by Spencer Welch
It’s the most (ok, second most) wonderful time of the year! Tulips unfurling to flirt with the sun. Cherry trees flaunting their coats of candy pink blossoms. The world buzzing with possibility and life…
And the temperature taking wider and wilder swings than Tyson on an earlobe prowl. Not to mention the Who’s Who of microbial minions masterminding their next invasion of your throat!
Spring has sprung indeed.
But you’ve fought the good fight. Wounded but not vanquished at the Battle of the Bug, aside from the occasional cough and a nose flowing like the Ganges, you’re feeling pretty good.
Until you open your mouth.
To talk, sing, practice ventriloquism. What emanates, well, it’s vaguely familiar. Sounds like a voice, but just not your voice. More like the death wail of a fallen wildebeest. It could double as the cry of their love child if on a blurry night of Jager Bombs, Gollum swiped right on the Dark Knight.
Your voice is trashed. And you need it to work. ASAP.
How do you get your voice back in the aftermath of illness?
But first, it’s that time in our show when we roll out the inevitable caveats:
This blog is not meant to replace the advice of a medical professional. If you have suffered from laryngitis or an extremely rough voice for two weeks or longer, seek medical help. Get your larynx to an ENT!
This post is aimed at those petri dishes we call singers and actors, sleep-deprived and overworked, who lure every virus out of hiding this time of year and then come into rehearsal channeling the voice of Sauron. So long as your voice does not remain hoarse for more than two weeks, you should be fine to follow the protocol described here. However, when in doubt, consult a doctor!
A Recovery Trifecta
Have a favourite recipe to magically heal hoarseness, a witch’s brew for vocal Nirvana? Lemme guess: ginger? menthol? cough drops? tea infused with the tears of wood elves?
Sorry to break it to you, but it’s probably just having a placebo effect. Meaning if you think it works, it seems to. Nothing you drink down, slurp up, or suck on will come in contact with your ragged vocal cords. If it did, you would drowned or choke to death. And that would be an awkward obituary.
Here’s what does work:
Your vocal cords are probably puffy from the hacking, throat clearing, and post-nasal drip. Swollen tissue doesn’t vibrate pretty. To facilitate the healing process, your vocal folds need to be hydrated. So sip, sip, sip that H2O until you pee clear (TMI but true.)
Nothing helps your voice recover faster than sleep. While you saw logs, your body restores and repairs itself. So turn off Fallon and turn in.
Save your voice. I know you love socializing over après-office drinks, but instead, head home and binge-watch The Office. All nine seasons. But seriously, rest your voice. Talk less, and don’t speak in loud environments. Texting is your friend (unless you’re speed dating in which case, well, good luck with that voice and all.)
But Don’t Over-rest
In the old rehabilitation model, when an athlete got injured, sports doctors recommended weeks, sometime months of rest to allow the injury to heal. Today, we know better. Too much rest and inactivity can result in muscle atrophy and other issues that eventually can cause reinjury.
So a wounded footballer might not grace the pitch for a while, but once the swelling subsides, their trainer will be kicking their butt in the gym so they build up the strength and flexibility necessary to get back into the game.
In the same way, once your cold symptoms abate, you need to start using and exercising your voice. But smartly. Don’t go straight back to 3-hour karaoke marathons. Start small with targeted, therapeutic exercises and work back up slowly.
Back in this blog, I extolled the virtues of straw phonation during warmup. Good news, kids! It also works miracles on beat-up voices. So grab a straw and get phonating. Phonate soft. Phonate loud. Phonate low. Or in the clouds.
Here is celebrated vocal scientist Dr. Ingo Titze demonstrating how to straw phonate. Like a boss.
The Golden Vocal Rule
“So…my symptoms are gone, but the voice is rough! How do I know when I’m ready to start vocal exercises again? I don’t want to start too early and hurt my voice further.”
When it comes to getting back on the vocal hoarse (errr…horse #dadjoke), here’s a good rule of thumb to follow:
As long as your voice maintains or gets slightly better, keep vocalizing.
Start with straw phonation and gentle lip and tongue trills. I’m warning you, it will not be pretty. But as long as your voice holds or gets slightly better, keep going. Do it for five minutes and then rest. Maybe that’s all you do the first day, or maybe you try again later that day.
As soon as you can, start inflecting lightly into your upper head voice range. Even if it sounds weak, breathy, falsetto-like. Glide up with a “hooty” OO vowel or a “creaky” voice sound like this:
Often your voice will feel stiff after weathering a cold so part of the recovery process is exercising through the full range of motion, from the short, thick vocal folds that produce chest voice (and your speaking voice) to the long thin folds of head voice. Work both your chest and head range and then try connecting the two, even if you put up with a break for a while. This applies both to singers and to those needing their speaking voice back.
Activate the trifecta, vocalize so long as you aren’t losing voice, and soon your speaking and singing will begin to return. If you’re a young ankle-biter, you might recover within a few days. But if, like me, you’re older than Gollum, it could take several days to a week for your voice to feel completely “back” and ready to roll. That’s the price we pay for being dignified and wise.
Need more help with your voice? Check out Spencer’s videos at Singing 911.