Illness and singing

As we approach the end of the sick season, I have had more than a few questions about when to sing if a student is sick and more than a few situations with students wanting to sing when they are sick. As singers, the body is the instrument. As such, it should always be treated delicately when it comes to sickness. I am not a doctor, I am just a singer, so please take my advice as such—what one singer recommends to another singer.

My rules for singing while sick are very strict and I have turned away several students in the past month who have shown up to lessons sick. The reasons are fairly selfish, if I’m being honest. Having recently suffered a viral infection in my vocal cords that made me aphonic for almost a week, I have become more stringent on students coming to my studio sick. If they feel they can’t miss a singing lesson, I often tell the parents that I feel the same way—I can’t miss a singing lesson either. In my case, I don’t get paid if I don’t teach. I would rather miss one lesson because someone is sick and needs to stay home than twenty because I am sick and need to stay home.

My selfishness aside, viral and bacterial infections, especially those that begin in the throat and lungs, can easily spread to the vocal cords if proper rest and recovery are not taken. I have had at least two of my colleagues suffer vocal paralyzation because of viral infections getting into their vocal cords. The physical therapy they went through because of it is something I would not risk any of my students needing. According to one ENT specialist, many people are affected by some form of vocal paralyzation due to illness, but very few, except singers who need their voice to move in very specific ways, ever notice it.

My rule of thumb has always been to reschedule a lesson if you have a fever. Fevers tend to indicate a contagious illness. As for colds, I will sometimes allow a singer to sing through a cold, especially if they are at the tail end of it, but I always make sure to tell them why this is a risky thing to do and show them what is happening to their vocal cords physically when they decide to sing with a cold. I do not allow students to sing if they have just started to feel sick because of the virus; however, if they have been sick for a while and their cold is mostly just symptoms, I will allow them to sing. I also warn them that singing with a virus such as a cold can get into the vocal cords and cause serious damage.

I also show them how the swelling in their vocal cords causes breathiness, describe to them how they are playing a “warped” instrument and that if they use proper singing technique, they will not achieve the same results they would if they were healthy. I also tend to have them sing only briefly and then work on theory, song analysis, diction, aural skills and other work that sometimes gets left by the wayside during a singing lesson where the student is healthy.

Unfortunately, I have many students who have many singing commitments and sometimes are asked to sing when they shouldn’t be—choir rehearsals, school plays, among others. Performance schedules do not wait for illness, and in these cases, I often write a note to their director telling them that I recommend they mark the music and avoid singing during rehearsal.

In my opinion, illness and singing do not go well together. If you or your student is sick, please rest and take the time to get better. Working with a warped instrument doesn’t do anything constructive—you are not practicing on your instrument, you are practicing on a damaged instrument and you are risking serious vocal injury if you do. Practice on your instrument when it’s healthy—you will be practicing singing the way your body is supposed to sing and you will not be risking damage to your vocal cords. Analyze your music and study your music theory when you are sick. And, above all, take care of yourself and drink lots of water!

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