. What do I have to do to fix this because it’s killing me? Ever heard of turbinate reduction surgery? Is this helpful or risky to singers? Thanks for any help you can give.
A. Yes I understand exactly what you’re describing because I wrestled with that situation for years – the headaches, the straining, etc. Basically, you are triggering the swelling up in your sinus cavity by vibration and air pressure. It means you are channeling too much of the sound up there (because it’s good at compressing air). A tense jaw is most likely to blame.
It’s not your turbinates’ fault but I’ve worked with singers who have had the reduction surgery and are thrilled with the results. I can’t suggest either way for you on that subject. What I do suggest is that you alter your warm up routine. I suspect your gentle warm up is still sending everything up into the nasal cavity.
Place your middle finger right down the center of your tongue (like a doctor with a depressor) and vocalize a very low volume AH. Just slide the vowel up a fifth from a comfortable pitch. Your entire focus is to not trigger any nasal vibration. You can also pinch off your nose with your free hand. The goal is to feel no buzz whatsoever up in the mask area.
There are plenty more exercises but that should get you started. If you’re interested in working more on this with me we can discuss Skype lessons. But for now a simple alteration of behavior should provide some relief.
Q. First of all, thanks for all your help in the past. Here’s my question: Although I rarely get sick, I’ve recently got a nasty cold that has gotten better over the past week, but now, I’ve still got a bit of a cough with chest congestion. So, is it better for me to avoid coughing as best as I can, or should I be coughing a lot to help bring up the bad stuff? I’ve got a big show in 6 days, so I want to do what’s best for the voice. (and, yes, I’m doing lots of light vocalizing)
A. If your coughing is working up phlegm then allow it. As soon as you notice nothing is being dislodged look to avoid coughing. The best way to do this is with very low volume hums and EE vowel slides. Vocalize lightly from now until the show.
Q. I’m writing to you from Australia. I stumbled on your page one day and was impressed by your wisdom and kindness. I know you are probably busy, but I am lost and feeling really helpless and worried. I hope you will be able to help me. I just did not know who to turn too. In August this year, I had a really bad cold; I had a real bad cough too. I lost my voice and my ears were really blocked. Obviously, after awhile I got better. However, since then I have had a very raspy voice. My voice is so raspy my mother thinks I’m an alcoholic. I do go out on Saturdays to clubs and I find my voice is considerably worse on Sundays. I am a singer and I have been for a long time and have never had such problems with my voice. I have been to an ETN doctor and he said my tonsils were pretty bad, but offered no more advice. He said I would be fine. My family doctor said that I don’t have heartburn or any problems with reflux. You see, when I sing I can hit all those low notes perfectly and even some high ones. The problem lies in my mid range and getting to those notes. I feel like my pitch and tone have gone. What have I done? I work 9-5 in retail and I talk to customers all day. I know I am probably stressing out my voice. Have I done permanent damage? I hope not I need to cut a record in the next 2 months. I love to sing. Without my voice I just don’t know what I would do. I eat well. I drink plenty of water. I do not smoke. I sometimes drink some alcohol, but not much. I don’t take drugs. I sometimes feel like I need a Vicks Inhaler though.
A. I recommend getting a second opinion from an ENT who will view your folds through a laryngoscope. You may have a hemmoraged blood vessel from back when you were coughing. If not, you are stressing your voice when speaking and not warming up enough or vocalizing. Use the warm up routine outlined on my free lesson page (KISS). I also recommend you start a daily habit of vocalizing. It’s not enough to just sing songs. Your voice will rebound with a little therapy.
Q. I have your video and it has helped me build and maintain a voice I love and earn good money with in a large seven piece rock band. It’s something I love more than almost anything in my life and can’t imagine not being able to sing, which I’m sure you understand. Never had ANY problems as long as I followed your advice of warm up/cool down, etc, for over six years now. I know you get a lot of questions about vocal damage and I tried to find a situation that matched mine in your Q & A section so I didn’t have to bother you but I didn’t see one with my same issue. I will be as brief as possible. I had a sore throat I was fighting off for three days before a gig. I sang the gig anyway because it had been booked for a year and I couldn’t cancel. I started to lose my voice part way through the gig but had to push through to finish. The next day I had no voice. It’s now been three days, no sore throat, but still no voice unless I push really hard and certainly no form of singing voice whatsoever. I’ve hydrated, drank ginger tea, rested, tried every health food store remedy to no avail. You say to softly vocalize but not sing, to try to get the vocal folds to gently work back in, but I can’t get ANY tone softly, just an airy rasp. You say whispering makes it worse but it appears that’s all I can do unless I strain and push hard, then all I get is kind of a barking voice like a seal. I work during the week so I have had to whisper quite a bit during the last three days even though I’m not supposed to, but that still feels less damaging than barking. I’m so scared I’ve killed my voice for good and of course am stressed and very depressed. This is my busiest season, I have a Fri/Sat gig in two days and again next weekend, both have been booked for over a year. Cancelling makes a black mark on the band’s reputation that I’ve carefully built for six years, not to mention four ruined events and ticked off clients that were expecting us, plus six pissed off band mates and a sound guy who will be out $2000 each if we cancel. I know you can’t give me the miracle cure, but if I could just get some advice so I don’t have to give up my only passion in life, I would be forever grateful.
A. Here’s the deal. You’ve irritated your folds and they are swollen – big time. You may also still have a virus dwelling down there. That’s the good news — it means you did not damage anything. You’ll get better. Now the bad news: your body could care less about clients or band members or bank accounts. It heals when it heals and we don’t sing well until it does. So goes the dance of the successful singer. If you’re not going to cancel then you’ve got to stop whispering and start vocalizing. I know it seems like a whisper when nothing but air comes out but it is the intention that brings about change. In other words, by not accommodating your condition you encourage the area to thin down and become flexible. By using whatever sounds are available you prolong the current condition. You can’t force change, but you certainly can encourage it. I still recommend hum’s buzz’s and low volume EE vowel slides for your situation, even if half of the notes don’t work. Stretch out your body, especially neck, shoulders, back, abs and jaw. Light exercise is good. Hydrate like crazy. Sleep is paramount. When it comes to the gig — and you didn’t hear this from me — well timed shots of Jack or some other form of liquid dynamite can open a window for you to sing a little looser. You will definitely pay for it later — so you have to make your own choices there. Some singers resort to steroid shots or pills but again, it’s temporary and causes more irritation for later. Basically you’re in for a bad month but if you use your musical smarts when on stage and alter melodies and run with the voice you’ve got instead of forcing what you normally do you’ll continue with passion in ’07. Don’t get lost in the false pressure that you’ll be letting your clients down if you don’t deliver the soaring high notes. They wouldn’t think twice about canceling you if their plans changed!
Q. I am a professional singer living in the long-winter state of Vermont. This year due to a VERY active schedule (just released a new CD) and extra long periods of colds and flu, my voice has been taxed in new ways. My 1st question is humidifiers – pro or con? Some doctors and experts say you MUST have them to fight against the dry winter heat, other say they just breed bacteria and germs and bring on more troubles that they are worth. If you are “pro”, then which is better a steam vaporizer, or a humidifier? I normally as a singer have always tried to avoid “antihistamines and decongestants” during this time of year because they just dry me out too bad. (voice feels like beef jerky, high-end and falsetto go out the window!) The last doctor I say said, “You don’t have a cold – it’s seasonal allergies to dust etc.” and put me on “Claritin” and a nasal spray “Vaccines” (sp?) The spray was soothing, but once again the Claritin (even though mild) dried me out too much again….. So I get stuck in this weird scenario like this I have this constant nasal drip…….. (That I guess is seasonal or “Allergy” based) If I treat it I get dried out. If I don’t treat it, the drip will gump up my throat and make it sore and “heavy” feeling.(and I end up losing my high-end anyway!) What should I do? What can save me? What is the best way to keep my voice supple, hydrated, lubricated, and happy?
A. The best way to keep your voice supple is to vocalize. Supple means flexible. Movement, as in subtle stretches, is what allows any part of your body to become flexible. (Think of vocalizing as yoga for the voice) Vocalizing for your condition would mean very low volume, EE vowel scales or glissando’s (siren-like sweeps of pitch) starting in whatever falsetto you have and connecting down to chest voice. The main point to remember is that the focus should be on form, not performance. It doesn’t matter how bad you sound as long as you’re not pushing to compensate for your drip.
The drip makes your folds swell, and therefore they feel heavy and require more air pressure to sing. With the additional pressure comes additional throat tension, making matters much worse. So we don’t want to feed into that cycle. It may take hours, but vocalizing with your attention on remaining loose and not pushing will thin the folds. Rest will not. The worse your symptoms, the longer you will have to vocalize. Incidentally, you can vocalize at a barely audible level all day long at work and do your voice a great service. Just think of it as stretching — which would be good to do all day as well.
To keep the voice hydrated drink two liters of water per day. Stay off junk foods — eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. I am “pro” hydrating the air and recommend a steam vaporizer in order to kill bacteria. Ideal humidity would be 60%. If on the road without a vaporizer, run a hot shower in the hotel room with the door open or place cups of water all over the heater.
It’s much better to deal with your allergies by vocalizing. The drugs simply squash the symptoms — the activity of vocalizing stimulates circulation allowing a more natural defensive strategy. Plus, you get to keep your voice! Hopefully, this is a phase you’re going through. I went through several myself. It seems these days, because I no longer fear what a cold or allergy will do to my voice, I get very few. Coincidence? I don’t think so. There is a newly posted “free lesson” on my web site, www.voicelesson.com, regarding singing with a cold. I think it would help in your situation as well.
Learn to deal with things naturally and you’ll be surprised how resilient your voice can be.
Q. I’m currently in a production of “Pippin” in Montreal Quebec. I got the lead role (Pippin) and we opened last week. I have a show tonight and a terrible thing has happened. I have been suffering from a scratchily throat all week, but this morning I woke up, and It was very scratchy, mucus would just surround my throat when I swallowed, and I found it difficult to get saliva down my throat, it’s like something is blocking it. When I sit up, it feels better. But my voice is now part hoarse, Mucus is getting in the way! I can’t sing to the level I could before. WHAT DO I Do!!!!
A. Drink two liters of water or more to help thin the mucus and flush it away. Gargling with warm salt water helps bring up mucus without constantly clearing your throat — try and avoid excess grunting. Breathing steam will also help by soothing irritated folds. Be careful when breathing steam, don’t inhale too fast. An herbal extract like Echinacea combined with Golden Seal will help the body fight infection. You can find this combination in health food stores — they come in eye-dropper bottles. I shoot an eye-dropper full down the back of the tongue about every two hours when I feel something coming on. You’ll also need to warm up for a much longer period than usual. Read my tips on singing with a cold and warming up in the free lesson section.
Q. Any tips regarding singing with asthma?
A. There are no special considerations for singing with this condition, other than taking all precautions you can to reduce what triggers your asthma and making sure your breaths are diaphragmatic. The vocal folds are very small membranes and require next to no air pressure to drive them. People usually over compensate for vocal tensions by taking too big an inhale. I would bet you are in this category. I have worked with quite a few singers with asthma and found great success by focusing on the efficiency of the breathing mechanism. There is an entire section dedicated to breathing in my book, “The Rock-N-Roll Singers Survival Manual,” which is available through my web site or at book stores everywhere.
Your practice routines should be focused on getting the most from a smaller inhale rather than competing with your condition for a bigger breath.
Q. I’m 32 and have been singing since I was about 16.I have been losing my voice after a couple songs for the past few weeks at practice,which up until now never happened.I went to my family Dr. and he said my allergies setteled into my voice box and gave me steriods and Claritine.My problem is we have a big show coming up in 2 weeks and play 3 long sets.I’m scared to death,theres a lot of people coming and I don’t know if I’ll be able to swing it. I’m going to order both your book and video early next week,but I don’t know if they will be in before the show.Any info you can give will be of great use!! I know you get hundreds of these kinds of e mails but if you could respond I’d really appreciate it.Thanks for your time.
A. Follow the routine laid out in the free lesson section called Warm-up. Drink two liters of water every day. Constantly vocalize at a very low volume all day, everyday to keep the vocal folds thin and flexible. If you don’t already, wear ear plugs when singing with the band. They will keep you from pushing – that’s why you’re losing your voice – but they take a while to get used to. The vocal folds are swollen when this happens so they are more sensitive than usual. You should be able to sing the show no problem – it’s just a matter of keeping in balance.
Q. Mark, I sing professional with a band mostly country and old rock and roll. Recently I have been battling a sinsus infection, I have a hard time talking much less singing. I am also a fitness instructor so I drink lots of water and take very good care of myself. I have never taken a vocal lesson in my life, and I am worried about my vocal chords with this sinus infection. Any recommendations? our next job is in two weeks.
A. Just like working out, you should be warming up and down your voice for each use. Singing is a muscular activity, relying on balance and co-ordination. The swelling from the infection will cause you to push harder than you should, causing more swelling and rigidity in the larynx. I recommend my video, “The Singer’s Toolbox,” for information and routines for warming up.
As a fitness instructor, I’m sure you understand the value of outside guidance. I strongly suggest to get some voice lessons so this doesn’t happen in the future. With just a little guidance, you’ll sing through sinus infections, colds and sore throats. As long as your vocal folds are not infected, which is rare, you should be able to sing. Being a fitness instructor, I am also certain that your speech habits are poor. Find some instruction, explore the subject, use your knowledge of anatomy and physical fitness and seek the most efficient vocal behavior.
Q. I am just now recovering from a moderate case of laryngitis. IE I am now able to talk normally after 1 1/2 weeks. I have a show on June 12 and hope to perform. Can you recommend any vocal exercises that can slowly get me back up to speed without damaging my voice?
A. Was your laryngitis due to illness or over singing? Does this happen often? It is important to vocalize often in a very low volume using an EE vowel with random melodies. Nothing forced or specific to engage neck muscles. If the voice skips out for a moment that’s OK, as long as you don’t push or drive to correct. The point is to regain flexibility first. Humming, making ZZZZ sounds, a motor-boat brrrrrr, and rolling the tongue while singing scales are all good if your attention is on minimal use of muscle – not hitting pitches. Gradually, as the week progresses increase the volume of your vocalise while making sure not to add any visible facial tensions. Vocalizing this way is better than resting. I have out lined these and much more information in my video, “The Singer’s Toolbox.”
Q. I am a performer all of the way from Commerce, Georgia. I have a singing group and I also sing in the choir at church. I have noticed that I have a very huge problem with my throat always being very “groggy” and I have to clear it a lot. I was wondering if I need medical attention. Do you think that it is sinuses or an abundance of mucus on my throat. After about fifteen to thirty minutes, I am ready to sing; however, I find that I can never lead the first song that the choir sings for fear of embarassment. I have to come in on the second, but preferably, third song. This is a definite problem because I just can’t sing on demand and my group is trying to get a record deal and producers are busy. Who has time to wait for me to clear my throat all of the time? Is this normal?
A. You should see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist to get a qualified observation. Ask if there are signs of reflux (digestive acids working up from stomach or post nasal drip) You also need to drink at least two liters of water per day and eat plenty of fruits and vegies. A good warm up routine should help get you ready to sing on time. Read my warm up suggestions on my web site, or use the routine on my video, “The Singer’s Toolbox.” You should not attempt to sing without warming up. Because of the mucous, you’re probable pushing harder than you should.
Q. I have read tons of things about singing thru/with a COLD… All applying to prevention/sore throats, etc.. However, Now that I have one… I realize that nothing I read of pertains to the stuffy nose syndrome part of a cold.. Which leads me to question my technique… Is it possible to sing with a stuffy nose without sounding like i have a cold? If so.. Is it possible im letting too much air to the nose..? (a problem I’ve had in the past even without a cold) … Although I try to follow a 90% mouth / 10 % nose rule of thumb, It seems tough to avoid the nasally sound of my cold any which way i try… I hear comments like “a minor cold or stuffy nose shouldnt affect singing”.. And I really need to know the facts… Perhaps I can use the cold as an opportune time to pay attention to projection out of mouth.. and avoiding letting soud into my nose? Would it be safe to use a nasal spray to clear out with? I recently had to perform in a reheasal situation with this cold .. it was slightly embarrassing and I did not feel very comfortable.. I want to be prepared for the next time i need to perform publicly and have to deal with this..
A. You’re right on the money with a lot of your observations. You should be able to sing without sounding nasal even with a cold. Now is a great time to work on that issue. Practice by letting your voice be breathy. You must be holding pressure back in your nasal cavity so the breathy sound will allow your air to bypass the nose and flood out the mouth. Then practice reducing the amount of air leaving without changing the feel.
There are two kinds of nasality Hypo and Hyper. When you put too much pressure in the nose it is hyper (the NANY sound), no air at all would be hypo (a cold or the ROCKY sound) Try to avoid nasal sprays. The after effect is twice the blockage than when you started, plus it’s very easy to become dependant on them (I was for a while). Best of all advice is to not catch colds in the first place. They are avoidable. I also noticed that once I learned to sing through them — I stopped getting them. Hope this helps.
Q. hey mark i’ve been keeping up with your free lessons and i have learned allot i was wondering if there are any special tea’s or products u know of that could possibly help any temporary vocal inconvenience or even something that could benefit the vocals. I’ve heard about many singers taking this sort of stuff and I just want hear what you think about this, you would probably know more about this than I would.
A. I review all of these remedies in my video, “The Singer’s Toolbox.” The bottom line is that they are all okay, but room temperature water still reigns supreme.