“Help! I have to sing tonight and I have no voice!” Some useful tips for nursing your voice back to functionality within 12 hours or less.
Most of us have been there, with a gig to do and a non-functioning morning voice. Whether it be allergic reactions, a bad cold, reflux issues, overworked or stressed out voice, not enough sleep, or who knows what, it can be a panicky situation when we wake up with “no voice” and we have to sing in public that evening. I’ve been there a number of times over the years, and I’d like to share how I’ve managed to get a rough voice to reasonable clarity in a matter of a few hours. With one caveat: This does not ALWAYS work, and sometimes when the vocal folds are swollen or inflamed from a throat infection or something serious, it would be unwise to try and sing over/through it as it could actually do damage to the voice. But assuming the voice is able to respond positively after trying the following remedies/routine it’s often possible to get the voice functional in a few hours. My “voice recovery” routine involves any or all (and usually all) of the following, done in various combinations, but always with heightened awareness and careful methodical care. Often I’ve found that by having to work my voice back to health in a few hours with everything I know from my toolbox of vocal “tricks” that I actually practice much better and end up singing with impeccable technique. Often this is the only way to sing on “off” days. Here are some of the main tools I use to coax my voice back:
Be patient, don’t panic, stay calm and work slowly, gently with keen awareness
Multiple brief vocal “tests” (hums or onsets) with intermittent rests (rests are as important as the tests)
Hydration, hydration, hydration (more than usual)
Warm, herbal tea with honey and lemon (drinking throughout the day as needed)
Bend-overs while hanging head like rag doll (to get circulation to neck and throat)
Gently massage the neck areas with warm hands or warm damp towel
Specific stretches to loosen muscles (large and small) that connect with vocal production (clasping hands behind back and bending over to flex shoulder blades, yoga poses are good too)
Alternating gentle hums, lip trills, slides, [u]’s, creaks, and sighs (with frequent short rests)
Working to get more and more natural phonatory response without forcing in any way
Slow, deep breathing exercises to calm, lower, and slow the breath
Yawning helps and yawning through an [u] vowel. These help release the soft palate and get the larynx relaxed too. Also, yawn and sigh with gentle tone. This can be soothing on the vocal folds.
Keen awareness of precise connection with breath and phonation so as to optimize efficiency
Long hot shower(s) (ie steaming)
Chicken soup (it actually works)
Neti pot to clear nasal passages and mucus as needed
Alternating falsetto and chest “tests” of voice (beeps, hums, trills, sighs, [i] vowel)
Gentle panting (different speeds) for loosening palatal and diaphragmatic muscles
Movement: Try limbering up by moving like a dancer with arms outstretched and reaching, releasing joints of hips, shoulders, head, neck, and so on. Often, when the voice is tight so is the body. By limbering up the body, the voice can be loosened too. Movement in legato, fluid patterns with the breath free can help activate the natural voice response. So, try doing any of the vocal exercises here mentioned while “dancing” creatively. Hum and stretch, lip trill and lunge, siren and plie. Be creative, but move!
Start with the most comfortable range (usually middle or low) and slowly work outward but only as voice responds, never force
Simple very short patterns of 1, 2, 3, or 5 notes at the most (forego challenging vocalizes)
Descending falsetto to mixed voice, falsetto to creak, falsetto to chest (to flex the voice)
Hums are key to finding and assessing the true core; if hums cannot be eventually focused by trying all of the above then the voice is probably not going to work well enough that day unless forced, and that’s never worth it
Test phonation demands to vocal folds VERY gently, creatively, and progressively and ONLY as response yields unforced results (again, forcing is never recommended)
If one particular aspect of vocal production works particularly well, go back to it or stay with it a little while and then slowly try to ask more of the voice in other areas, moving from that strength (for example, if falsetto is clear but the chest voice isn’t, then activate falsetto through entire range, then slowly work toward clarity in the chest and mixed voice)
Creaking (gentle vocal fry) can help, taking it up and down from low range. If creaking doesn’t work easily then the vocal folds are probably not healthy. In general, if I have weak or no falsetto and creaking is hard to do, I don’t sing that day, period! Luckily, this happens very rarely.
Try the voice in full production mode a few times once it feels like it’s coming around to “test” it. If it cracks, flips, hurts, or won’t respond after trying all these things, then it’s probably a day to CANCEL. Nothing’s worth hurting the voice.