Many singers of all styles, when singing well and constantly working, tend to take for granted that their voices will simply continue to deliver. Still, after more than 10 years of teaching and coaching singers of all styles and ages, I continue to get phone calls from anxiety-filled students about their voice or latest vocal ailment. The problems (and the phone calls) always seem to show up a day or two before a big audition, or gig. The most common vocal ailment is almost always a sore throat or "tired voice" due to overuse, or the student feels that he or she “is coming down with something.”
When presented with this scenario, voice and choral teachers need to be very careful how we proceed. The challenge lies in determining whether the student’s voice is too far gone or damaged to go on with the show, so to speak – even if it means they may miss out on performing. No matter what the age, singing with inflamed or swollen vocal cords is very dangerous. The vocal cords are extremely sensitive. Singing while the cords are under duress can cause immediate damage that could lead to more serious vocal issues down the road. So what are we supposed to do?
First, Get a Doctor's Advice
The first course of action is always to recommend that the student see an ENT (Otolaryngologist) or physician as soon as possible. If the doctor gives the okay to continue making sound, then he or she can go forward. It’s more common for inexperienced singers to have tired muscles in the throat surrounding the vocal cords than to have seriously damaged vocal cords. When the muscles around the vocal cords get swollen and sore, it does not allow the cords to vibrate at their most efficient level. If these muscles are properly treated, there is a good chance the singer will be able to pull off the performance without anyone ever even knowing they were under duress.
I have had to deal with this issue myself many times throughout my career, especially when I have to teach all day, sing an opera that night, and then have a concert recital the next day. No matter how excellent my technique is, it is inevitable that I will be somewhat tired and not as fresh I was the day before. This is simply the reality of being a working singer.
When looking at treatments other than rest for the vocal cords, the usual course of action is to numb the throat with sprays that contain numbing agents or use menthol cough drops. Unfortunately, both of these options can do more damage than healing. And although some might find this surprising, simple teas or lemon and honey do not do the trick, either. What is needed is the power of herbs that are capable of reducing inflammation, bringing down swelling. When used properly, most herbs will not cause adverse damage to the body or the vocal mechanism, as can happen when one takes over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and/or steroids. Most of these OTC drugs dry out the throat and voice, make a person drowsy or hyper, and are generally difficult for the body to handle.
Many Herbal Options
Below are some excellent herbs that I have used throughout my career of more than 20 years of singing opera. The herbs listed are only a few of the many options available when looking to heal the voice naturally. These in particular have been extremely effective for me in times of need, and I suggest them to all my students and colleagues. They can be used by your students or yourself if need be.
Cayenne is also known as Capsaicin. It is one of the most useful herbs around, and enough cannot be said about its miraculous healing properties. It is extremely stimulating to the entire body. It is excellent for all throat infections or swollen cords. To reduce a sore throat, stop inflammation, and stop potential infection, use five drops of cayenne extract or a small pinch of powder mixed with warm water and honey.
Licorice is a wonderful herb that helps treat many different ailments: It helps to heal inflamed tissues and membranes due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties. Licorice is one of the most commonly used herbs for sore, tired, and overused voices.
Marshmallow, or althaea officinalis, the flowering plant from which the poofy white treat got its name, is used for hoarseness, coughs, and lung trouble, including bronchitis. It exudes a sweet mucilage that is soothing, softening, and healing. It aids the body in expelling excess fluid and mucus by soothing and healing the mucous membranes. Marshmallow is also excellent for coughs.
Propolis is a resinous mixture with the same texture as honey that honeybees collect from tree buds, sap flows, or other botanical sources to coat their hives. This amazing natural medicine has been touted as having equal or more antibacterial properties than penicillin, as well as antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects. It is excellent for reducing swelling in the throat, breaking up mucus in the sinuses, relieving hoarseness, and fighting infection in the throat. Mixing a tablespoon of propolis with warm water and any one of the other herbs listed here is an excellent way to speed healing.
Sage is often referred to as a “cure-all,” and it is very effective when used as a gargle for healing all throat issues. Herbalists use sage to heal ulcers in the throat. It is especially effective when combined with licorice and propolis and used as a gargle to help heal laryngitis.
Slippery Elm could be considered the throat’s best friend when the mucous membranes of the throat and lungs are swollen and inflamed. It is a demulcent, which means it soothes mucous membranes by creating a smooth film to cover and soothe the irritated tissue. This is why slippery elm is one of the best choices to help soothe and relieve a dry, irritated throat, and it is one of the main ingredients in most cough syrups on the market today.
Tumeric is a favorite of Ayurvedic practitioners and is also used frequently in Chinese medicine. It is one of the most widely prescribed herbs for inflammation, due to its high level of anti-inflammatory properties with its most active ingredient, Curcumin.
All of these herbs can be used individually or in combination with each other to heal a tired and overused voice or sore throat. When used as a gargle, they are safe for kids age eight and above. Herbs need to be used consistently and correctly to maximize their healing effects. When done so, they can be effective and reliable medicines that singers can use to heal and support a tired and overused voice.
Making a Gargle
1. Fill a cup with two ounces of warm water. Make sure the water is lukewarm and not too hot – you don’t want to burn your throat.
2. Add a full dropper of extract to the water.
3. Mix in 1/2 tablespoon of honey.
All of the herbs and herbal combinations listed in this article should be used as a gargle and then spit out after use. Making a solution to gargle and using it is very easy.
Gargle for roughly 20 seconds, three times, every couple of hours throughout the day. Make sure to allow the solution to go as far down into your throat as possible. Also gargle just before you go to bed so the herbs can sit on the inflamed muscles and throat overnight. If possible, gargle five minutes before singing and during intermission.
(NOTE: Always be sure to consult with your singer or student and make sure they have consulted their doctor before suggesting they use herbs to heal their voice. Very few herbs produce adverse reactions, but it is important that you make sure the singer or student consult their doctor in case of any allergic reactions or conflicts with medications the students may be taking.)
David Aaron Katz
David Aaron Katz is a professional opera singer, cantor, nutrition consultant, herbalist, head of the vocal faculty for the Bronx Defenders Training Academy, and CEO of SuperiorVocalHealth.com. Katz is the author of Superior Vocal Health – Herbs for the Voice and Throat. His life mission is to help voice professionals around the world learn how to heal, maintain, and strengthen their voices naturally, without harsh chemicals or drugs.
This article was adapted from a version originally published in Choral Director Magazine, October 2013.