A friend of mine reached out recently for advice on how to perform with a cough and cold. It's a good question and one that I get asked time and again. How can one manage these symptoms and still give a good vocal performance? Singing with a cold is never ideal, but if it's unavoidable, try the following tips to help you through.
Treat The Symptoms
I know it sounds obvious, but treat the symptoms! There are so many products on the market that contain paracetamol & decongestants. Paracetamol will clear a fuzzy head and ease aches/pains. A decongestant such as Sudafed will dry up a runny nose. The cough is caused by a build up of sinus mucus on the chest - lessen the mucus, lesson the cough.
TIP: A nurse once told me that you can't cough and suck at the same time! Get some lozenges, ideally those with coating properties to protect your throat from getting raw*.
Steam will help clear blocked sinuses and loosen the build-up on your chest, enabling your cough to be more productive. This can be done by holding your head over a bowl of hot - not boiling - water. Some suggest adding a drop or two of Olbas oil but you must keep your eyes closed for this! To get the best results, use steam frequently during your cold and replace the water as soon as it cools. Relaxing in a hot bath with lavender or menthol oils is good too. If you are lucky enough to get to a spa or belong to a gym with a steam room, make the most of it in 5-10 minute sessions with breaks.
TIP: Create your own steam room at home by running the shower and filling the room with steam.
Drink, Drink, Drink
Cells need water to fight a cold virus. Your body will allocate water to all necessary parts BEFORE the mucus membranes (aka your larynx). When our noses are blocked, we tend to breathe through our mouths which is very drying on the throat. All good reasons to take in as many fluids as possible. This does NOT include diuretics such as tea, coffee, cola or alcohol as these have the opposite effect and leach water OUT of your system. Be careful of using orange juice - if you do, then the fresh stuff is best. Concentrated juices are both acidic and high in sugar. Besides, a lot of things contain more vitamin C than oranges, for example red bell peppers, which have 10 times more vitamin C! I also swear by cooking with chillies when I have a cold as they raise your core body temperature.
TIP: I put water soluble vitamin C, zinc & echinacea tablets in my water bottles for a super immune boosting drink.
Get as much rest as you can before your performance. Singing requires lots of energy and your energy is already being diverted to fighting off the bug. Wherever possible, bundle yourself up as warm as you can tolerate to help 'sweat it out'. Ideally nap/sleep as much as you can and feed the cold with high energy foods. Prop yourself up with pillows to prevent any post-nasal drip from triggering a cough and disturbing your sleep.
Our voices may become hoarse with a cold due to swelling of the vocal folds and glands in the neck - in this case you must rest your voice. Speak only when necessary and do NOT whisper as this is harsh on the larynx. Give your throat some reprieve with honey, which has anti-bacterial properties in addition to its soothing qualities.
TIP: Honey doesn't have to be taken in tea, you can also eat it raw on a spoon for the quickest relief.
On The Day
Make sure you're armed with a box of Vocalzones lozenges as these are designed specifically for singers to relax the larynx and clear the airways before performances. Take one at least 10 minutes before you are due to go on stage as they take a while to dissolve. Do not drink cold or ice water - take a luke warm or tepid drink in a flask as they are immediately absorbed by the body.
If your nose is blocked, do your singing warm ups by humming an 'N' to push air up through the nasal passages. During your performance, take more care than usual with forward placement, diverting your voice away from the nasal cavity. The performance itself should give you adrenaline and adrenaline will act as a turbo boost of energy. Though this is short-lived so once your show is over, get back home to bed and repeat steps 1-4!
TIP: If you have a persistent cough, keep some ready salted crisps to hand - it's a more pleasant way to dissolve phlegm than gargling with salt water!
*Always read the label & dosage instructions on all medication.
Georgie Cooper has been coaching and training singers for 10 years in the South East & Kent. With these articles she aims to simplify much of the myth & jargon when learning how to sing. Click here to read How To Stop Straining Your Voice