We’ve all been there
At one time or another, most singers have felt the panic of a sore throat on the eve of an important recital, or been struck by fear as our nostrils block up upon the morn of a big gig. These terrifying situations often arrive when they are least welcome, and are seemingly exacerbated by our anxiety and frenzy. It is so tempting to Supermarket-Sweep the shelves of the nearest pharmacy, and it’s even more tempting to ask for advice on social media.
Many of us have put our knackered voices in the apparently healing hands of herbal teas, celebrity endorsed lozenges and medical throat sprays. Instead of delving into each individual active ingredient’s claim to fame or biased research data, let’s ask the questions: Are the symptoms psychosomatic? Are the cures placebo? And, are there other ways to maintain the health, reliability and confidence of our singing selves?
As soon as singers feel a tickle in their throat or a tingle in their nose, they become hyper alert and become convinced that this regular dose of winter germs is on a fast track to debilitate them and sabotage their voices. We should remember that most healthy adults have an immune system strong enough to defend ourselves against such attacks. But despite this common sense, singers wave the white flag and go down with their ship without hesitation.
Although it’s wretched feeling ill, there are often benefits. I’ve witnessed singers enter audition rooms and instantly excuse their imminent performance on their cough or cold, but go on to give a decent performance. The desired result is that the audition panel think “Wow, if she’s this good now imagine how good she’ll be when she’s well.” I’ve witnessed other singers pace backstage telling everyone who will listen about their ailments, purely to get the soothing reactions of “You’ll be amazing, don’t worry.” Gratification like this instantly quells inner anxiety. Without this, you don’t feel good enough, or recognised enough.
If this sounds like you, the only true remedy to quieten your inner fearful monologue is regular, mindful practice and experience. When you perform your warm ups, really understand why you are doing what you are doing. Know what to look out for, know what that crack in your voice signifies, and know how to encourage your voice to work in the most efficient way possible. Then, get out there.
Perform as much as you can – from pub open mics to local am-dram, from busking to choral choirs. They say that you only start learning how to drive once you’ve passed your test. Every space will have a different acoustic, every PA will have different monitoring, every drummer will have a different feel. Only by performing with a cold will you know your limits, only by attending an audition will you know how nerves manifest, only by working a crowd will you respect the holistic nature of stage craft. You only feel so precious about your voice because it is your baby and you have yet to cut the strings. You’re not yet used to baring your inner most vulnerable self to the harsh critical world.
Do they really work?
Potions and pills also have the strength to take responsibility for your voice. Sure, you went out last night and shouted over a live band, but it’s nothing a VocalZone can’t solve. And yeah, maybe you should lower the key of that song, but if you drink a Throat Coat tea it’ll be fine, right? We revere these concoctions with blind faith that they will mend and heal our voices – so we don’t have to. Rather than looking for the root cause of our vocal trouble, we would rather remain loyal to our ‘microwave culture’ tactic: we want it now and we want it hot. Practicing sirens and semi-occluded vocal tract exercises week in week out, and maintaining cellular hydration is just too much hassle, it’s boring. Singing lessons are expensive and evenings spent smoking in beer gardens are too important. Besides, Entertainer’s Secret and Manuka honey are sexy and oh-so consumable.
Let’s not deny that a warm cup of syrupy tea can make you feel nicer – of course it does. If you think your singing will suffer if you eat a cheese sandwich for lunch, or you don’t perform as well without wearing your woolly scarf, who am I to argue. But I urge you to be aware of how much space these rituals are taking up, mentally and physically speaking. Have you ever stopped to think about potential side effects? Your friend may swear by chowing down on raw garlic or ginger, but it may give you acid reflux. You may love the sensation of menthol but find your throat is dry the following morning. Rarely do remedies – herbal or medicated – come without a trade-off. Don’t forget that your vocal folds are totally untouched by what you put in your mouth. You may stimulate a small pumping of saliva over your folds but that’s it. Sensations of the throat do very little to affect the quality of your voice. Do your research and monitor your voice. Rather than defend your beliefs, perhaps it’s time to challenge them.
Keep it simple
We all know that voice training is bland and dry, but if you take your singing career seriously, it is totally necessary. Don’t trust anyone who says you can learn vocal technique at the drop of a hat, and don’t assume that great singers are born with their talents. Regardless of the skill or instrument, work is required. We are talking about building muscle memory, often unlearning ‘bad’ techniques before any useful ones can be formed. It can take months to break or form a habit. Moreover, have you heard of the 10,000 hours rule? According to a handful of intellects it can take over a decade of substantial daily practice to become an ‘expert’. Are you prepared to take the responsibility back from the potions and pills? Do you want to be in control of your progress?
Once you have put the work in, a balanced diet, plenty of water, topical steam application and gentle sirens are enough to get you stage-ready. With all the crazy remedies out there, it’s hard to believe it’s that simple. If you do feel under the weather trust your body to heal itself. It will if you give it half a chance. My advice for singers who are in the throes of panic as outlined in the first paragraph: drink water, inhale steam, sleep, and shut the fudge up! Your voice will be there ready and waiting to give you a massive high 5.