Over the years, mostly during my time performing in musical theatre, many people have asked me how I am able to keep up my voice while tackling vocally demanding material over an extended period of time or through illness. Once during a musical production where I fell under illness after illness (shared by much of the cast), the director awarded me the “I can sing with laryngitis. Really, I CAN – Award,” as my vocal quality and endurance was only minimally affected by the health challenges and physical demands. Granted a lot of my ability to sustain is due to where I am singing from, there are still plenty of tricks and routines I use to care for my instrument during a challenging show. I’ve shared my tips and tricks in the past, but decided to put it out there in a larger way to aid in my development and function as a vocal coach and Fitzmaurice Voicework Teacher.
Just a disclaimer; these are the tips and tricks that have worked for my voice and my body, in addition to other contributing factors and regular practice (voice technique, training, exercise, etc.). I do not claim these tip and tricks to be “remedies” for the masses or to “cure” anything, but in my experience they have good outcomes for most. Below is a list of products I recommend, exercises and practices that, in my experience, have proved helpful during the challenges of vocal health, strain and endurance.
Products I like:
Source Naturals Wellness: Herbal Throat Spray
This all-natural throat spray has licorice root, aloe vera juice and Echinacea, all wonderful ingredients for soothing any discomfort, supporting vocal health and lubrication. I have used this spray before shows, in between numbers, when I’m sick, tired, dry, etc. – it’s a great product. I’ve also heard good things about Singer’s Saving Grace from Herbs Etc. You can purchase this product at any health food store like Whole Foods or Sprouts.
Cough drops: Ricola (Original) and Thayer’s Slippery Elm
I use these two because they are natural and do NOT contain menthol, which has a numbing affect on your vocal chords, thus inhibiting your awareness and use of your instrument. Any cough drop with slippery elm, licorice and honey is good; these are all soothing herbs that naturally lubricate your vocal chords without any annoying side effects. My advice for cough drops is mostly just to stay away from menthol. Zinc lozenges are also helpful as they have pain relief, healing and immunity properties. You can purchase these products at any health food store like Whole Foods or Sprouts.
Traditional Medicinals Seasonal Teas: Throat Coat Tea
Almost every singer I know uses this product. The reason it works so well is because of the licorice root, slippery elm and marshmallow root. As stated above, these are soothing herbs that naturally lubricate your vocal chords. Add a little honey and lemon for some sweetness and soothing. You can purchase this product at any health food store like Whole Foods or Sprouts.
I have to thank the amazing Cathie Sheridan (incredible vocal technician, teacher and talented songstress of the stage) for turning me on to this product. Cathie and I would snack on these backstage during a production of Cabaret, and I was pleasantly shocked by the amazing soothing qualities of licorice. It totally works for me and is pretty tasty too. To this day, I always have a box of these backstage during shows. You can purchase this product at any health food store like Whole Foods or Sprouts.
These herbs are your friend:
Licorice root – soothes a sore, hoarse throat, found in tea or lozenge
Slippery Elm – soothing for a painful, scratchy sore throat or for mouth irritation, found in tea or lozenge
Marshmallow root – soothes scratching, itchy throat, found in tea
Tricks, Exercises and Practices:
H2O – and LOTS of it.
We’ve all heard this before, but water is truly one of the most important components to vocal health. Good hydration helps maintain the protective mucus lining, which coats and protects the vocal chords. Water keeps our vocal chords flexible, helping to prevent any unhealthy swelling. Drinking a generous amount of fluids when the voice is compromised has the same effect it does on muscles: it helps to flush out any build-up of lactic acid. Something to keep in mind is that it takes time for moisture to get to your vocal folds. In the hierarchy of hydration, there are other organs that require hydration to properly function, which means it takes time for moisture to finally arrive at the chords. You need to keep hydrated constantly during periods of heavy vocal use and hydrating enough in advance for the moisture to arrive at the vocal chords in time for the task at hand. A sip of water ten minutes before you go on stage will not give you immediate relief. I cannot claim I know exactly how much time it does take for hydration to affect the chords and I’m sure it’s different for every instrument, but I like to give myself an hour. Also keep in mind that if you are in a musical, a lot of that hydration goes towards the physical demands of movement and dance – so drink more water than you think you need.
So drink, drink, drink! If your voice is compromised or completely healthy, hydrate. Your bladder will adjust and your vocal chords will thank you.
Gargle warm salt water
My dad taught me this when I came down with strep throat during a show in high school. I will admit, this is not my favorite practice, but it really does aid in soothing an irritated throat and promoting vocal health when the voice is compromised. Heat 6-8 oz. of water (or one medium glass) up until it is warm, not hot. Add a tablespoon of salt (or as much as you can tolerate), stir rapidly until salt is dissolved. The water will appear foggy. Then, go to a sink and gargle that lovely mixture. Allow your head to tip back and gargle deeply for as long as you can tolerate before spitting it out into the sink. Repeat until mixture is gone or you’ve had enough. I always gargle at night and do not drink anything afterwards to allow the salt to remain on the chords and work its magic. I will admit, I do NOT know the science behind this, but it has been a helpful tool for me when experiencing complications of fatigue or illness affecting the voice.
If you are in a demanding show, singing a vocally demanding part or under some vocal strain, sometimes this is a must. When I say “vocal rest” I am not talking about whispering, which often times, depending on execution, can be more damaging for the voice. No, for me “vocal rest” means; no talking throughout the day (only when completely necessary) and partaking of all the above mentioned activities and products. If I’m on “vocal rest,” once I get to the theatre or a little before, I ease my way into vocal use by humming and engaging in soft, fluffy noises before engaging in my normal vocal or music warm up. Sometimes you just gotta give that instrument a break.
Meditation and relaxation
Sometimes we are not aware of how much tension we carry in our neck and throat are, especially when the body knows we have a demanding task on the horizon. Before any show that has high vocal demands (or any show at all, for that matter), I take a moment to allow my neck, throat, jaw and head to release through either an Alexander Technique “lie-down” or by taking a meditative seated position and engaging in passive release for a designated amount of time. It might seem entirely esoteric, but I have experienced benefit from allowing tension to release through passive meditative practices. It also benefits the focus in preparation for performance.
This is beneficial for a number of reasons; cold viruses thrive in dry conditions and dry air sucks up the mucus membranes, causing stuffy noses and scratchy throats. I mostly only take advantage of this when I’m ill, but the humidity also offers a soothing quality that can help when suffering from fatigue or dryness.
If you are suffering from a sinus infection, congestion or allergies and are singing in a show, try to stay away from antihistamines, as they dry up the our mucus which coats and protects the vocal chords. Use alternative options for decongestion, such as; steaming, neti-pots or homeopathics. Unfortunately, if you are an allergy sufferer, this means you have to suffer, a bit. I don’t take allergy medication for my allergies, but rather use homeopathic or alternative medicine options. Homeopathic remedies can be tricky as you have to find what works for your body, but I’ve been patient with the process and have happily found a few successful alternatives. Talk to the knowledgeable people that work in the vitamin/supplement departments at Whole Foods or Sprouts. There’s also an amazing book entitled Prescription for Nutritional Healing, which contains drug-free remedies using vitamin, minerals, herbs and food supplements for all sorts of health challenges and symptoms.