Singing 101: Smoke, Fires, Vocal Irritation and Preventative Measures

Ah, 2020…a pandemic, social injustice, a recession, climate change, a divisive fool in the White House, no live music or performance since mid-March and now the West Coast is on fire. I hesitate to ask what else could be thrown our way in case a meteor is currently considering the Los Angeles Basin a fun landing spot in the next few months. Don’t wanna jinx anything.

Heavenly bodies aside, let’s discuss toxic air and how to deal with it as a singer.

Basic: When faced with smoke and air pollution, your body will create all kinds of defenses, but our immune systems can only do so much, so stay out of it. If you don’t need to go outside, don’t go outside. Get an air purifier with a decent filter. Fires aren’t just burning trees in the forest, they’re burning cars, buildings – anything that will feed the flame. Dioxins – the byproduct of these fires – are incredibly dangerous to our lungs, hearts and overall health. However, indoor pollution from these fires is just as bad – if not worse – so make sure the air conditioner in your apartment or house has a clean filter and that the windows and doors in your place are properly sealed. Your pets will thank you, too.

Advanced: Once in your lungs, PM10 and PM2.5 (microscopic particulate matter sizes) remain resident. You can’t cough them out. N95 and N99 masks have proven helpful in the reduction of particulate matter taken into the body via mouth and nose, but remember that your skin – your largest organ – can also absorb pollutants, so, along with your mask, cover up with long sleeves, pants, etc. There’s no such thing as healthy smoke. Be aware that hanging around the barbecue on the weekends ain’t doing you any favors, either.

Summary: As singers, our performance spaces can be hot, cold, dusty, moldy, dry, damp, odd places. There’s no need to act like a germophobe, but we have plenty of reasons to reduce the risk of bacterial infections, lowered immunity by being proactive. After all, we are living instruments.

Singing 101: “But What Do I Do With My Hands?!”

Truth is; not much. Hands are great for puppets, sign language and clapping, but those things at the ends of your arms aren’t really that helpful in communicating a lyric. Frankly, overusing your hands in a song could pretty much sabotage what you’re trying to do on stage – which is connect with your audience.

Okay, so I’ll grant that “waving” at the audience is a fine way to connect, but after they wave back, ya still got nothin’…

Basic: My favorite guiding principle of hands is “keep them below your waist.” If you don’t know what to do with your hands, don’t do anything. If you feel like moving your hands, move them one at a time — below the waist. Stay away from emphasizing with both hands at once (parallel motion) or you’ll risk looking like a spokesperson for an infomercial.

Advanced: Moving a hand above your waist requires finding the best time to also bring it back down below your waist. If you absolutely must move a hand, move it during the last word of a sung phrase and then re-move it on the last word of the next sung phrase. Subtle – not slashing – motion required.

Summary: When singing a song, what’s going on in your eyes is far more important that what’s going on with your hands…

Singing 101: If It Hurts, You’re Doing It Wrong

Imagine having to lift a moderately heavy box. It’s on the floor, ready to be moved. Suddenly you get a phone call and you decide that you could probably carry on a conversation and lift that moderately heavy box with one arm. So, with the phone in one hand, you cheerily chat away, lean over, bend your knees a little bit, get that arm around the box and use your lower back and neck muscles to lift up. At that point, you realize that you may have misjudged this particular moderately heavy box and that it required more than one arm, it required two. That little bend in your knee should’ve been both thighs stretching and flexing. Not only that, but you probably should have used your glutes, back and chest to do the job properly.

And, just as suddenly, something is not right with your body and you are injured.

I’ve rehabbed a lot of singers’ voices. A Broadway/Pop Belt requires concentration, focus, trust and athleticism. After all, we’re talking eight shows a week on Broadway or six shows a day at a theme park or a four-hour minimum SAG/AFTRA recording session. What we do sounds difficult, but with concentration, focus, trust and athleticism, it is a relatively simple operation. All it requires is daily practice.

So, if you lift that same box incorrectly every day, you do not necessarily get stronger, you only risk further harm. Like that misjudged moderately heavy box, you don’t develop an unbreakable voice by breaking it every day. If it hurts when you sing, you’re doing it wrong.