How professional singers avoid sore throats
Soprano Jennifer Taverner singing Mozart Unlaced at the Glenn Gould School with Ben Cruchley (Photo by Nicola Betts)
Published Thursday, February 4, 2016 6:25AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, February 4, 2016 11:03AM EST
There is nothing a professional singer dreads more than catching a cold, says vocal coach Elaine Overholt, who runs Toronto's Big Voice Studios. A cold means a cancelled show and that means lost revenue.
"A lot of singers are self-employed. So if they lose their voice for a day or two days or for a week, it means losing a lot of money," says Overholt, who has performed with everyone from Ray Charles to Anne Murray and now trains pop stars Shawn Mendes and Francesco Yates, among other singers.
Singers aren't the only ones who hate colds, of course. Professors, public speakers, people in sales -- anyone who relies on their voices for their work can't afford to get sore or scratchy throats. So we spoke to three professional Canadian opera singers to find out what they do to look after their voices during cold season.
SORE THROAT CURES
Soprano and concert soloist Jennifer Taverner, currently touring with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony's production of Strauss's Die Fledermaus, says most performers will do anything to stave off a sore throat before a show.
"When you feel you are getting sick, you pull out all the stops," she says.
That means trying salt water gargles, steam showers, throat lozenges. All of those have worked for her long enough for her to sing, she says.
"And then of course, as soon as it's over, I get sick," she says, adding she just got over a bout of strep throat that came on the heels of six weeks of non-stop shows.
"I hadn't had that in years! Luckily, the timing worked out," she said.
Acclaimed Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth, who has sung with symphonies and opera companies across Canada and Europe in such venues as the Royal Opera Houses of London and Versailles, says he also likes to use salt water.
"I don't know why or if there's been studies on it," but he says he likes to mix a teaspoon or two of salt into some warm water, gargle -- "don't swallow it; it tastes disgusting" -- and then spit it out.
"Every time I get that sort of scratchy throat or I can't swallow, salt water always works for me," he says.
Ainsworth keeps a busy performance schedule, so when he does get sick, he drinks honey lemon tea or homemade ginger tea. The ginger tea is made by boiling fresh ginger slices for 10 minutes, straining them and then drinking the hot beverage with honey.
"The ginger is really spicy. But when you're sick and don't feel so well, that's a fantastic drink for your throat," he says.
HYDRATION AND STEAM
Both Taverner and Ainsworth say that drinking lots of water throughout the day before a performance is crucial. They also swear by humidifiers for keeping their throats and vocal cords moist and healthy.
"Singers love steam," says Taverner, who keeps a humidifier by her bed.
When Ainsworth performs in Calgary and Edmonton, which are notoriously dry in the winter, opera companies will often lend out humidifiers for cast member's hotel rooms.
"It makes a definite difference," he says.
Baritone Jesse Clark, who performs in several choral and concert works every year including an upcoming engagement with London Pro Musica, says he mostly sticks to drinking water and keeping away from acidic drinks such as orange juice to avoid irritating a sore throat.
He says apples are supposed to be good for clearing the throat, but he too has also relied on steam when a cold has come on.
"In times of desperation, I've used a hot steam shower to get the mucous out. Or you can boil water in a pot and stick your face over it with a towel over your head and breathe in the steam. That can help moisturize the cords," he says.
Overholt has seen the plans of the Las Vegas theatre where Celine Dion performs and says there are even humidifiers built into the stage there that moisten Dion's air throughout the show.
"So humidification is really important," she says.
But she says when you're genuinely sick, the best treatment is simply rest.
"If you feel a cold starting, we always just say go to bed for the day. Let's nip this in the bud," she says.
Next week on Life Hack Thursday, we'll have more singers' tips on how all professionals who do a lot of speaking for their work can avoid losing their voices.