Laryngitis is one of the worst experiences a singer can face, but jumping back into vigorous singing activities too soon could prolong the hoarseness and loss of range.
Singdaptive asked speech language pathologist Tom Burke for advice on how to ensure a fast and full recovery after an illness.
If you sing for a rehearsal or performance while your vocal folds are still swollen from an illness, you will prolong the time it takes for your voice to heal fully.
Your goal is to wait until your swelling is at a zero before you resume normal singing work.
If you sing on swollen vocal folds, you could reverse the healing that has happened and find yourself back at square one.
Let’s imagine over the past week, your swelling has come down from a level ten to a two. As the swelling subsides, you may have noticed some of your notes have returned that were not there a few days ago.
If you sing now, however, your swelling will likely shoot back up to a six. (Regular rehearsal or performance before swelling has subsided is harmful, although light vocal exercises are recommended and helpful for healing).
The further away from zero you are, the more your swelling will increase if you demand too much of your voice.
Think of it like a bank. If you draw from the swelling bank, you are going to have to put back into it.
On a week when you are sick, or your voice is recovering, you must become what I call a “voice nun.”
This means no alcohol, no inflammatory foods, go to bed early, rest and hydrate.
It also means avoiding vocal strain when speaking. Focus on clear, precise diction so you don’t have to repeat yourself in loud settings.
Good diction can give you ten or twenty decibels worth of clarity with little vocal effort.
You may be able to get away with less-than-perfect lifestyle choices on a normal week, but if you want to recover your voice quickly, you must embrace all the healthy choices you can manage.
For example, on a normal week, going out for a few drinks after your show may not bother you or your voice too much.
When your voice is struggling, you can’t afford even a little bit of added vocal fold swelling.
When you are sick, eat nutritious foods, and make sure you are being rigorous about avoiding any allergens that irritate your system to any degree.
These might include gluten, almonds, dairy or beer.
After being sick and losing parts of your vocal range, you will be tempted to “reach” for your higher notes.
It is very easy for singers to push or force their voice at this stage, which leads to tension.
In fact, it can be difficult to tell the difference between residual swelling and residual tension in your voice.
Any semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT) exercise, if done correctly, will help reduce tension in your larynx (voice box), and help you to rule out muscle tension as an issue.
For example, the “ng” tongue position while humming a simple siren helps to lift your larynx slightly to regain your high notes in a healthy, tension-free way.
When a singer suffers an illness that affects their voice, there can be physical changes that ripple through the whole body. I call this the vocal vortex.
Once the voice goes, the whole body seems to curl up with hopelessness as you say, “Oh no … my voice!”
Amidst the stress of losing our voice, our chest will likely get tight. Now our neck is forward. This leads to our lower back hurting, and eventually, even our feet hurt!
One physical change leads to the next.
Furthermore, if you have been ill, you’ve probably been lying on the couch and your body alignment is all out of whack.
To help your body (and therefore your voice) bounce back, you might consider treating yourself to a massage. Perhaps you are familiar with foam rolling (a form of self-massage) or can work with an expert at your gym for a foam rolling session to release and soften your muscles.
If you were in the middle of singing a note, and you suddenly and abruptly lost phonation (vocal sound), it could be a sign of vocal fold hemorrhage. Stop singing and make a doctor’s appointment for tomorrow.
Or, if you have experienced changes in your voice that have lasted more than two weeks, you should see your doctor.
If, however, your voice loss or hoarseness occurred along with an illness, and has lasted less than two weeks, you don’t need to call the doctor just yet.
For specific exercises that help you heal when you have laryngitis, read our ‘singing after laryngitis’ article. With those exercises and the steps above, you can trust that your voice will come back after an illness.
Tom Burke is a speech-pathologist and voice coach for Broadway, Film, TV and Google. He developed the world’s first online vocal conservatory, Broadway VoiceBox with members in over 19 countries and growing fast. Find out more about his work here: tomburkevoice.com/voiceboxintro
Janine Le Clair
Gregory A. Barker