What to do when you’re sick and you have to sing a big show that night?
We have all been there. Do you call in the understudy, do you go on and sing? It’s never an easy decision.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before making the call.
1) Are my vocal chords sick? By this I mean, do you have laryngitis, strep throat, or some other illness residing in your throat that directly effects the health of your vocal chords and/or laryngeal area? If the answer is “yes”, then it is better not to perform then to sing on sick, swollen chords and risk doing further damage.
2) Do I have a fever? If the answer is “yes”, stay home, don’t perform.
3) Do I have bronchitis or a virus that’s giving me a bad cough? If the answer is “yes”, then even though your chords are not sick themselves, you are likely hoarse because the constant coughing has caused your chords to be swollen so they don’t come together seamlessly when they vibrate. In this case, it is usually better not to perform then to sing on swollen, irritated chords and risk doing further damage.
4) Do I have a head cold only (stuffy nose, congestion) without a fever or bad cough? If so, then you may be uncomfortable, but you are probably ok to perform. Usually once you have warmed up you will see that your chords are likely fine and you can make a decent sound. You may just be uncomfortable because the resonance feels different since your sinuses and ears are clogged. If you have good technique, you can rely on that to get you through the performance. There may also be some mucus/phlegm on your chords. It is essential to stay incredibly hydrated so the mucus thins out and is able to be flushed out, swallowed down or easily vibrated off your chords.
5) Is my body extremely achy and under-energized? If the answer is “yes”, then this is a tough call. As you have seen me write before, your body is your instrument. So, while your chords may not be sick, if you do not feel that you have your body beneath you to truly support and energize your sound for the duration of your performance, then you may not want not perform. If you do, you may not be able to get the good sound you are used to. You may also risk under-singing or compensating for lackluster support with bad habits which can tax your chords unnecessarily and effect the clarity of your sound for upcoming performances (if you are doing a run of shows, for example).
And now a word about steroids. . . . When faced with being sick for an important performance, many singers go get a prescription for steroids to take the swelling down on their vocal chords so that they can sing for a night. I am not a fan of doing this. If your chords are that sick and swollen that you would consider getting a steroid prescription , then I don’t believe you should be singing. This is your body telling you to take it easy. Listen to your body. Steroids only reduce swelling. They do not address the underlying issues or illness causing the swelling. They also make the blood vessels in your vocal chords more fragile and more likely to rupture with use so your risk of vocal hemorrhage is high. It is not worth the risk.
The above guidelines are based on my years of experience as a singing teacher and professional singer, but I am not a doctor. When in doubt, always seek out the advice of your doctor.