My first audition for the Met was such a failure.
I originally had a time slot for 3pm and the night before I was feeling under the weather so I planned to sleep hard. I got a last-minute call with my rescheduled audition time of 10am—yikes! I felt like I couldn’t say no.
The audition came and I totally botched it. Seriously, some of the worst sounds ever. It was a good thing only Peter Gelb, James Levine, and Jonathan Friend were in the room—HA! only three of the most influential people in opera! I should have rescheduled. It was just way too important to make a bad impression. Basically, I was sick and I sucked.
We all know what it feels like. The runny nose. The painful swallow. The slight fever. The engulfing fatigue. The Mud BUTT. Sickness is a very real problem that singers have to deal with, more so than any other musician. Our bodies are literally our instruments, and a bad sickness can actually prevent us from taking the stage and doing our job in some cases.
Over time, singers sort of become their own doctors: they have a heightened sense of their own physical state from living with such a delicate instrument inside themselves.
So what can a singer do to prevent the dreadful sickness and deal with it when it occurs?
Let’s begin with breaking down your three major resonating cavities. You have the nasal, pharyngeal, and the oral. You use all three of these to create resonance and send your sound out. So, if one of them takes a leave of absence, it’s a heck of a lot harder: when one of them is hard to access, it will automatically impact your sound.
For instance, when you catch a cold and or get a sinus infection, your nasal resonator fills with gunk and you can’t sing as well.
Even something like food poisoning can affect your voice because as you throw up, stomach acid glosses over your cords and can make you hoarse, potentially damaging them.
What happens to the voice? The actual tone quality is altered: there is a general raspiness and even certain notes (usually high ones) can’t phonate or they crack.
Doc Op Singer
Most singers have an entire pharmacy underneath their bathroom sink or in a travel case, and I am no exception!
Here are the remedies that work for me when the sickness hits hard:
Nasal illness: use a nasal decongestant. I trust Mucinex 1200 mg (though, when I’m on Mucinex, I notice that my singing voice is higher and lighter, so be aware).
A nasal spray can eliminate mucus by basically punching a hole through all the gunk and drying you out. But don’t use too much, because it’s only a temporary fix and the problem will eventually come back. If it gets worse, and you start blowing out green and it leads to a sinus infection, talk to a doctor.
Steaming is also helpful. I love a good steam room. Bring a towel because everything comes out! If don’t have a spa, you can always take a hot shower or use a portable steam inhaler. If you buy the steamer, try it out at least a few days before a performance to figure out how much it helps and if it does, steam twice the day of a performance.
Sore Throat: gargle salt water and drink hot liquids. I use Ricola, Strepsils, or Chloraseptic spray and lozenges if there is pain. Only go to antibiotics when it turns into a throat infection. Also, be sure to avoid dairy. Dairy to a sore throat or sinus infection normally makes more mucus, which compounds the problem of being sick.
Flu: stay home. Don’t go to work, because you may spread your sickness to your colleagues. Most importantly: wash your hands ten times a day, pound liquids and REST!
Food poisoning: the upside is, it’s quick but deadly. It typically only lasts for 1-2 days and if you can stand, you can sing through it. I’ve performed with food poisoning and I took some Immodium so I wouldn’t run to the bathroom every five minutes.
Prevention is the key to staying healthy and avoiding sickness, so you’re not always relying on medicinal interventions. You do this by creating a self-awareness of your body. For instance, if you wake up with a little nasal congestion, play it safe right away and boost your immune system and hydrate. Or else sickness can catch you like a fish on a hook!
You gotta wiggle off that hook with some of the following precautions:
- Drink ton of water and hot tea (my fav is Lemon Echinacea Throat coat Tea by Traditional Medicinals)
- Eat healthy (veggies, legumes, fruits)
- Work out (strength and cardio)
- Vitamins (Wellness Formula, Zinc, Echinacea)
- Suck on Strepsils
- Get lots of sleep, especially the night before a performance. There should be nothing that gets you up early the day of a show (unless you have kids). My goal on show days is noon. Sleep prevents sickness and builds your immune system. Singing takes a lot of physical energy so you need that recuperation at night. You need to be the best version of yourself around 8-9pm so waking up around 7am isn’t realistic.
- Avoid the cold. Stay inside where it’s warm or make sure to wear a scarf when you face a blistering wind. Breathe into the scarf to protect your voice. When the cold air passes your delicate cords, they can be exposed to that harshness. Likewise, avoid ice water or cold drinks.
What If I Have To Cancel A Show?
The first thing to do on the day of a show is take your morning slowly. Wake up your body and start talking to get your voice going. Remove all excess phlegm with a hot shower or steam, then start with a lip trill or humming. If your voice cracks in the middle, that’s a bad sign. But keep going. After an hour or two of just some resting, do a secondary warm-up of a few basic vocalises. If your voice is hoarse or has a gravel-like tone, it’s time to consider cancellation.
A theatre needs to know as soon as possible in order to have time to find a replacement. So tell them after you’ve tried the second warm-up session, NO LATER!
The only show I’ve ever cancelled (knock on wood) was in Glyndebourne, which is basically a giant field of grass and sheep. Allergies followed, of course, and on a performance day, I literally sneezed myself hoarse. I could hear that hoarseness in my singing. My patter was fine, but my voice was on the edge during the long legato lines. I knew that if I pushed pressurized air over my cords I could potentially hurt myself. It’s a huge dilemma to create for a company when a singer cancels, but it’s not as important as their vocal health.
But I Have An Audition!
If the audition is career-changing like for Houston, San Francisco, or Chicago, don’t sing sick.
Also, don’t accept an audition at 10:00am if you aren’t going to do your best. If the time slot will directly affect your performance due to your current state of health, say no.
If you’re friendly with the audition panel, feel free to make a short announcement that you’re under the weather. Just don’t use it as an insurance policy for a bad audition, if you know what I mean. In other circumstances, I wouldn’t make any announcements before singing sick.
Just know that it’s okay to cancel an audition. No one wants to hear you struggle through your aria. So save yourself for a better time and only sing if it’s gonna be great. The panel won’t be disappointed, so just take care of your body and wait until the next opportunity.
Ask yourself, are the circumstances I am currently in going to help or hurt my ability to sing my best?
Tips For Singing Through Sickness
Did you know that opera singers don’t get paid if they don’t sing?
It definitely makes it hard to give up a fee because of illness, so a lot of people sing sick to still get paid. I’ve sung a number of performances when I’ve been under the weather, so I’ve found a way to make it work and hit the stage.
DISCLAIMER: don’t sing if there is a possibility you may permanently damage your cords. Your voice is just like any other muscle that you have to exercise and let recover. Like when you work out your shoulders, and your right shoulder hurts. Don’t push through the pain. Rest your shoulder until it’s fully healed. The voice works the same way.
What do I do when I have to sing sick? I take every possible short cut.
If I have to speak in public like for a master class, I request a microphone. For a recital, I may shorten a set or two. I take out the most difficult piece/s instead of cancelling the entire recital.
For opera, I leave out the high notes of cadenzas, and any other optional high notes in the score. Any time I sing a big ensemble or chorus scene, I cheat a little by not singing out during those moments. My vocal line is doubled, so there’s no need, and I generally alert my colleagues who sing those lines that I may not use my full voice.
A Z-Pack helps immensely when you’re desperate. Consult with your doctor!
Steroids? I know some people that use these without hesitation, and others that refuse. What I do know is that they make you able to sing when normally you wouldn’t be able to by numbing the cords. This numbing effect is great to get through a show but dangerous because you can’t feel if you are pushing your voice too hard. I would only consider taking steroids in extreme conditions. For instance, it’s the last show of a run and you have the next two weeks off.
Healthy Choice, Healthy Voice
At the end of the day, keeping yourself heathy requires just as much diligence and practice as singing your best everyday. You need a healthy routine of healthy habits, which in turn keep you at your physical prime. Your body gives back to you whatever you give to it. It’s okay to stray from the path now and again, but for the most part you should be following the previously mentioned steps to keep yourself healthy.
Overall, take care of your body, boost that immune system, live an active lifestyle, and rest, rest, REST to sing your best, best BEST!
What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in with a comment below.