Emergency Moments: Care of the Voice

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I had a question by email the other day that my correspondent thought 'might make an (urgent) blog post' - as she recognised it is unlikely just to be her and her friends dealing with it.

Competition in 10 days time...problem with voices - people have sore throats from the changing weather, people have tired voices...even breathing was a problem.

How do we get around it?

I suspect that we should have put things in place months ago to avoid this 'stamina' issue, but it is very common.

Should we rest our voices? Can we do effective practice without singing?!

So I think she might be right there. This sounds a very normal problem to be facing.

There are two parts to this - prevention, and management should prevention fail - and each of those operates in two dimensions - general health and vocal stamina.

The issues of seasonal colds are to a large extent out of our control. The combination of a change of weather and the breeding ground for germs that is the start of term conspire to make bugs much more available to catch in early autumn than they have been all summer. Especially if you sing in multiple ensembles - which is part of my correspondent's challenge.

But still there are things we can do to minimise our risks. The usual - eat properly, get enough sleep, keep active, keep hydrated - give your immune system the best chance to fight things off. Also, washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your own face will help keep the germs you pick up around and about out of your system.

If these don't work, and a lurgy strikes, then the advice is the same, really, except that you'd replace 'active' with 'rested' - give your body the best chance to fight it off.

Resting in this case includes the voice. Singing through a poorly larynx will keep it poorly for longer. Got a pile of mucus stopping your vocal folds vibrating? It's there to protect them, so leave it there rather than coughing it off. Voice gives out when you try to sing? That's your voice's way of telling you it needs rest.

So that's the general health end of it. But what if the problem is simply vocal weariness from over-singing in the build-up to the big event? Extra rehearsals, longer rehearsals, routine performances all conspiring to leave the voice tired. Well, if that's where you find yourself, again all you can do is give yourself the best chance to recover. Doing more of what has worn you out is not going to help.

So, this will involve (you guessed it) getting plenty of sleep and keeping well-nourished and hydrated. You will probably feel that you want to keep your focus on the event, though - after all this increasing intensity of preparation, simply taking time out may feel strange and worrying. But you can keep your focus without wearing the voice and body out.

The two specific activities I would recommend in this case are:

  • Relaxation/deep-breathing exercises. Physically gentle, mentally calming, promoting clarity of thought and emotional stability. These will help your recovery and will help get in you in a state of overall well-being for your big occasion
  • Mental rehearsal. This is a good exercise at the best of times. We should all do more of it. When your voice needs rest, this is how you strengthen the mental and emotional framework that will support your recovering voice on the big day

So the final bit remaining, which is too late for this event, but useful for future reference: how do you avoid running yourself down like this in the first place?

Key to this, I suspect, is seeing it coming. Build up a calendar of activities over the next few months, and you will see the places where you get sudden spikes of extra events. If these come after a lull (say, a contest season coming hard on the heels of a summer holiday), this is where you are most likely to have stamina issues.

Can you jigger with the schedule at all? Say, moving some of your quartet rehearsals back into the holiday so that (a) you're in good vocal form when your chorus meets again, and (b) to reduce the commitment load at the real pinch point? Can you at least develop a private practice regime so that your body is used to a fair level of intensive work and so is fit and ready for the busy time?

You may also want to look at your rehearsal activities. Are you spending too much time singing, and not enough listening/thinking? Any musician who has sustained an injury through over-practise needs to address this one. Duetting rests the voice while exercising the ears, and we've already mentioned mental rehearsal. Also avoid doing too many run-throughs - you don't train for a marathon by running marathons after all.

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