Singers’ health – do we really need to run around with silk scarves around our necks?

Some of the first questions a lot of students ask me are:

“Do I need to watch out for anything regarding my health?
What can/can’t I eat and drink?
Are there any magic potions that will improve my voice?”

It is easy to answer the last question: No, there aren’t, only training will improve your voice. The other questions need a bit of further investigation though …

EATING

As I have already mentioned, no food will magically improve your voice. As a singer however, your body is your instrument, so you should watch what you eat (which is not rocket science and applies to everyone, not only singers):

Focus on a healthy, balanced diet, cut out junk food as best you can – all this should really go without saying.

There is a another thing though: Watch out for the foods that make you react unfavourably. I would never ever tell my students to cut out dairy (although I think that too much cow’s milk produce is maybe not as healthy as a lot of people think, but that’s an entirely different subject). Not everyone reacts on it, and if you don’t, eat it/drink it if you think you can’t do without. Just watch WHEN you have it if you know that you DO react, and don’t have it if you know you need to practise/have an important gig coming up.

You will get a feeling yourself how many hours (or even days) you need to recover from foods that build up too much mucus, make you feel dry/croaky, or even cause allergic reactions (the last one should actually be a no-brainer). For some people it’s milk, for other spices, for another an apple – there is no reason to cut out whole food groups just because someone else told you they react on it.

The same applies to how much you can eat before a concert/gig/practice session. Some people can eat a lot before a gig without any problems, others can’t eat anything for half a day.

As a general rule, a full stomach is not great just before you sing, because it can make you sluggish, and can lead to acid-buildup (and acid reflux is a killer for voices!). If it has no effect on you, there is no reason though not to eat. Do what feels right for YOU.

DRINKING

This is actually an easier one. Keep well hydrated, because dry mucous membranes are not great for singers. Don’t get all religious about the ‘8 glasses of water a day’ though – the jury is still out if we actually need that much. If I can say one thing (not very appetising, but the best way to check): Make sure your urine is almost clear and not too dark, that’s actually the best way to check whether you are dehydrated or not. Whether you need to drink 3 or 1.5 litres a day for this actually doesn’t matter and is down to your lifestyle (how much liquid you take in with your diet, e.g. fruit and veg, if you exercise a lot etc).

Coffee, tea and other caffeinated drinks are not as bad as a lot of people might think. We constantly hear about the diuretic effect of caffeine, and whilst it is true that it makes you nip to the loo more often, current research actually suggests that this effect is leveled out because of the amount of liquid you are taking in at the same time. Caffeine is a stimulant though, so whilst a little might be good, 3 litres of coffee a day certainly won’t do much for your nerves (and your stomach). I can drink coffee without problems, but I still use common sense, for the very reason that too much caffeine makes me jittery.

Alcohol in moderation is okay, but I would recommend to stay off it before singing, because it affects fine motor control (even in said moderation), and you need the latter as a singer. Apart from that, the “dram to take the edge off” before going on stage is, in my opinion, not a good way to deal with pre-performance nerves, and I don’t think it is a great idea to tackle stage-fright with alcohol (or other recreational drugs).

Some people also react on certain drinks (apart from getting drunk that is ;)): I, for instance, cannot really drink wine before an important concert, because the tannins in red wine make me slightly croaky, and the sulphites you find in some wines make my mucous membranes swell up (more of an allergic reaction). That’s just me, however, and you need to find out for yourself what works and what doesn’t. Just don’t use alcohol as a crutch.

EXERCISE

Yes, you should exercise, because a singer is actually comparable to an athlete, and if your stamina is low, it definitely doesn’t work in your favour, so regular walking, running or cycling is a very good idea. There are certain sports that don’t exactly help your voice though – you need to be careful with lifting heavy weights for instance, because it can encourage forced breathing, which is not great for your vocal folds. Moderation is key.

If you have back, shoulder or neck problems, and/or an extremely weak core, I would actually recommend to work on this first, because especially neck, shoulder and back problems can backfire on your voice. You can work on this actively (Pilates, Yoga, Dance for instance), but there’s nothing wrong with physiotherapy or massages either. Maybe you even want to see an experienced Alexander practitioner in that case. If you think you have a problem in this area, get a consultation with a physiotherapist or your GP.

KEEPING THE BUGS AT BAY/SICKNESS

We finally arrived at the ‘singer’s scarf’: If you feel it helps, wear one, but I personally think it’s more of a placebo effect (and for a lot of singers also a way to show that they are a bit precious about their voice). Of course you should keep warm in winter, but it’s much more effective in terms of keeping the bugs at bay to wash your hands regularly and to avoid stuffy places with sneezing people wherever you can.

Another thing about placebos: Expensive lozenges ‘for singers’ actually don’t help! There is no magic potion to improve your voice, because this stuff doesn’t even get in contact with your vocal folds. If you feel a bit croaky, keep well hydrated, and get a bag of gummy bears to keep the saliva flowing – they are as good as the expensive stuff at a fraction of the cost.

If the bugs already got to you, you can of course take lozenges with an anaesthetising effect if your throat is really sore, but you should really see your GP in that case. You might actually need vocal rest, and you shouldn’t really sing if you use something that masks the warning signals of your body – your throat will be sore for a reason.

A simple rule to follow if you are unsure whether to sing or not is the following: If the cold sits above throat level (mainly sneezing, runny or stuffy nose etc), it is usually okay to sing. You might not feel that great and want to stay off singing for that reason, but you won’t actually do yourself any harm. If the cold mainly sits on/below throat level (sore throat, bad cough, and maybe even a fever/flu): Don’t sing if you can avoid it! Rest and take time to recover. And if you have beginning laryngitis, there is really no question if you should sing or not: You shouldn’t! Just rest …

‘Rest’ is a keyword by the way: Make sure you get enough sleep, not just if you are ill, but as a general rule. Sleep deprivation makes you prone to sickness, poor concentration and poor motor control. How much sleep you need on the other hand depends on you: Some people only need 6 hours, whilst others can barely function with less than 8. Again, listen to your body and find out what’s best for you.

VOCAL HYGIENE

This again requires you to get a feeling for your body. If you feel that you are getting hoarse or strained during/after a practice session or gig, something isn’t right. If you don’t already have a vocal coach, get one. Sometimes, only minor adjustments are needed, and your vocal health should be worth the investment. Even if it is a bigger problem that needs a lot of work: All the more important that you don’t shy away from it. You only have one voice, you can’t replace wrecked vocal cords like a guitar string, so be sensible and get the opinion and help of an expert. You don’t need to be afraid that they will strip your voice of its identity: There are excellent coaches out there for all styles of music, so find one that teaches the style you want to sing. Your voice will only sound better for it, and above all: It will last!

© Petra Raspel 2011

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