“Help! I have to sing tonight and I have no voice!”
Some useful tips for nursing your voice back to functionality in 12 hours or less.
How to get your voice back.
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 and 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. I do these 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,” 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.
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) (steaming).
Chicken soup (it actually works).
Neti pot to clear nasal passages and mucus as needed.
Gentle panting at different speeds for loosening palatal and diaphragmatic muscles.
Movement: Try limbering up by moving like a dancer with arms outstretched and reaching. Release the joints of your 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 vocalizations.
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. Do this ONLY as response yields unforced results. Again, forcing is never recommended.
If an aspect of vocal production works particularly well, go back to it or stay with it awhile. 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, 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.
Test the voice: try 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 is worth hurting the voice.
If the voice does come around – that is, phonation becomes responsive and easier – then proceed to more standard vocalizes. These can include five-note scales, alternating patterns, testing out the extended range, using all the vowels, gently testing the top range notes, and trying the full core voice to see if it can take the pressure. It may be that the extreme high notes are not accessible or that forte singing is difficult. But, it may be that the voice is responsive up to 80% or so, enough to sing the gig that evening.
Sometimes I find the adrenaline of the performance will help boost it the rest of the way. This is particularly true when I continue to do the things listed above all the way up until the performance. I’ve even noted on occasion that by doing these on a “bad vocal day,” when I performed, I had an especially good performance.
We rarely practice as carefully on a regular day as we do on days when we have to pull our voices back from the brink. It’s instructive to note how these simple, yet intensively conscious, voice-care treatments can help us to sing optimally.