Remember that episode of Friends where Phoebe catches a cold?
I must have watched it 1,000 times (just ask my husband!). But for those of you unfamiliar with this episode, here’s the synopsis:
Phoebe, who is a singer, gets a cold and as luck would have it, has to perform that evening. (Common situation for any singer to find themselves in.) Instead of being bummed out by it, she goes with the flow and finds herself blown away by her newfound “floozy voice.” In fact, we get to watch her confidence build throughout the episode. (“Thank you, my babies.”) But, in true sitcom fashion, just as suddenly as the cold came on it goes away. And instead of celebrating, Phoebe is devastated and proceeds to try anything and everything to get it back: attempts the cold-air-wet-hair trick, pockets her friend Monica’s snotty kleenex, makes soup for Monica and then licks the bowl’s rim, and kisses coffeehouse manager Gunther (who now has it too). All in the name of getting her sexy voice back.
Phoebe: Yeah, I should go to, `cause I’m playing in one hour. Hey, (clears her voice and in her normal voice) you guys should come hear me, ooh hear me. Ooh, (tries to sing) “My sticky shoes” — eww! Eww! I lost my sexy phlegm!
As much as we detest being ill, there’s something not-all-bad about the changes that happen to our voice. I know you know what I mean. (I always say to my students that when I’m sick it’s Amy Winehouse time!*)
Let’s delve into the science behind that “sicky voice” phenomenon.
When we catch the common cold, a few things happen to our instrument. Our vocal cords and neighboring muscles typically become inflamed (red, puffy) and because of inflammation our vocal cords are unable to close properly. This leads to extra air escaping through the vocal cords. Instead of our cords being connected (a clean, pure sound), our vocal cords become disconnected, breathier. Think of the latter like a zipper that’s been zipped all the way up but there are a few holes in the zipline.
As well, the cords become thicker than usual (red and puffy, remember?) and thicker cords vibrate more slowly, producing a lower pitch — not to mention they’re tired and don’t want to stretch for those high notes like they typically do. Hence why we gain a bunch more low notes, but high notes may become trickier.
And yeah, there’s mucus too which also affects the sound quality (sound resonates in your head after all).
Range: determined by length and thickness of vocal cords
Shorter and thinner= vibrate faster, higher voice (children, women)
Longer and thicker= vibrate slower, lower voice (men, some women)
So there you have it: the biological factors behind “sicky voice.”
But while I have you, I wanted to point out an additional factor that happens when we’re sick.
Sometimes, we become awesome!
It’s like our voice becomes freer, looser. Yes, our range is lower than usual, and yes, we’re stuffed up and it’s hard to breathe, and yes, fast riffs and runs are likely not in the cards, but somehow our throat is … not so muscled up?
The truth: we dumped perfection. We don’t expect much from our sick selves, so there’s no need for the inner critic to chirp incessantly; like Simon Cowell, our critic has already resigned to the fact that any singing we do will obviously suck (I mean, we’re sick, right!) and therefore it lets you off the hook.
In truth, your critic has given you permission to suck. which in actuality, translates to permission to be awesome. Think about it.
Que sera sera, whatever will be will be — this is the golden ticket! This mentality allows us to further relax into what is, a surrender of sorts, and that decreases tension, both mental and physical. As such, the unnecessary helper muscles of the beginner singing voice stop firing to make us “sing” and suddenly our instrument works how it was always meant to work. Free. No blocks. Awesome.
(Okay, yes, we’re sick and that’s not awesome at all, but you know what I mean.)
What can we learn from this?
Give yourself permission to suck. (aka permission to be awesome)
And also, surrender to what is. Relax .And go easy on yourself.
That’s how you’ll maintain your killer voice post-quarantine.
*Note: When we're sick, we can still sing. But throat pain? That's a no-fly zone. And no, popping a throat lozenge is not a way to circumvent this pain=stop rule. It's even more detrimental to sing over a numbed sore throat as you won't be able to hear your body's pain signal "STOP!" (For you gigging musicians out there, I understand that sometimes we need to break the rules, but please try not to make this a habit.)