Singing in the Dry Winter Air

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

Here we are in the middle of the “dark” months. Cold, dry winter often takes a special toll on the singer’s instrument, and proper management can minimize any vocal impairment.

In winter the air is generally dryer, both outdoors and indoors. Humid, or damp, days are uncommon, and spending time outdoors on cold days can dry the respiratory tract. This is especially so if you exercise outdoors and tend to breathe through your mouth. Indoors, heating dries the air and sends any moisture up to the ceiling, away from your respiratory tract. Dry mucous membranes impair function. Nosebleeds are more frequent in the winter. Winter coughs are often not due to colds, but dryness in the pharynx, larynx, and trachea. Winter airborne allergens, such as dust and animal dander, remain airborne longer when the air has been heated and dried. Landing on dry mucous membranes, they may travel farther down the respiratory tract instead of being trapped among the moist cilia of the nasal lining. Coughing, allergies, and even allergy-triggered asthma may result.

To sing with minimal effort and maximal flexibility, the vocal folds need to be moist. I am referring now to surface moisture, the thin layer of mucus that trickles down from the laryngeal ventricles to coat the surface of the vocal folds. Singing softly and high requires that the folds almost touch each other. The thin layer of moisture on their surface allows them to approximate without excessive muscle effort. Dry vocal folds, by contrast, need to be squeezed together more forcefully, and the resulting voice is harsher and less nuanced. Additionally, the wear and tear on dry vocal fold edges is greater than when the surfaces are moistened.

And, yet, here we are—opera season, music schools in full swing! Your voice needs to function, and you need to remain healthy. Here are some suggestions.

First, increase your fluid intake. Don’t be fooled by the lack of summer sweat—your insensible fluid loss is the same, and may even be greater, considering the dryness of the ambient air. You can substitute herbal tea for water if you prefer the heat, but keep drinking. A moist mucosal surface traps and gets rid of foreign material, whether viruses or allergens, more easily. Moisture will also make your muscles work more easily and smoothly. Moisture allows the cover of the vocal folds to decouple from, and more easily slide over, the underlying vocalis muscle. Lack of moisture (or excessive inflammation) between the vocal fold lining and the vocalis muscle will quickly manifest in high voice, specifically in the secondo passaggio. So keep drinking, even if you aren’t as physically active as in the summer.



Second, control your living and working environment. Heat usually causes dryness, so I suggest that you keep the heat lower, and dress more warmly instead. Just turning down the heat a bit, and perhaps cracking the bedroom window, will markedly reduce air dryness. And if you need to sleep in a sweater, so be it. You should also use humidifiers in your home. In addition to the one attached to your heater (usually inadequate), place one in the bedroom and a second one in the living room (your piano will also thank you). Humidifiers need to be cleaned frequently, but you should start them up as soon as the heat is turned on and keep them going until the heat is off in the spring.

If you live in an older house, have pets, or other sources of potential allergens, consider using an electrostatic purifier. These trap particulate material that float in the air (usually more of a problem in the dry, overheated winter home) and reduce airway irritation, allergies, cough, and asthma.

Consider taking vitamin C preventively, if you aren’t already. This has been shown to reduce colds and, given our winter dietary predilection for hot cooked food, will help to replace some of the benefits of those fresh and raw summer fruits and vegetables. I recommend 1,000 mg a day, providing you do not have a medical condition (such as kidney stones) which may be a contraindication. Interestingly in this regard, the makers of Airborne and Emergen-C, both initially marketed for the treatment of colds, are now being recommended as a daily preventive vitamin supplement.

Another vitamin to consider (depending on your blood levels) is vitamin D3. Given the decrease in sun exposure (which is how our bodies normally synthesize vitamin D), you may need to join the throngs of vitamin D deficient Americans who supplement this daily.

If you exercise (and hopefully you have a routine for this), continue it over the winter, even if it means running indoors on a treadmill rather than out on the slippery sidewalk. You make your body stronger, your circulation more open, and your immune system more effective if you remain healthy. Winter may not be the best time to start a rigorous weight-loss regiment since, in my opinion, this also weakens the body a bit. Stay warm, well fed, and strong.

And, finally, if you do find yourself on a crowded bus or subway, don’t feel embarrassed to cover your face. If a mask looks silly (and it does), cover your mouth (and nose!) loosely with a scarf. You may risk looking standoffish and mysterious but you will be much less likely to catch an infected sneeze from your fellow straphanger. Frequent hand washing is better than those prepackaged hand wipes. The wipes don’t kill all the microbes, and hand sanitizers have recently been linked to increased incidence of thyroid cancer. Use soap and water before you touch your face—it’s cheaper, safer, and just as effective.

Disclaimer: The suggestions Dr. Jahn provides in these columns are for general information only and are not to be construed as specific medical advice or advocating specific treatment, which should be obtained only following a visit and consultation with your own physician.

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is a noted author of The Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website www.earandvoicedoctor.com.