Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Monday, August 23, 2021

How To Sing Tired... When To Cancel Vocal Performance [UPDATED 2021]

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You're so tired you can't hardly string a sentence together, yet you have to sing that day! What can you do? OK, first of all the bad news: physical fatigue is a leading cause of vocal fatigue. Singing or even speaking a lot while tired can limit your vocal control, pitch accuracy and shorten your vocal range. It can cause vocal strain and even lead to vocal damage. There are some things you can do to limit vocal stress when singing tired. But you also need to recognize the point where you should cancel your performance - and be courageous enough to act on it! Let's dig in to all this:

How physical exhaustion can hurt your voice:

When you are physically dog-tired, drained, exhausted, sleep-deprived, you've 'hit the wall' or are 'under the weather' for whatever physical or psychological reason, your body does not want to support your voice. It just doesn't want to work that hard. This is because it takes more glucose and oxygen to work the bigger muscles of your core - your gluts, low abdominal wall, back, thighs - than to work the smaller muscles of the throat, larynx, vocal cords, tongue and jaw. Delegating the effort necessary for good singing to these smaller muscles is detrimental to them, causing tension to set in at all the wrong places. 

Also, the big muscles in your back that determine your posture so your ribcage is open and your diaphragm is stretched - they don't like engaging in their duties either. So your breath control is compromosed, and your shoulders and neck muscles try to help, but just interfere with the free operation of your larynx and your facial articulators.  Not good!

7 wise things to do when singing tired:

  • DRINK UP! 
Take extra measures to be well-hydrated. Dehydration of your vocal tissues can put the nail in the coffin as far as your voice is concerned. Steaming your throat in a hot shower is a great idea because it gets water into your throat tissues immediately. Water at your performance is, too... maybe with either a little pineapple juice or cayenne-pepper-plus-lemon-juice added to keep throat tissues lubricated. Herbal tea with honey is fine, but stay away from black and green tea (which are dehydrating). 
  • EAT UP! 
Raise your immediate energy level: Before your performance eat something simple, easily digested and full of nutrition...especially protien. Maybe add a good vitamin/mineral supplement. But don't use sugar to do this! I once ate waaaay too many M&Ms at a recording session and got all my tracks too fast to sing later. Trust me... if you try to pump your tired self up with surgery snacks you'll get hyper and then crash. Oh, and chocolate can create phlegm your voice will have to deal with. Hold the chocolate celebration til after your performance.
Alcohol or other mood-altering drugs are really bad ways to try and get through. They can numb your alertness and can mask pushing, straining and dehydration of your voice. You won't sound nearly as well as you think you do, and your voice will suffer the consequences.
Make sure to use mindful, well-executed vocal exercises to warmup. It's extremely important to know how to 'pull' instead of 'push' your voice as you sound it.  In fact, consider doing a warmup with your vocal coach by phone or webcam before your performance. Then when your show is over, do a short series of gentle vocal exercises such as staccato scales, lip bubbles, tongue trills or sirens especially in your head voice, to cool your voice down. Cool-down exercises can help your voice recover a lot faster.
It doesn't work to 'just relax and sing'. Something has to give. Something has to provide power. For your voice that should come from the pelvic floor, which along with good posture will help give your voice the balance of breath support and control. Even (and especially) when you don't feel like it, you must make your big muscles work! They won't like it, but the intricate instrument of your voice sure will.
While singing, you must keep yourself flexibly tall... avoid like the plague the typical slumped posture of tiredness that will sabotage your breath control. Don't freeze to conserve energy either, remember - the voice wants access to movement.
Bad technique plus singing tired is a recipe for vocal disaster. The use of correct vocal technique for breathing, keeping an open throat and communicating authentically becomes all the more necessary when you're tired. And yes... all this takes MORE energy!

If you sing tired but wisely:

  1. You should notice that after your performance your vocal cords don't feel strained at all. In fact, you should be able to sing even better at the end of your performance than at the beginning.
  2. You should feel even more physical (instead of vocal) exhaustion... and you'll probably be hungry! 
  3. Your voice should feel and sound great the next day, instead of trashed.

Here's when you should cancel your performance:

If you really can't gather the low placed, big muscle energy to float your voice on top, or the tall, energetic posture necessary to open your ribcage and control your breath, then by all means don't sing. If you do, you risk short or long-term vocal problems because...
  • You will guard.
You may start the 'guarded stance' habit. This is a fear-induced inward crunch that tries too hard and can become a spiral downward to terrible vocal technique and real vocal dysfunction.
  • You will push.
You will end up pushing too much breath through your cords to get them to work, you will experience less vocal ability and problems with notes and passages you can usually easily accomplish.
  • Your voice will suffer.
I've done this wrong. I've sung when too exhausted and have set my voice back as much as three weeks. You see artists in the news all the time with vocal damage that started with vocal fatigue which I believe for busy artists is linked to physical fatigue. I don't take chances anymore. 

Don't let your busy life, successful career, or your fear of canceling a show cost you the health and longevity of your voice. If your voice matters, blowing your voice out even for a Grammy performance is ironically counter-productive for your career. Out of courtesy to those involved in the show, cancel as soon as you know you need to. But remember that if you have a pulse, you're allowed to get sick! From experience, my advice is:

- Either be able to summon the energy needed to be capable of supporting your voice and applying good vocal technique, 
or cancel your performance and live to sing another day!

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  • At November 27, 2012 at 9:06 AM , Anonymous Diane Hurst said...

    Good advice! Sometimes the body just doesn't cooperate with what we will so hard to do. Just yesterday I was amazed (and grateful) to be able to sing high-range notes again, after recovering from a mild cold that knocked my vocals out for a couple of weeks.

  • At November 30, 2012 at 6:41 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

    SO happy to hear you are singing your high notes again, Diane! Believe me, I know how much that means:) Good to hear from you.

  • At April 6, 2013 at 11:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Criky this answers so many questions, I have mistaken this situation for "low mojo", some spirtiual mythical mysterious lack of ability to sing and play ( Im a guitarist as well ). When its just plain old tiredness....usually I force myself through, picking sad songs thinking its a mood thing ( Im a country singer ). This has been a disaster. You feel like you have lost it altogether
    I do this for a living and when I tell my grown up kids singing & performing is tireing they laugh saying " you want to try what we do". Thanks for the insight. I will act on this advice and rest in future

  • At April 7, 2013 at 10:34 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Anonymous... glad to be able to shed some light:) Take care!

  • At December 5, 2013 at 8:29 AM , Anonymous Adam M said...

    These tips are very useful. Singers are sometimes kept to such a tough schedule that singing tired has just become part of it all.
    Adam M

  • At August 24, 2021 at 10:54 PM , Anonymous Ron Calabrese said...

    Hi Judy. Great advice, as usual, if you’re tired or under the weather. As I’ve gotten older, my voice needs more warm- up, particularly if I don’t get enough sleep. And getting enough sleep is increasingly difficult the older you get!
    Luckily, my fellow cantors take the early masses on Sunday and I never have to yodel before 10 AM.
    When singing challenging music, I prefer to eat very little, but use an old Pavarotti technique, a little greasy chicken. Chicken legs are the best but don’t overdo it. The Pav used to eat half the bird between acts!
    Lots of water always helps and that pineapple juice you recommend is definitely effective for excessive mucus.

  • At August 31, 2021 at 10:59 AM , Blogger Elizabeth H. Cottrell said...

    As I find so often with your articles, much of this advice can be applied to situations other than singing. Well done.

  • At September 2, 2021 at 3:51 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    Ah, Elizabeth, I'm so glad you get that! Yes, this goes for all kinds of speaker situations and social occasions, too. Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the article!


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