Do you ever feel as if you are the only one trying to remove that pesky, stubborn piece of phlegm just before you go on stage? Does it always happen at the worst of times? This is a problem that we all suffer, you are not the only one. I always thought that I was the only person who had to deal with this. During Phantom of the Opera, I always wondered how my fellow leads would always go out there and never need to clear their throat. The truth is, they had their own mechanisms to cope with phlegm.
Some of the ideas I am about to give you might be a little different than what you are normally given, some will be familiar. I encourage you to consider all solutions.
Why have I put this into the technique section?
You will find that as your technique improves, phlegm will cause less of an issue for you. This is because your vocal cords will be vibrating with more closure, forcing any unwanted phlegm off. Also, as you improve your technique, your anxiety will reduce, which will also have a significant impact on the amount of phlegm and ‘worry’ you have about it.
1. Vocalzone: Dame Kiri TeKanawa once told a colleague that she “tosses these down like lollies.” If a world famous opera singer can do this and still have a voice in her 70s, then I think that’s a fairly good way of saying that your first step is to always have a pack of these around. I would strongly suggest you get a triple pack of them through amazon here. In a pharmacy they will cost around 14-16 dollars for a single pack of 24. I like to buy them in bulk for a single cost of shipping because I go through so many.
Also you can gain contacts by offering fellow singers vocalzones when they are having a hard time.
2. Swallow: When you swallow after doing any of the other things on this list (or sometimes without), you can often get rid of a lot of the phlegm around the vocal cords. This is one reason why it’s useful to sip lots of water before going on stage. It will allow you to swallow without drying your throat out.
3. ‘Nasty face’ NG: This one was suggested to me by a student of a prolific tenor from Australia
- Start by scrunching your nose and upper lip up
- Make the smallest, most forward ‘ng’ sound you have ever made.
- Starting from a comfortable pitch in your upper-range, sloooowly siren downwards.
- When you reach a point where the voice crackles (because of phlegm, not because of a passagio break), then linger on that note until it doesn’t crackle so much.
- Feel free to take a breath whenever you need
- Make sure the noise is UGLY and FORWARD. It’s not meant to be pleasant. But it should be quiet enough that it won’t require any technique
4. Lip trills: Sometimes that really tricky bit of phlegm may need a bit more force. Try lip-trilling with a good amount of air pressure. This will require more air pressure than your normal warm-up lip trills.
5. Learn to flick the cords: When you cough, the cords slam together forcefully. Rather than coughing try this:
- Start a cough, but do not make the grunt/force air out
- You should notice that your air will be blocked from leaving your lungs at this point
- Now just let a little air out as if you were saying ‘uh’, but don’t vocalize it
- It will feel a bit like your cords are flicking apart to let a bit of air out
This is a very important method to learn as you can use it while on stage without being noticed. I would not persistently do this, you don’t want to develop a habit that leads you to coughing when you get frustrated.
6. Learn to manage performance anxiety, nerves and stage fright: Sometimes phlegm develops when you are nervous. Some people think they have more phlegm when they are nervous so they cough more and make it worse. I think it’s crucial to sort out any performance anxiety if you believe you have an issue with phlegm.
7. You don’t have a phlegm problem: Honestly, one of the biggest lessons I learnt about phlegm is that you need to stop acknowledging that there’s a problem. You need to stop fearing phlegm on the cords. In truth, there are a number of times where it has been sitting there before a show and the worst that happens is that one or two fairly unimportant notes has a very slight crackle – because once you’re singing, it will come off.
You don’t have a phlegm problem, that’s just your brain. Thinking hard about it will only make it worse!
For issues around confidence and anxiety, I found that The Inner Game Of Music Helped. I would also suggest looking at The Secret. The Secret, or its actionable follow-up The Magic are good books for changing your thought patterns towards more positive outcomes.
- Dairy Products: There are many people out there, including myself, who will avoid dairy during production seasons or gig periods. I personally feel that if I drink or eat too much dairy, I have more issues with phlegm. Some singers do not have this issue at all.
The Russian Soprano Anna Netrebko states that she can eat anything, from spicy foods to dairy. I know plenty of singers who drink a lot of milk before singing because they think it helps them. Most commonly, I know metal singers who drink milk because it gives them the gravel that they want in their voice.
My verdict on this? It’s a personal choice. I recommend experimenting during rehearsal seasons with different foods. If you are paranoid that a food group might cause an issue, do not experiment with new foods during production seasons or near gigs where you have a paying audience.
- Acid Reflux: I am currently working on an article about acid reflux, the voice and diet. If you have acid reflux, you are more prone to phlegm on the cords. This is because mucous is a way in which the internal organs protect themselves from substances that are not meant to be there. If you have acid reflux and you want to pursue singing, please take precautions to reduce this. For now, feel free to look at my article on natural remedies for acid reflux.
- To Cough, or not to cough?: I do not advocate for coughing, but the consensus I have had from a number of vocal coaches and teachers is that if you have to, do not hesitate to give a small, gentle cough if a lump of phlegm goes on the cords while you are singing. A little coughing will not ruin your voice – but avoid doing it at all costs before going on stage. Too much coughing may cause the vocal cords to swell; this is where you run into problems.
If you are experiencing phlegm, try to record everything you are doing during the day. Everything you eat, and when you seem to have it the most. If you are only getting it just before singing, then this is a sure sign that it is a result of anxiety and you need to work on your nerves and pre-show habits. If you are getting it all day, then this could be related to diet, reflux or dehydration.
Finally, you change your mindset around phlegm. It is very difficult to go to a performance of a highly beloved singer and not notice the occasional cough, swallow or crackle on one or two notes. Audiences are far more forgiving about this than you would think. If the rest of the performance is convincing, it will be forgotten.