Singing with a Cold

I once went to a vocal recital at which the singer — a fairly big name in classical singing — apologized to her audience that she was fighting a bad cold and bronchitis.  She still managed to sing a full program, sipping tea between pieces. Perhaps her top notes were not spinning as they should, and she sounded a bit muffled in general, but, she was sick! And she sang anyway! Her effort alone was admirable.

“How sick do I have to be to not sing?” If you want to attempt singing with a cold, ask yourself the following questions: How experienced are you? What kind of obligation are you under? How exhausted are you? Have you been overusing your voice recently? Are you just a little bit sick, or are you coughing up gunk? There are many factors to consider in deciding whether to go on while under the weather.

Popular British singer Adele recently made news for cancelling the rest of her year of concerts due to vocal surgery. I have not learned of the specific reason for her vocal troubles, but I wonder if it isn’t just general overuse. And who can blame her? She has become a superstar, and she is most likely under the gun to sing, sing, sing all the time. It is incredibly difficult to say “no,” or even “wait!” when you are riding the waves of stardom and obligation.

It happens to singers all the time. A Broadway singer may sing eight shows a week. An opera singer may sing heavy repertoire in a house in which she feels the need to push just to be heard. A pop singer may perform in a football stadium with a faulty sound system. We push, we scream, and we strain, despite our better judgement and our technical knowledge. And eventually, our fragile little chords just snap.

Singers: you have two little chords. That’s it. Two fleshly membranes that are responsible for all that sound. They can take a lot. You can build them to extremes and sound like a million bucks. But you need to be vigilant. Listen to your body.

As soon as you start to feel that tickle in the back of your throat, get some rest. Take vitamin C in the form of fresh citrus fruits, drink tea, and try zinc to knock out the cold before it takes hold.

Keep yourself “humidified” during the cold, dry winter months. Sleeping next to a humidifier is very healthy, not to mention pleasant. Mucus protects against germs and viruses, so if you’re all dried out, you’re likely to get sicker faster.

If your cold gets past you and progresses to a full-fledged respiratory infection and cough, you’re going to have to ride it out. With a cold, your vocal chords swell (which is why our voices drop when we are sick.) Your vocal range will be affected. If you are coughing, you will not have control over your breath, making singing next to impossible.

As you go through the stages of your cold, avoid taking any antibiotics unless you have an actual bacterial infection. They will do nothing for a simple cold virus and will actually weaken your immune system. Keep yourself humidified, hydrated, and nourished.

Many over-the-counter medications are fine for dealing with the nasty symptoms of a cold; most of them work simply to alleviate the annoyance. There is one natural remedy, though, that I would like to recommend for a cough, especially a dry, hacking cough (usually the kind that follows the gunky cough): marshmallow root. You can find it at an organic market/store. It looks like an herb and smells a little like horseradish. You can buy a tiny bag of the stuff and boil a teaspoon’s worth for tea. Drink a few doses a day. Marshmallow root has incredible anti-inflammatory properties and has been the only treatment that has worked for me against a post-viral cough. It’s inexpensive, it’s natural, and it doesn’t even taste bad.

Well, I don’t think I’ve given you a specific answer on whether you should sing sick or not. The best advice is: use your judgement. And if you can’t decide, ask your voice teacher or doctor.

Here’s to Good Health and Healthy Singing!

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