You've had five years of voice training, your technique is solid—and then a cold destroys your sound the day of your big show. Unfortunately everything that affects your body can also affect your vocal cords, including sickness, stress, diet, the weather, and lack of sleep. I've picked up a lot of tips over the years for dealing with voice problems that aren't caused by improper voice technique, but I thought the real experts here would be touring singer/songwriters. These hardy souls are the ones who sometimes sleep on a friend's floor, then drive six hours through the snow to do another gig in a drafty auditorium during flu season.
As all bodies are different, you will probably need to experiment with the ideas offered here. That being said, there are some general principles that hold true for all voices. The biggest is this: Vocal cords like warmth and moisture. When they dry out, your voice may crack or otherwise misbehave. "I drink a lot of water, constantly," said Darryl Purpose. Don Conoscenti (a.k.a. Doncon) elaborated: "Hydration is key for me. I drink loads of water, no ice—always room temp at least. It's especially important during the hour or two before the show."
How much is a lot? "Two to three large Evian bottles," said Jonatha Brooke. Los Angeles voice doctor Carlton Lee recommended a gallon a day to one of my students. And try to avoid ice cubes, as cold water can constrict your vocal cords. Sipping hot water or herbal tea is soothing because you are inhaling steam at the same time.
Heaters in the winter and air conditioners in the summer zap moisture out of the air and dry out your cords.
"I hate air conditioning and heaters equally," said Tanya Savory. "I turn everything off at night unless the weather is just hideously hot or cold. I open windows or use extra blankets." If you use the AC or heater in your car, turn the vents to direct the flow away from your face.
Cold air can also tighten your vocal cords and tax your immune system. "If the venue or stage is cold, I try to maintain a warm body temperature by wearing a turtleneck, sweater, or a hat," said Conoscenti.
Humidifiers are a dried-out singer's best friend. Use the $10 kind that just boils water, and remember to clean them to keep them mold-free. A hot shower can also put some moisture back into your vocal cords.
There are numerous throat sprays that can help a dry throat. Look for soothing ingredients like slippery elm and licorice. Kristina Olsen added: "Dr. Robert Andrews, my voice doctor and Mariah Carey's, told me to not use any lozenges that anesthetize your throat because you don't feel the pain and you can really damage your voice."
Needless to say, smoking not only dries out but also irritates your vocal cords. Another big throat irritant is overuse of the voice. Said Eric Schwartz, "I try not to yell at my agent on my cellphone if I'm going more than 40 miles an hour—the road noise is too much to compete with. Oh, right, I don't have an agent. No wonder my voice is in such good shape."
"No talking in loud bars or noisy forms of transport," admonished Olsen.
Some singers are dramatically affected by diet; for others it's no big deal. "When I first started touring heavily I was really superstitious about dairy, coffee, sleep, air conditioning, etc.," said Brooke. "Now I drink plenty of coffee, a ton of water, eat whatever I want, and I'm usually fine."
Other singers have found that it pays to be careful. Schwartz said, "Avoiding alcohol is good 'cause it's a diuretic and thus dehydrates. Of course, so's coffee, but tough noogies—I can't sing if I'm asleep." Another drying substance besides alcohol and coffee is citrus, so avoid lemonade an hour or two before singing.
Overly spicy foods and coffee can irritate your throat, so watch out for that chimichanga and latté. Some foods can gunk up your sound. Conoscenti said, "I maintain a dairy-free diet to eliminate mucous and keep my sinuses clear." Olsen is also careful: "Very little caffeine, very little alcohol, no dairy, no wheat, no sugars." Any foods you're sensitive to (wheat is a common offender) will increase throat crud.
When you eat is important, too. Confided Brooke, "If I eat a big meal right before I sing, I end up having to fight burps on any extended notes, and that's really hard and embarrassing." Try to eat a couple of hours before the show.
Colds and allergies are prime mucous creators and the bane of touring artists, so these singers do a lot of prevention. Darryl Purpose said, "I try to work out, eat well, and sleep till I wake up if I can." Conoscenti said, "I run most days, do yoga, and consume a lot of spirulina. In all my years of touring, I have avoided fast food like the plague that it is."
Still, Brooke thinks colds are inevitable on tour. "Colds are just a reality of being on a big dirty bus with a bunch of dirty people," she said. "All you can do is drink a ton of water, inhale vitamin C and Echinacea, and really pace yourself during shows."
Controversy reigns about the efficacy of garlic, Echinacea, and zinc lozenges for cold prevention, but I'm a fan of all three. Olsen offered two more tricks: "Mostly my diet keeps me from getting colds, but I do wear an air filter—Air Supply, you can get it from Magellan's travel catalogue—when I am in any crowded space, especially airplanes. It sounds funny but it really seems to work. Also, if I feel a cold coming on I use Zicam, a homeopathic nasal gel that lessens the symptoms."
The healthy diet that many of these singers opt for can build your immune system and help you fight allergies as well. Conoscenti said, "You'd be surprised how healthy you get when you exercise regularly and stop eating dairy products and refined foods."
If you choose to medicate for your allergies, avoid oral antihistamines like Sudafed, which can also overly dry your vocal cords as they dry up your nose. Some voice doctors recommend that allergic singers use a nasal spray like Nasalchrom or Flonase and point it up so the spray doesn't hit the back of the nose, drip down, and dry out the vocal cords.
A gentle, cheap way to de-gunk your throat is gargling. Olsen said she favors "gargling with warm salt water and snorting warm salt water up my nose when it is running like crazy."
And if a cold or allergy attack hits you the day of a show? "Rest, lots of hot tea (herbal, if possible,) and extra warming up, especially humming," prescribed Schwartz. If the cold is badly irritating your vocal cords, rest your voice until shortly before your gig. If you must talk, speak in the middle of your range at a low volume. Rehearse your songs without singing, or just rehearse your set mentally. Said Olsen, "When my voice is out, I do the yoga lion—that's the pose with your tongue stuck way out—silent rolled 'rrrr's and sloppy chews."
Or pray for performance anxiety. The stage nerves that you've always hated can deliver a shot of adrenaline, which will knock out most of your symptoms for the duration of the show.
Sick or healthy, touring singers do a lot on the road and pre-performance to prepare their voices. Said Conoscenti, "I do sirens, yoga, vocal stretches, and avoid too much conversation during the hour prior to the gig." Tanya Savory said, "I go for a run of at least 30 to 40 minutes. It doesn't matter if I have to run around a parking lot somewhere in New Jersey 20 times, the run is going to happen. It relaxes everything. If I'm really tired it re-energizes me. It's way better than a nap." Purpose's pre-performance regimen: "Anything that helps me relax helps my singing. Bathroom yoga, a shoulder rub, a moment or two of quiet time—they all help."
Brooke has a final sage comment: "Try to get some sleep. I'm not a big party animal, and I think that the only way you can sing five or six nights in a row is if you're kind of boring and go to bed as early as possible."
To reach the crooners I spoke with for this story, add a ".com" to their names for their websites. BSW
Susan Anders (www.susananders.com) has been coaching singers for more than 20 years. Her instructional CD and book, "The No Scales, Just Songs Vocal Workout," www.singersworkout.com, is being used by singers worldwide. Anders recently relocated from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tenn.