Chalk it up to allergy season or your torrid love affair with cheese, but phlegm/mucus is a consistent topic of conversation in the voice studio… most often during allergy season, but truly year-round! Think of mucus as the oil in your vocal machinery... a little bit, kept thin and slick, will protect the moving parts and keep you running like clockwork. In this ideal state, you're not even aware of the mucus doing its job; you won't hear or feel it. However, when you become dehydrated (even minimally) or the immune system is activated, the body's mucus production goes into overdrive and you become all-too aware of its presence. It becomes viscous (don't you hate that word?!?) and interferes intermittently with the vibration of the vocal folds. When discussing phlegm, I often use the analogy of nail polish: when it begins to dry out, it gets thicker and stickier.
So naturally you are tempted to clear your throat... DON'T! This is an act of aggression against your poor, vulnerable cords, which essentially grinds them noisily against one another. Ironically, it's so unkind to the cords that it generally results in the production of even more protective mucus.
So what CAN you do instead? Here's a fantastic alternative: When you have the urge to clear your throat, exhale forcefully, but without voicing, three times (think of a cat coughing up a hairball) and then swallow immediately. The rush of air will generally clear the mucus, while the saliva will combat any resulting dryness in the pharynx. If that doesn't clear the phlegm, then your job is to sing through/over it, with even greater attention given to optimal resonance and airflow. (For those who study with me, "the beam" would be a choice tool on such an occasion.)
The struggle is real. We’ve all had to sing through illness, allergies, and the resultant phlegm on occasion, and once in a great while, your listeners will hear it. I’ve found that casting directors have become very savvy these days in distinguishing the difference between the singer fighting phlegm/illness and the singer with poor technique. They understand very well the reality of what actors/singers must do – many of them were actors/singers themselves at one point, and they are empathetic.
Next week... part two of "The Sound of Mucus". We'll explore how the way you speak/sing may be to blame for that disruptive phlegm!
Recently a Broadway performer sought me out because she was experiencing something unsettling in performance. In her solo numbers, she would randomly feel/hear an intermittent "rattle" or "click" with the power to interrupt her vibrato and even create a momentary dip in pitch! She knew it was a result of "gunk" on her cords, but was completely confused as to why it was there and why it made such random appearances. Trips to ENTs for scoping had yielded no answers. On advice from colleagues and fellow cast members, she had tried everything, including eliminating dairy from her diet, homeopathic remedies, and upping her hydration levels. Nothing seemed to make a dent in the phlegm phenomenon.
As we began to work together, however, it became clear that the phlegm was anything but random. Her "money notes", while exciting, were more effortful and pressed than necessary. And a phrase or two later, the sound of mucus would appear right on cue! No one was more surprised than she to learn that SHE was the cause of her "rattle". Once we addressed her technical issues, eased her effort levels, and routed a map through those treacherous passages, the gunk was gone for good.
It's true. Effortful singing or speaking (pressed phonation) may be the cause of that phlegm! As we explored last week, the larynx produces additional mucus in an attempt to lubricate and protect the cords when they become irritated. Yet another reason that your primary goal is always to keep your effort (at the level of the folds) as easy as possible. I promise, with the right tools, even the most aggressive rock sounds can be produced with impunity!
- Mike Ruckles