Colds and Singing

Colds and Singing


To sing or not to sing? With winter colds and flu upon us, I thought I might address this important issue. There are many factors to consider when you cancel a professional engagement as a singer. Foremost, you need to protect your long-term vocal health, while keeping your reputation and career goals intact.

Now, I must emphasize that these suggestions do not substitute for medical advice. If you ever are concerned about hoarseness (especially anything lasting more than two weeks), soreness, or any change in your voice, you should see a laryngologist who specializes in working with singers and get their opinion. In fact, the best thing to do is to see one while you are healthy. Establish a relationship so you can call on the Doctor if you are sick. You should also get a baseline scope of your larynx. That way, the Doctor can see what is normal for you and advise you better if you are having problems.

However, that being said, most of us don’t need to run to the Doctor every time we have a cold, and instances may come up when you feel like (excuse the French) crap but the show must go on.

Some of the things that you can do once you’ve got a cold are:

  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drink lots of water and try steam treatments. That will help thin out the mucus and lubricate your throat. Use a humidifier in your bedroom at night. You can also purchase a “personal steam inhaler” made by Vicks. Try a regime of one glass of water and one steam treatment every hour if you are in the middle of a cold and have to sing.
  • Many of the medications that suppress cold symptoms are drying for the throat. Avoid them if possible and use Mucinex to help thin out the phlegm.
  • Most likely you will have a couple of days at least from the onset of symptoms before your throat is affected. So if you have a performance coming up, keep vocalizing, lightly, at first. Check in with how it feels and sounds. If it feels ok and improves, keep going. If not, stop for now and try again later or the next day.

If you are going to cancel it’s probably best to make that decision at least 24 hours in advance so that at least you don’t have people appearing at the venue expecting to see you, and the venue owner has a chance to make other arrangements if necessary. In many cases, depending upon where you’re singing and whether or not you are headlining, it is better to call someone to sub for you rather than just cancel. You might keep a list of people you can call upon in such a case.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you have the flexibility to change the repertoire or drop any of the keys to make it less demanding?
  • If you decide to go ahead and sing, how does your voice sound? Will your reputation suffer more if you perform, or don’t perform? If you perform and you’re croaking like a frog, you may be making a poor impression on your audience/club owner etc. On the other hand, if you cancel every time you feel a tickle in your throat, you might get a reputation as being an unreliable diva that people don’t want to work with.
  • How long is the performance? You may be able to get by for a short time but if it’s several sets and you’re a belter, you may be putting yourself at risk of injury.

When I was singing at a hotel six nights a week I got a couple of bad colds. As I did not have access to any subs (it was in Bangkok!) and as I felt it was important for my relationship with the hotel to be reliable, I didn’t cancel. However, I was able to manage by dropping the keys and letting the band take longer solos. (On a couple of those occasions, I was told I sounded like Billie Holiday! Not necessarily a bad thing, but something no one would ever say when I am healthy!)

On the other hand, there have been a couple of times when I had to cancel a show because I had an upper respiratory infection that led to laryngitis and I just didn’t have enough range to make it a pleasant experience for me or the audience. I was also concerned about overly stressing my throat since it felt and sounded so bad.

Ultimately, it is probably best to err on the side of caution. Prevention is worth a pound of cure so live a healthy life style, and check out any vocal health concerns with a qualified laryngologist who understands singers. Keep your voice in shape by getting good training and vocalizing regularly. You’ll find that your voice will endure and rebound from illness more quickly and you’ll also get to know it better so that you can make wise decisions about when to sing or not to sing.

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