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My Gig's in 2 days and I can't speak!
An article by Joan Coffey
We've all been there. Nightmare scenario - two days to go till your very important gig, in a very important venue, to which very important people are coming and you sound a little like Linda Blair (the little girl in The Exorcist). The famous "Auntie's Inversion Ratio" will of course apply here, in that the severity of the affliction will be equal to the importance of the gig; and inversely proportional to the amount of time you have to recover.
First thing to remember - DON'T PANIC. Unless you have laryngitis. In that case, simply pick up the phone and cancel the gig. Never try to sing if you are seriously ill. You will sound awful and you will hurt yourself. However, most colds and flus can be dealt with to a certain extent, and following are some tips which should ease things along a little. You won't sound like Doris Day by the end, but let's face it, you probably never did. Second thing to do, see a doctor. If you have real flu and/or a throat infection, you may need antibiotics. The following advice is not adequate for dealing with either of those scenarios, and you should always see a pro if you're worried.
The general tips for getting your voice in order are as follows:
There are two different types of symptoms that need to be dealt with in different ways:
- Rest your voice. That means no talking. Not even whispering, as that puts even more strain on you than speaking does.
- Drink lots of water.
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep heals the body better than Glaxo-Wellcome.
- Keep really warm; try to sweat it out. If you have to go outside, wear a scarf. I don't care if it doesn't look cool, get that woolly hat your Aunt gave you for Christmas last year. And pull the earflaps down.
- Head colds
- Chest colds
Let's look at head colds first. You'll probably have streaming eyes, no taste buds and more mucus than you ever thought could fit into skull cavities. Much nose-blowing will ensue, and when you talk id will sound a liddle like dis. This is a problem when singing, so the best plan of attack is to clear the passages as often as you can. The easiest and most pleasant way to do this is steaming. Fill a sink with very hot water and a couple of drops of eucalyptus oil, hold a towel over your head, get right down over the sink and breath slowly and deeply for several minutes. You may need to take several breaks to blow your nose as this method really does get things moving. Steam in the morning and the evening and hey, why not in the middle of the day too!
Several food products should be cut out around this time. Most dairy products (cheese, milk and yoghurt) stimulate mucus production and so are best avoided. Try to avoid chocolate and any food that leaves a residue on your throat. Obviously fresh veg and fruit juices are a really good idea to pack you full of vitamins, which will also fend off the cold.
Chest colds are a very different kettle of fish. Nasty coughing every time you try to speak generally doesn't make singing very easy. Nor does having a throat that feels like it's been sandpapered. Avoid lozenges, sprays etc. that numb the pain before you sing. They are fine for rest periods, but only that. If you sing on a numb throat you won't notice the damage you're doing and believe me, you'll be doing damage.
Various cough mixtures on the market do the trick for different people. You're probably better off going for a suppressant just before the gig, and not an expectorant, unless you want to give the front row more than they bargained for. At the risk of being accused of taking bribes, the names I recommend are:
Boots own brand (my personal favourite), Venos (highly recommended by Spekki Chris) and Dr. Potter's Vegetable Cough Remover (a disgusting liquorice concoction enjoyed by some strange people). Remember to do a warm-up about fifteen minutes before you sing, as this will probably induce a coughing fit which can then be under control by the time you hit the stage. Don't be afraid to bring the cough suppressant onstage with you. Everyone would rather you did, trust me.
A gargle of warm water with a drop or two of tea tree oil can be effective in shifting mild throat infections. It's worth investing in a vocal steamer also, although I don't rate the nasty plastic ones very much. There is a lovely simple clay steamer called Dr. Nelson's which is not fancy but does everything it should and stays warm for quite a while. It's available from some health shops. DO NOT put anything in a vocal steamer except water - no herbs, no essential oils. Boiling water is all you need and all that is good for you. You should completely rest your voice after steaming - don't do it just before a gig. Just before sleep is a great time, or else around two hours before you have to sing.
You may have noticed I have included no advice for smokers who have colds. This is because if you are worried about your voice when you have a cold, the first thing you do is stop smoking. Of course.
General precautionary methods are a good idea in winter time. Many people take Echinacea to boost their immune systems; Vitamin C supplements are always a good plan. One of my personal faves is Seven Seas Vitamin and Mineral Tonic. None of these are quite as effective as lots of fruit, veg and a little exercise but it's not easy to eat healthily when you spend your evenings running from day jobs to gigs.
Although a nice hot whisky or a port and brandy can be soothing and useful when you have a cold, you should avoid other alcohol if you are trying to get your voice back.
So there you go. Some sneaky little tricks, and a large dose of common sense. The best plan is try to avoid colds and flus, but if I knew how to do that I'd have sold the idea and be living on an island just off Tahiti by now.
The basics are: keep warm when you're out in the cold, eat properly and look after yourself. When the gig does arrive, don't push your voice. Be sensible and don't try to hold that long note at the end like Celine Dion does. If all else fails and you really can't do it, don't be afraid to cancel the gig. Try to give the promoter as much notice as possible but don't feel bad about it. Sods Law (a cousin of Auntie's Inversion Ratio) dictates that everyone will be ill at least once during his or her career. Frank Sinatra very famously haemorrhaged onstage in Las Vegas after refusing to cancel a gig.
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Singing Needn't Be Scary ©2000 Joan Coffey & The Virtually Acoustic Club
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