Don't you just hate it when you have to perform, but you don't feel well? That is one of the most challenging things a singer will face, but we all have to from time to time. So what do you do? How should you warm up your voice when you aren't 100%?
Just remember that the goal for singers is to find vocal balance, which means to sing with a smooth connection throughout your entire range with proper vocal fold adduction, a relaxed larynx and a steady airflow. When you are sick, that may be easier said than done. I always do a "pre-warm up" before engaging in my standard warm up. I never jump directly into my songs. I use my regular tools and exercises, but I take my time and I may vary them a bit to help me feel proper air flow, especially if I'm stuffy. I will also specifically work to relax my larynx and adduct my vocal folds without adding too much muscle, especially if I am struggling with drainage or a mild sore throat. Again, my goal is to keep my voice balanced and free, and not to allow a constricted airway or drainage sitting on my folds to change my singing technique. It might take me a little longer than normal, but if I can find balance and relax during my warm up, then I have a much better shot for a successful performance.
My story: I learned this because of one awful singing while sick experience. I once had to sing at a noon Christmas service event in downtown Austin for the homeless community. I had 10 of my voice students (all children) scheduled to back me up on Mariah Carey's "Jesus, Born on this Day". The gig was at a little indoor/outdoor shack that didn't have a phone, so there was no one I could reach, but I knew a lot of people would be there. Plus, I had students coming, there was no way I could back out. Since it was the weekend, there wasn't any time to call a doctor. I felt awful. I had a very sore throat, swollen glands, and I couldn't even speak, much less make a connection in my singing. (I highly recommend not singing under these conditions). I
knew I had to figure something out. I was taking voice lessons, so I drew upon the tools I had been taught to help me prepare. All I could do was try my best. If I showed up with no voice, I would have to deal with it then. I took my own advice from my Vocal Heath Tips blog, babied my voice as much as possible, and then I did a "pre-warm up" before I even thought about doing my regular warm up or singing at full voice. In fact, I only sang the song once in full voice, outside, just before I performed, so I could save my voice. Throughout the morning, I went from no voice and eased into a balanced voice. By noon, I was thrilled that that I had my voice completely back! Not only did the song go well, be we got a standing ovation!
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, then just consider the following:
Know your limits. Become mentally aware of your voice and don't to do anything that would cause irritation or damage, such as: whispering, breathy singing, or trying to push the sound out through a congested nose or a tight neck/jaw. Make a decision not to force anything. If you are too sick and you aren't sure how to overcome it without hurting yourself, then see a doctor or just cancel.
Be patient and don't try to warm up too quickly. Give yourself time, even if it takes a little while to work through these steps. It will be worth it.
Stretch and massage your neck, shoulders, jaw, etc to help loosen your body. Do this in a steam shower so you can relax as much as possible.
Speak a soft hum, "ng" sound, or a lip bubble if you have trouble making a connected sound. See if you can hold it out for a few beats and alternate the sound with some easy staccato/legato patterns.
Sing a few notes or a short scale on a hum, "ng" or a lip bubble, or hum through a coffee straw at a low volume level, but keep it even so you can feel some connection. Once you can do this successfully, sing a longer scale or hum a phrase or two in your song.
Start to challenge yourself, gently at first, and a little at a time by adding:
vowels, like "ee" and "oo", 'uh". Sing them on staccato and legato notes.
consonants, like "w" "f" to encourage proper airflow.
phrases of songs sung on syllables like: "Mee" "Muh" "Nuh" or "No". If you need to make these sound a bit edgier, so add some short, staccato notes and mix them up with long, or legato notes at a medium dynamic level.
If "gunk" is sitting on your vocal folds, use "Gee" or "Guh" in a speaking or singing voice to assist in knocking the "gunk" away. Drink water and avoid clearing the voice or coughing, if possible.
Transition into your normal warm up routine. At this point, add a little more volume or use your regular tools that help you balance your voice.
Rehearse your song at a medium dynamic level using a tool, and as time gets closer add lyrics and work to keep that balance. Don't over do it. Save one run at a normal level just before you go on.
Hydrate. Drink water, "Throat Coat" tea or whatever helps you stay hydrated. Keep flushing that mucus away.
Nothing is ever guaranteed, but If follow these steps you will set yourself up for a much better performance than what you thought possible. If you aren't sure how to take care of you voice when you are sick, then check out my blog article "What should I do if I'm sick and I have to sing?"