Pulling Off a Sick Performance

You’ve spent hours practicing and fine-tuning for an important performance and are feeling prepared and excited. Take some thought to also prepare for any potential setbacks that could start with a sniffle. 

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

You feel a little more tired than usual at the end of a busy rehearsal day, just a bit dry, with a tickle . . . no, a scratch . . . at the back of your throat. You hope it’s just allergies. You take your favorite home remedy and over-the-counter fixes, you drink some tea (with honey, of course), and go to bed as early as you can to prevent what is already inevitable. 

You are sick. It’s only an upper-respiratory infection, a mild annoyance to the general population, but it makes you feel like Mimì at the end of Act 4. 

Singing while sick is tricky. Voice teachers say just don’t do it. They are approaching it from the standpoint of the young singer’s vocal health. This is the time when you really learn your body and your instrument, and it is better to be safe than to be sorry. 

When a singer advances into a professional career, navigating vocal health the wrong way can be career breaking. So, what can you do? 

The best thing to do is avoid getting sick. (Easier said than done unless you live in a climatized bubble and don’t interact with others.) Most importantly, wash your hands, especially when you have been in public places. If you are using pianos or computers in a shared environment, use disinfectant wipes to remove germs before you begin practicing. Avoid touching your face as this is how viral infections spread from the hands. 

When a cold first starts, many suggest taking vitamin C, but this is less helpful if you are already sick and are vitamin deficient. Keeping vitamin C-rich foods like oranges, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens in your diet on a regular basis not only builds a healthy immune system, it also helps to heal your body when it is fighting an infection. While singers are typically responsible with hydration, it is essential in this situation to up your fluid intake. 

Another important aspect of prevention is stress management as stress from auditions, travel for auditions, and gigs can negatively affect the immune system. 

Regardless of prevention, everyone gets sick now and then. Singers need to know their bodies well enough to know when a doctor is necessary, and we don’t have time to wait around for symptoms to worsen. You can always ask a trusted teacher or coach—but in the end, the moment of decision falls to you. 

There are instructions for vocal fold swelling tests on YouTube presented by well respected otolaryngologists. You can also schedule an appointment with an ENT while healthy to establish a baseline. This can help determine if you should cancel when sick—or, if you can, with adequate rest and care, keep calm and sing on! 

If you can phonate without swelling, it is generally safe to sing. If it hurts to sing, the answer is obvious: stop and rest. Prolonging the duration of singing while sick can tire the voice, so you will need more rest—both vocal and physical—to successfully sing. 

The breath mechanism required for singing is often neglected as something that needs rest. Remember the foundation of your technique and give it the rest it deserves. This may mean canceling other nonsinging activities, especially social ones, where you are likely to become tired or to overuse an already taxed instrument while speaking. As disappointing as it is to go home immediately after a performance, you must skip the adoring fans and after-party. 

With over-the-counter methods, it is helpful to go to the pharmacist and ask what is right for your symptoms. Pharmacists are knowledgeable and can help minimize the overwhelming feeling of the brimming aisles in every pharmacy. As when we are healthy, hydration is key—look for medicines that thin mucus rather than dry it. Dryness is a side effect of many medications that singers can’t afford. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen can all help with pain and fever reduction but can have negative side effects depending on your personal health history. 

For home remedies, as with pharmaceutical solutions, proceed with caution and research. One person’s trusted remedy is another’s snake oil. Remember that no matter what you take, every remedy, every food item, and literally everything else has a chemical composition. Drug interactions are listed on prescription drugs, but with herbal remedies and supplements these aren’t always clear. 

Ginger, honey, and lemon are among the most noted natural solutions and generally trusted among voice professionals. Gargling with warm saltwater is another safe, trusted method. Neti pots and sinus rinses can be similarly helpful, but always follow the directions regarding using filtered or distilled water—worse infections can happen if water quality is questionable. Lozenges can be helpful with discomfort, especially while you wait for your aria in a concert setting, but remember to select those that do not contain menthol as it can worsen drying effects. 

The physical energy it requires to sing while sick can leave you exhausted. Be sure to give yourself some time to recover—not just from the work itself, but from the illness and the stress it caused. And be a good colleague: let other singers know when you are sick and avoid shaking hands and other physical contact. Overall, planning for the reality of getting sick will eliminate panicked moments of bad judgement and negative drug interactions. 

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is the Associate Editor for CS Music. She is also a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joanie@csmusic.net. Visit her on Instagram and TikTok at @joaniebrittingham.