The winter season change can have us dealing with a lot of extra mucus as our immune systems go to work. Choral Director is offering some proactive and defensive suggestions to help students deal with its effects on the voice.
Extra mucus can not only be annoying for singers but very disruptive to vocal production and sometimes downright scary. Swollen cords and stuffed sinuses (besides the pain of headaches) can constrict natural vocal fold vibration, throw off the ‘ear,’ and even mimic some symptoms of vocal nodes such as a raspy, whispering tone production. All vocal cords need a ‘normal’ amount of mucus covering the folds for healthy sound production however when it becomes too much our performances and emotions can suffer the irritation.
A few causes for the problem to consider can be found in a discussion entitled “Excess Mucus – Blame the Tea?” published by Voice Council Magazine, with otolaryngologist Dr. Anthony F. Jahn at www.voicecouncil.com/excess-mucus-blame-the-tea/. In his response Dr. Jahn lists several possible causes to explain the presence of extra mucus; rhinitis and sinusitis due to infection or allergies, inadequate hydration, diets including too much dairy and/or sugar, acid reflux, drying medications including antihistamines, chronic nasal obstruction, or pulmonary issues such as bronchitis. For our purposes, we will assume that your students have visited their doctor for medical advice concerning the above causes. We are looking at ways to be proactive and defensive in dealing with the common winter cold season for an otherwise healthy voice. Any advice in this article should not be construed as medical advice and only as general information.
Some ways to be proactive in dealing with cold season are to look at diet choices that can exacerbate or improve the condition. With the trilogy of treat-loving holidays upon us (Halloween, Thanksgiving and December holiday’s) we are often overloaded with sugary goodness. Drink water. As mentioned in a previous article, ingesting water throughout the day can also include water intake from fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee, and juice. Choose your dairy carefully. Dairy can cause some singers the sensation that they have extra phlegm in the throat. Ask your vocalists to pay attention to their own individual response to dairy and how it effects vocal production—and to cut back on it if necessary. A personal proactive routine I have incorporated around this time of the year (and possibly entirely a placebo effect) is too load up on the fizzy vitamin drinks from the local warehouse store. I also feel the positive effects of regularly employing a neti pot—a therapy that uses salt and water to flush the nasal passages.
If a winter cold has already set in, it’s time for defense mode. A morning vocal warmup routine is a healthy practice year-round but most important when a cold has set in. When I have a cold I love to take my warmups into a hot, steamy shower, I find the practice soothing to the voice and the sinuses. In keeping with the self-care, I would follow-up with a soothing warm beverage of choice (with a squeeze of lemon—always the lemon) and continue some intermittent soft humming throughout the entire day. There are techniques for throat clearing that are helpful and some that are not. My college vocal coach always encouraged me to move phlegm off the folds using a quiet and breathy “hmm, hmm, hmm”—as if I were attempting to get the attention of someone whom interrupted me in a one-on-one conversation. If the throat clearing becomes any louder there will be a growling sensation that sometimes accompanies a cough and this type of throat clearing is a no-no. Students should be encouraged to practice both so that they sense the difference. I also up the ante with my exercise routine (if I can muster the energy), a good run can be a wonderful lung clearing activity for me. Plenty of sleep can prepare the body for a performance for more reasons than one but of course is an essential reminder for any choral members experiencing cold symptoms.
One work around for the suffering singer to consider is to swap vowels. First have the vocalist take note of which vowels might be effected the most by the symptoms he or she is experiencing. Have them sing a five note scale all the way up and down their range on an “ah,” “ey,” “ee,” “oh,” and “oo” and listen for breathiness, straining or escaping air. Personally, whenever I have an issue with excess mucus I tend to lose my “ah” vowel first. I find that if I warmup I will be able to sing clearly all the way through on an “oo” and almost nothing at all on an “ah.” If I am performing in a large choir and swap out the vowels that are resonating for the vowel that seems to be dropping out due to swelling, it is unlikely that the “mispronunciation” will be noticed.
Finally, when singing with a cold it is always important for the performer—who may have been preparing since September for a beloved winter holiday program—to keep in mind pthey must be kind to their delicate instrument. It may well be that we must accept the fact that the best thing to do is not to sing. Sometimes with a cold a certain register (usually the low-to-mid range) will feel comfortable but those higher notes where the vocal folds are the thinnest may be suffering the most and it could be in the singers’ best interest to mouth the words on those particular notes or simply to stay home. It is always of utmost importance to keep the long-term picture in sight and choose healthy singing practices that do not involve straining to keep you singing for many years to come.