If you’re a voice teacher, at certain times of the year, you get a lot of calls and messages like “I have a head cold and can’t possibly sing, so I’d like to cancel my voice lesson.” Or, from the parent: “Amy woke up with a sore throat and a cold, so I think it would be better to cancel her voice lesson today.”
If You Can Talk, You Can Sing
Most of the time, it’s just a little scratchy throat or a little extra mucus, and it’s just that you sound different to yourself, and you think your singing voice is going to sound terrible. The reality is, you’re probably going to sound different, not necessarily bad, and you’ll be doing yourself a favor by pressing through and learning how to sing while you’re sick.
In the 40 plus years that I’ve been a professional singer, do you think I’ve had a few head colds? Also, do you think I’ve had some bad ones ON THE DAY of an important performance?! Oh my goodness, I have some stories. If you’re fronting four to six or more musicians who have been rehearsing toward the big day, and you call in sick, it does not bode well for you.
Practice Singing While You’re Sick
Seriously. Do it now when the pressure is low. A voice lesson, for example, is low pressure. (Let me help you learn how to sing while you’re sick.) Use your normal practice time to experiment with your voice and test your limits.
A Few Guidelines
Here are my guidelines for myself and my students:
- If you can talk you can sing.
- If you have laryngitis (an inflammation of your voice box from overuse, irritation or infection), stop talking or singing immediately. It’s called vocal rest, and you should start now. One way to tell if you have laryngitis is if it hurts to talk.
- If you just have a sinus issue or a sore throat, try singing!
- MAKE SURE YOU WARM UP!
Don’t Be a Baby
This can also be referred to as “going diva” or “going divo,” and it’s a bad stereotype to feed into. TRY SINGING! Just because you don’t like how it sounds doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t sing. Your responsibility to your band mates should be greater than your desire to sound a certain way. Get over yourself. Learn how to sing no matter what your voice is doing (unless, of course, you really need to go on vocal rest).
Singing With A Head Cold Can Be Fun
One thing I enjoy about singing with a head cold is all the different tonalities I can play with that I don’t have access to while I’m well. My lower range gets extended, and I can get that scratchy, bluesy sound I’m always trying to get when I feel good.
While you can sing through a head cold, it IS possible to push it too far. This is not the time to be belting. You could push yourself into laryngitis. Also, if you’re not feeling at the top of your game, NEVER sing outside in the cold or even inside somewhere where the cold air is blowing. (In fact, it’s just a bad idea anyway, no matter how you’re feeling.) One time, I pushed myself a little too far on a gig. It was an important show with at least seven or eight other musicians. Since I was one of three lead singers, I figured I could muscle through. It was the middle of winter, and the front door was right next to where the band was set up. People kept coming in and out of the room through that door. Within about 15 minutes, my cold turned into laryngitis, and I couldn’t even talk. Rrrr! I was not popular that night, but, oh well. There was nothing for it.
Test Your Limits
If you practice singing during non-stress times, you can figure out what your limits are. Then, when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to carry through with a gig, you can do so with confidence either way. You’ll know if your body can carry off the songs or not.
Make Sure You Start with a Warm Up!
Start by singing some vocal exercises very, very quietly, and as high as possible. Take your time! It could take as much as an hour or more. Take breaks. If you do it right, your voice will start to open up. Sing through the crackiness! Let your voice crack. Don’t push through it.
Tea & Honey Does Not Help Your Voice
It might make you feel more warm and cozy, but it will not help your voice one little bit. That tea and honey never make it to your vocal cords. Staying hydrated is the more important goal, and you can do that with just plain water.
Comments from Jilian Grey
I sent this article to my good friend Jil Grey to see if she had anything to add. Jil is the band leader and lead singer for two successfully working bands: Cherry Pie and Hot House. At one point in her career, Hot House had a two year stint in Las Vegas playing six nights a week. If there’s anyone I know who has had to manage head colds during a long professional career as a singer, it would be her! Here are her comments.
That’s right, all that mucus gets in the way of your singing. It can make you cough, clear your throat, and all kinds of other fun things you shouldn’t do. If you absolutely must clear your throat, don’t do that big “achem” sound. It’s very damaging, so just lightly try to cough, and drink, drink, drink. And that does not mean booze, or soda. Coffee and tea can also dry you out. Water is your best friend. Honey is a natural humectant, which means it does moisturize. I have found it helpful – it’s soothing and will help keep moisture on your vocal cords.
If you’re really drippy, and don’t want to have a box of tissues and used Kleenex scattered on the bandstand, take some cold medicine that will help with your stuffed up nose. But use very judiciously, don’t overdo!! Those very strong anti-histamines can dry everything up, and that’s not good either. You’re better off using saline, squirting that stuff up your nose and breathing deep and try to do it as often as possible. Preferably in a bathroom stall where nobody can see you.
Postponing Is Possible
If you’re sick, and you can have the option to postpone a gig, (it’s not an easy task!) do it. It is easy to push yourself and wind up with some serious vocal issues, the least of which is laryngitis. But if you’re careful, follow these guidelines, you’ll be just fine. Make sure after the gig you do a cool down. And then do as much vocal rest as possible, and drink water, water, water, water!! And my little tip for not getting sick at all: get Sambucol. This is a black elderberry natural cold remedy/prevention. As soon as you start feeling slightly under the weather, start taking it! I have used it many many times and have avoided getting sick. If you do get a cold, it lessens the severity and you get better quicker. I make no money off of it, it just works.
Lead Singer & Band Leader for Cherry Pie
COVID Times Are Different
All this being said, COVID times are different. I’m writing this at the end of the first wave of the virus when many of us in the USA have been vaccinated, and now the variants are on their way. All of us have to be way more careful about being in public when we’re not feeling well.
My advice here applies to pre-COVID conditions, and I’m only speaking from a technical perspective about the fact that it is possible to sing with a cold. It could be that it will never be socially acceptable to be in public with a head cold, and even less so to sing in public or with other musicians while you’re in that condition. These things remain to be seen.
Meanwhile – you can still take the opportunity to work through some of these ideas so that if the world ever returns to any sort of normalcy in this realm, you’ll be ready to go.
Check Out Mark Baxter’s Series
Mark Baxter has posted a series of three VERY HELPFUL videos on YouTube on this very topic: Singing With Cold.
He demonstrates how to do a warm up while he’s got a full-on head cold.