Vocal Health, Part III: Singing While Sick
There’s nothing like being knee-deep in rehearsals for an upcoming show and waking up one morning with a sore throat. Or a drippy nose. Or that feeling where you’re so tired you can barely summon the energy to get out of bed.
Even just a hint of sickness can send any singer into crisis mode. So how do we deal with it?
Prevention: The First Step
Well, “dealing” with sickness starts with good prevention. During the colder months, there are germs EVERYWHERE and it is realllllly easy to catch something if you’re not taking care of yourself.
If you start exhibiting symptoms, the earlier you deal with them, the better. Everyone has their regimen of things they do when they feel a virus coming on. If your symptoms become full-blown, there are a myriad of drugs and natural remedies out there to help relieve them. Figure out what works for you, seeking advice from a health professional, if necessary. The important thing is to stay on top of whatever remedy helps you – don’t get lazy!
So, What About Singing?
In a perfect world, singing while sick wouldn’t be a thing. Even in our imperfect world, you should avoid singing while sick if you possibly can. Alas, however, sometimes singers find themselves in a tough situation, and it can be hard to know what to do. There are no hard and fast rules for singing while sick. Everyone’s body is different, every virus is different, and sickness can be unpredictable.
DISCLAIMER: Before I go any further, the contents of this post are GUIDELINES ONLY. What I am about to say is based on my knowledge of vocal health/physiology and on my personal experience, but I am not an ENT or laryngologist. I cannot see your vocal folds and thus cannot and do not prescribe any specific course of action for your particular situation. Singing while sick can be a very risky business, and it’s imperative that you make the decision to do it under the guidance of someone who knows your voice well, and/or someone who can give you a proper diagnosis, if necessary. If you are unsure what to do, consult your teacher/coach, an ENT, or other qualified voice professional.
What Kind of Sickness Is It?
Virtually all voice professionals would agree that you definitely should NOT sing if:
1. You have any malady that directly affects your throat or lower respiratory system (sore throat, swollen glands, strep throat, laryngitis, bronchitis, mono, or anything that manifests as an unpleasant, hacking cough).
2. You have a stomach virus. Vomit really wreaks havoc on your folds.
3. You have anything else that severely inhibits the amount or quality of sound you normally put out.
If your sickness is basically a head cold (sinus congestion, runny nose, etc.), it MAY be okay to sing IF there is nothing wrong with your throat, your lungs, or your tummy. I’m not saying that singing with a head cold is a walk in the park, or that your body and voice won’t feel incredibly fatigued after. But my point is that it could still be SAFE to sing – even if it’s not COMFORTABLE.
Other Things to Consider
When you get sick, one register – either chest or head – often gets attacked, while the other may still function well enough to be used. So, consider the kind of rep are you slated to sing. Difficult music? High stuff? Low stuff? Solo? Choral? Consider the tessitura (i.e., the general vocal range) of your music, and figure out if the right vocal things are working properly to sing it.
If your singing commitment is still a few days away, consider the trajectory your virus might take between now and then. If you’ve only got sinus congestion now but tend to end up with a yucky cough after a few days, it may be better to bow out if you can.
If You Choose to Sing While Sick, Remember:
1. Your sick voice is not going to sound or feel like your healthy voice. Don’t beat yourself up for sounding “less than your best.” Instead, just sing with the best technique you can, and go by feeling, not by sound.
2. Don’t overdo it. Your sick voice will not have the stamina that your healthy voice has, period. If you sing too much or too heavily when you are sick, you will pay for it for it, sometimes for days afterward. So be very, very careful.
3. The stronger your technique, the better your voice will hold up under sickness. This is why we practice: so that when conditions are less than optimal, we can still sing healthily and beautifully. I promise you that if you continue to work hard at your technique under the guidance of a good teacher, you will reach that point someday.
Again, if you are unsure about what to do, talk to your teacher or coach. They know your voice and will be able to give you an informed recommendation and advice on how to proceed.
So, stay healthy, and keep practicing!