How Vocal Health Can Make or Break a Singer

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 - 09:41 AM


As March arrives, singers transition from wintry health concerns (flu, sore throats, colds) to those of springtime (even more flu, sore throats, colds, but also allergies). People who attend opera are aware in general ways of the medical challenges faced by our beloved artists. In fact, singers struggle not only to maintain general health but to stay fit for singing, something that is much more complex than most of us imagine.

Vocal health is about the whole body and not just the throat. If something aches—the head, teeth, stomach, joints, feet—that can affect a singer’s focus and sound production. Emotional issues can get in the way of singing effectively. As Birgit Nilsson put it, “If the birdies are not happy, they do not sing.”

Most singers are self-employed contractors. A basic fact of operatic life is if you don’t sing, you don’t get paid. This is a question of survival in more ways than one, especially for singers who have dependents such a spouse, children or parents. In certain theaters, if a singer completes the first act, he or she will be paid at the intermission. They soldier through even though they should not have gone on in the first place. I have known artists who have imperilled their long-term health because they need the paycheck immediately. I am not judging singers who do this. I respect their dilemma and know that if they become serial cancellers they will be less likely to be offered other engagements.

Then there are cases in which singers go on because they love to perform and feel a sense of obligation to audiences who bought tickets to hear them. Putting aside issues of being paid, many performers believe the show must go on and sometimes take ill during a performance.

I am not a singer but using my voice is central to my working life. I give more than a hundred lectures per year, including one each month that is more than two hours long with no break. In addition, I do broadcasting and the occasional narration. Like singers, I travel often in enclosed public conveyances that might have sick people on board. Hotels and restaurants pose health challenges, as do people who might not know they have something contagious when they come to shake my hand.

A couple of years ago, while on a speaking tour in Europe, I developed a severe case of laryngitis after being exposed to chemicals on a stage. I immediately visited social media pages frequented by singers and speakers and got advice about how to address the problem. One valuable tip is to consume pineapple on a regular basis because it contains ananase, an enzyme that acts as an anti-inflammatory. Pineapple is naturally high in sugar, so I often take ananase in pill form.

I was grateful for the solidarity but also knew that, upon my return home, I needed serious medical care. I went to Anthony F. Jahn, the medical director of the Metropolitan Opera, who slowly and patiently helped me recover and gave me some behavioral tips to try to avoid recurrence of the problem.

Recently I bought a copy of “Vocal Health for Singers: A Leading Voice Doctor Answers Over 100 Questions from Vocalists” that Dr. Jahn has just published. I would have chosen a different, more global title. It is an excellent book and full of wisdom not only for singers but for anyone trying to maintain good health in modern times. It is also, I believe, the right mixture of medical and practical advice that does not immediately send you to a pharmacy for every affliction.

This valuable book contains many questions Dr. Jahn receives and the answers he provides. In reading it, I was reminded how vigilant and unsqueamish singers are about issues regarding their bodies, going into more detail about substances such as phlegm and earwax than I thought possible. He tells us that using Q-tips might actually aggravate the problem by pushing wax further into the ear canal which, under some circumstances, might result in hearing loss. Severe wax buildup requires a doctor’s care.

He addresses an interesting topic, that how we speak affects how we sing. The speaking and singing voice both originate in the larynx but “many singers think of their singing voice as ‘the instrument,’ and consider voice rest as simply not singing… What we do vocally when speaking on the phone, arguing at a noisy restaurant or bar, yelling, laughing or crying, definitely puts more miles on those vocal folds than actual singing.” He notes that if you are speaking in an environment with 70 decibels of noise, “you can easily be putting out 105 decibels of voice, only to pay the price later.”

Dr. Jahn was recently interviewed in The New York Times about singing while pregnant. This was inspired by the performance by Beyoncé, who is expecting twins, at the Grammy awards. His book has a section called Women’s Corner that sensitively and thoroughly addresses all sorts of topics that many of us might never think of, such as whether birth control pills give a singer better low notes. The answer is apparently not, but Dr. Jahn recommends to the questioner that she use diuretics and reduce salt intake at certain times.

He discusses how surgery—whether for wisdom teeth, a nose job, appendicitis or other challenges—can affect the voice. While one wants to avoid surgery for many reasons, sometimes it is inevitable. He is very precise on how all kinds of medications, even those intended to help the voice, have impact on vocal health. The usual sprays, lozenges and pills are addressed, but I was taken aback by the theory from one vocal coach who says that applying anti-hemorrhoid cream to the right spot on the neck can reduce swelling in the throat. Dr. Jahn thoroughly refuted this notion and, as I read it, I had a sudden craving for pineapple juice!


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Comments [1]

John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Interesting comment about salt (sodium chloride) intake from Dr. Jahn. I can remember having a "different voice" after lunching on my favorite salty bagels filled with salty processed meats. I believe that the salt is an astringent and tightens up the chords and throat. probably not a coincidence that some nasal decongestants contain chlorides too which dry out the sinuses.

Mar. 11 2017 10:30 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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