A few years ago now I had a horrible cough for a few weeks. Even after it cleared up, I couldn’t get my voice to work properly; I was getting an ache in my throat, my high notes weren’t their usual selves and it was just generally difficult. I had already taken a couple of weeks off work (East Sussex Music Service at the time) but was panicking as I needed to return to work, had gigs booked, and was generally worried about my voice.
So I booked an ENT appointment in Brighton with the top surgeon in the land, Mr Meredydd Harries; but, via the NHS this was going to take 6 weeks to materialise. So I got out my credit card and went to see him privately.
I had had a stroboscopy a few years before to have my vocal cords looked at, as I had been trying to fathom why I had morphed from super-high, clean, classical soprano to the love-child of Rod Stewart and Bonnie Tyler; nothing to report, my vocal cords were clean as a whistle. It wasn’t a hugely pleasant procedure, as you have to have a tube put up your nose and then down your throat.
So, I was relieved to see that Mr Harries had a new-fangled telescope-thing for viewing the vocal cords, which just slides along your tongue and sees ‘down and around the bend’. It was so much more comfortable AND I got to see my vocal cords on the screen, which was really exciting (geek-out moment) as I had seen so many, but not my own, over the years.
Again, he told me that my vocal cords were fine – in fact, he said they were perfect in terms of shape, evenness and structure.
However, he did say that my vocal cords were chronically dry, and as a result, they weren’t stretching and vibrating quite as efficiently as they should, which explained my struggle with the high notes. He also noted that I had started to engage my false vocal cords to compensate for the lack of movement in the true cords, and this was likely to be the cause of the ‘ache in my throat’.
He told me that the dryness was likely to have been caused by my horrible cough, as coughing bashes the vocal cords together, making them rough, but also, any infection in that area may have temporarily wiped out the little glands that produce the lubricant for the vocal cords – their ‘engine oil’, if you like. Apparently, after a nasty cough or cold, it can take these glands a while to get back to normal, and so the voice stays dry after the infection has gone, and this is very common.
In fact, he said that dryness of the vocal cords is the most common minor problem that singers face, and it is often a precursor to more serious problems, as lots of singers continue to use, and push, the vocal cords when they are dry.
He gave me a list of do’s and don’t’s, which are pretty obvious, but, can be hard to follow. In a nutshell:
No coffee, tea, caffeinated drinks
No alcoholic beverages
No spicy food
Drink enough water for whole-body hydration (so the glands can make the lubricant – all these things need water)
Do up to six (!) steam inhalations per day, just plain water, no Olbas oil etc
Rest your voice if it’s very dry
Don’t use medicated throat pastilles (you will be masking the problem and could cause more damage)
So, based on this advice, I aim not to have a curry and go on the lash in the few days before a gig. As I mentioned before, I try – try – not to drink coffee on the day of a gig (I give myself an ‘after 10am’ rule). If I’ve got, or had, a cold or cough, I try and steam a couple of times a day. And if I do have to gig with a dry voice (not ideal, do as I say, etc ….) then I take a flask of herbal tea and honey, some non-medicated pastilles (Vocalzone are my favourite), and I might adjust how I sing some of the harder songs in the set. Then, I rest my voice as much as possible for a few days after. It’s not an ideal situation, but then, I’m usually only gigging two or three times a month – it’s a challenging set, but I know my body and have learnt my limits.
So, this is what I think each singer needs to do – become really well acquainted with your voice, what your body needs and is adversely affected by (age will be a factor too, but youngsters – keep an eye on longevity as well as the short-term). How many gigs / performances you have, how sensitive you are to certain factors, will have a bearing on how much of the good doc’s advice you will want to take on board (if you are a theatre singer doing a show six days a week, you may want to take all of this very seriously to maintain your health).
If you have a sore throat – don’t sing! It sounds obvious, but so many people don’t rest when they know they need to.
If your voice is still hoarse after two weeks, go to your doctor.
Anyway, how I became a gravelly Rod Stewart tribute, and then found my way back out of that, is a subject for another day! I will continue on the theme of vocal dryness in my next blog post, as there are other causes.
For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com