Monday, October 13, 2014

Keep it to yourself! – why colds, singing and choirs don’t mix

’Tis the season to be poorly. A warm rehearsal room is the ideal place to spread coughs and sneezes, especially with all that deep breathing and standing close together.

Sneeze by James Gathany

So what should you do when you come down with a bug: soldier on or stay away? It depends how bad it is. Let’s look at your options.

Everyone gets sniffles of varying degrees at this time of year, perhaps you even get man flu.

If it’s just a cold then you’ll usually manage to drag yourself into work and maybe even have enough energy to haul your poor sick body along to choir. “What a loyal choir member!” you might think, but oh, how wrong you can be.

coughs and sneezes spread diseases

If you’re in the early stages of a cold (or worse, flu) then you’ll almost certainly be infectious. The worst time is when you’re feeling a little under the weather but the symptoms haven’t kicked in yet.

By coming to choir you’re in danger of spreading your germs around to all and sundry: sneezing in the direction of your conductor, breathing all over the other singers in your section, and coughing in front of your mates in the break.

There’s also the question of touch. Most germs are passed by hands to door handles, chair backs, music folders – you name it, there are the germs waiting there to pounce. And they stay around for much longer than you think.

So if you have the slightest inclination that you might be starting a cold, be responsible and STAY AWAY FROM CHOIR! Unless you want no singers at all to turn up to your Christmas concert.

it’s OK, i’m in recovery

When the bug really kicks in, your nose and eyes are streaming, you’re feeling sorry for yourself and are completely fed up with daytime TV, you might think of going back to choir.

That’s OK (unless you’re still infectious of course – see above) and is even a great idea since you don’t want to miss what’s going on. By all means go back to your choir rehearsals, but DON’T ATTEMPT TO SING! It’s too early, you’ll wreck your throat and set your recovery back several weeks.

Not only that but your breathing will be awful (and wheezy), you won’t hit notes accurately and will have to breathe lots in even the shortest phrases. It will depress you and make you think you can’t sing after all (but of course you can, as you well know).

There are lots of useful things you can do though:

  • Make tea for everyone in the break (only joking!)
  • Listen carefully to your section when they sing
  • Mouth the words as you go along
  • Get a greater understanding of how the parts fit together
  • Begin to learn the words of the new song
  • Catch up on the latest changes your MD has made in the performance of a song being rehearsed for your next concert
  • Keep up with the gossip (and other important choir announcements)

You get the idea.

By the way, if you’re in a pay-as-you go choir, you WILL have to pay to attend the session, even if you’re not singing. You’re getting the same learning experience as everyone else.

drugs: just say NO

Singers who have a cold or perhaps have even lost their voice and have a big concert coming up often ask me which over-the-counter remedy is best to get them through the gig. Vocaleze or Throatbalm? Voicesoothe or Singwell?


Yes, it may slightly alleviate your symptoms by numbing your throat, vocal cords and entire brain, and you’ll get through the concert. However, your throat will be red raw, your vocal cords enflamed and your head hurting. You might even have damaged something, let alone delayed your recovery by several weeks.

Don’t be tempted to better nature’s way. The reason you feel grotty is that nature wants you to rest and take it easy. You’ll get better quicker. By all means take Paracetamol/ Tylenol/ Panadol and drink lots of fluids, but that’s all.

You are not (believe it or not) indispensible. The concert CAN go on without you (see How will your choir cope if you don’t turn up?)

but i’m the boss!

It turns out that even your superhuman, wonderfully talented, irreplaceable musical director can catch the dreaded lurgy. Get used to the fact that they might not be there one week (shock, horror! – they’re only human).

If you’re a choir or workshop leader, you may well be tempted to soldier on when it would be better to stay in bed. This is a particular danger for those of you who are self-employed because if you don’t turn up, you won’t get paid.

Once again, NOBODY IS INDISPENSIBLE! (you have arranged for a colleague to take choir for you when you’re unavailable, right?). If you can’t make a rehearsal just let the choir know and give instructions to a reliable choir member so at least they can have a sing-along without you. If a big concert is coming up, the choir will rally round and figure out a solution. In fact, do they really need you at all (only joking!)?

See Taking care of ourselves as choir and workshop leaders

in case you haven’t been paying attention …

… here’s a quick summary:

  1. if you have a bug and are still infectious: STAY AWAY FROM CHOIR
  2. if you’re not yet fully recovered: DON’T ATTEMPT TO SING
  3. if you’re tempted by something to get you through a gig: DON’T TAKE MEDICATION
  4. if you’re a choir or workshop leader and are feeling really unwell, remember: NOBODY IS INDISPENSIBLE


further reading

You might also find these posts useful:

How to cope when singers miss choir sessions

How to pace yourself in choir rehearsals and singing workshops

Energy conservation for singing leaders: how to not get carried away

How to catch up if you miss a choir rehearsal

Looking after yourself in a busy concert season

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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