Teri Danz is a pro recording artist and vocal coach/producer, with record credits, national press.
Wicked Cold and a Big Gig? Tips for Singers — What Works!
by Teri Danz
So you’ve got a big gig and a wicked cold or flu (especially with lots of congestion), the bad news is that this is the worst for singers. Your body is your instrument, so when you’re ill, stressed, or compromised in any way, it can impact your performance directly. The good news is that you can still sing and perform, in most cases, without the audience knowing. It’s just a bigger challenge than a normal performance. The key is to prepare, take care, and modify to get the best performance possible. It’s a tribute to your skill, training, and professionalism to pull off the vocals convincingly. no matter how compromised you feel.
When you have a cold, flu or sinus infection type illness before a gig, there are a number of things you can do that really work.
Being good at assessing the situation is critical — how sick or ill you actually are (do you need to see a doctor for instance?), what type of gig, what time (it takes longer to warm up for a day gig), how many sets, the venue, your schedule around the gig and how much time you have to take care of yourself with rest prior to the gig. Once you clearly assess the situation, there are lots of things you can do.
First let’s look at remedies and then specific steps you can take to "deal"!!
Remedies: A while ago, a dentist recommended putting Lipton tea bags on my gums to decrease the intense inflammation. Lipton tea has tannin root in it and is very soothing. Miraculously, the aching was relieved. It works when your voice is congested, stressed or when you’re just ill. You can use it to warm up faster (it works!) or just if you can’t seem to get your voice or throat clear. You can also try Throat Coat tea (Medicinal tea) — it has slippery elm root in it. Commercial products also work such as: Two Tree Voice Lozenges from Thayers or Vocal eZe Throat Spray (http://www.vocal-eze.com) or try music stores (Guitar Center).
The following are recommended tips that really work:
1. Assess the damage — this means doing vocal exercises to see exactly where in your range the notes are compromised. Usually with a cold or extreme nasal congestion, there will be "drop-out" on the high end. Don’t force your range — you just need to find out where the real problems are.
2. Rest, rest, rest! Fatigue is the enemy of singers and worse when you’re sick. Sleep more!
3. Don’t sing at rehearsal — talk the parts so as not to strain your voice. Your band will be fine with the vocals simply marked.
4. Warm up gently. Drink lots of Lipton tea before and during the warm-ups. This has worked for me for countless gigs. Also, drink lots of water! Stay hydrated. A rule of thumb for a normal gig is to do at least 20 minutes of vocal exercises and 40 minutes of singing. You may need more (but gently) when you’re sick.
5. Consider changing your set list to exclude demanding or very rangy songs. Also, trim the set list if possible. It’s better to do less songs with a small range than force your voice and crack etc… This is a professional and less stressful approach.
6. Quit Pushing — Feeling powerful in singing and being powerful in singing are two entirely different things. While efforting — pushing chest, singing louder to hit pitches, creating and pushing sound from the throat — may feel powerful, it actually sounds worse. It’s easy to go off pitch, sound strident (even painful), hurt your voice, crack etc… when you do this. Singing this way when you’re sick or very congested compounds the problem.
7. Use decongestants on a per need basis. I like to use the 4 hour ones and experiment with when they’re working but I’m not too dried up to sing. Lubrication is essential in singing, so keep that in mind.
8. Coughs are even worse for singers — the reflex is hard to suppress. Use a cough suppressant. Take Lipton tea with you to the gig. If you feel like you will break into a cough, it’s better not to come in than risk a coughing fit. (I did this at an original gig and no one except my band knew the difference … or that I was so sick!)
9. Be sure to eat! Proteins are essential for maintaining energy in singing. Singing takes energy. Many performers lose energy halfway through a set and then end up efforting, pushing and stressing their vocal chords. It takes even more energy to sing when you’re not well.
10. For health and sound quality reasons, use your own microphone.
11. A hot bath or steamy shower will loosen up congestion.
And most of all: be gentle with yourself. Come up with plan B or C until you find something that works. Do whatever it takes to get functioning for the gig. Your reputation depends on people being able to depend on you! A pro attitude is to show up and do the very best show possible despite the obstacles.
I’m always interested in the experience of other singers. Please post your tips on the site! Your experience helps all of us!
FemMuser Amy Raasch in her recent post shared about a remedy from a talented singer who had to perform the lead in the "Threepenny Opera" when he had pneumonia that worked for her! His suggestions: Take Sudafed 12-hour (Daytime), and to make sure that the performance time fell in the middle of the 12 hours. Skin and chop up fresh ginger root – "as much as you can stand" – and put it in a thermos for about 3 hours. Drink it right before you go on. Said Amy: "I got organic ginger, and chopped up an entire, 7-inch root and put it in a thermos. I added a little organic honey to make it go down easier, and started drinking it about an hour before I was to go on. It immediately made me feel better, and by the time I went on, I was absolutely shocked to find that I could sing, and even belt, fully relaxed."
** Good tips if you have a sore throat just before a Gig **