Jan 23

NO PLAY,NO PAY (2) Health for a gigging musician.

NO PLAY NO PAY(series)…Health for a gigging musician. (Neil Shaw-Hulme)
Today’s post is a guest post from NEIL SHAW-HULME. Neil hails from Bollington in Cheshire, the happy valley.He is a vocalist and multi instrumentalist who specialises in saxes. I got to know Neil through twitter, and he has consistently commented on my posts. His comments have always been  relevant and informative. The comments always reflect his wealth of experience not only as a musician, but as an entertainer as well.

His comment on on my post NO PLAY, NO PAY was too long and TOO GOOD just to be a comment at the end of my post…. hence today’s guest post.

For more info on Neil, check out website http://www.neilshawhulme.com/






It doesn’t take a serious illness to compromise a musician’s performance. A cold or a sore throat
that would be an annoyance in some occupations can be a disaster to a gigging musician. As a sax
clarinet,flute and WX7 player I find I can cope with the inevitable colds we catch and still teach and
gig. We all have a hygiene regime for our instruments, this has to be stepped up when we are ill.

Have you ever seen a black powder on the underside of your reed when ill? Well that’s strep throat
manifesting itself and obviously the mouthpiece is an ideal breeding ground for any germs. A reed
with this is not a rite off Milton fluid can sort it out but drying and wiping can stop it’s growth in the
first place. A quick wipe of the mouthpiece is a daily thing really and TCP can kill most things in the

The WX can be a nightmare to keep clean as with every clean I find a re calibration is
needed. Though it is possible to play with even a heavy cold, the issues with mucus can be severe.
Not only is breathing restricted but the force of the air coming out if our lungs whilst playing can
cause the alveoli to become aggravated, in very much the same way a cough will, only adding to
breathing difficulties. Using steam on its own is the best method for helping sinuses clear. I can’t
recommend the use of oils, anything that evaporates faster than water has a drying effect on the
tissues so isn’t a good idea.

Though vocal zones, or similar can be the only way to get a congested
headache under control at a gig. Sudafed is useful but be aware of the drying effect it has on the
vocal folds so hydrate when using it. I find antihistamine can do the same. If you have hay fever
then experiment with sprays as these I find are more direct and don’t dry out the throat. Get some
Optrex in too, the number of times I’ve had itchy eyes after a loud soul gig has shown that
conjunctivitis can also be an issue.

The Eustachian tubes get blocked and our perception of
volume level is diminished. This is not a time to stop wearing ear plugs, as it is just as loud as
normal but pressure on the tympanic membrane can make it sound quite a bit lower. As a side
note, ear plugs are essential. They can be the only way to endure loud post set dance music but
they also stop singers from trying to compete with the drummer and the rest of the band and the
eventual hoarseness this brings on.

I know singers who lost their voice every gig until they tried
plugs. Planet Wave do good ones and ER20 are good too. You need to practise with them and get
used to the sound. This is not how you sound to others, this is the artificial balance between your
normal acoustic sounds and the now more obvious bone transmission sound.
Now as a singer the problems get even bigger. Any and I mean any illness can show in the voice a
cold gives us excessive mucus on the vocal folds and the mucus production robs us of valuable
moisture from the larynx area.

The three main rules for singing when under the weather are;
hydration, hydration and hydration. Drinking plenty of water will help,you through most things and
is really a habit that we all need to adopt all the time. If the throat is sore high up, not in the larynx
itself, then make do with the pain and use Sandersons Throat Specific to clear the folds of mucus.
Try not to cough it away instead breath out as you would to clear your throat and let the folds
vibrate, vocal fry, this is less damaging and far more effective I’ve found. Any chloroform,
anaesthetic sprays should really be avoided, the pain is an indicator of something wrong and with
out it’s warning you may do even more damage.
Hydration has a huge effect on how I think and how alert I am. When fully hydrated my hands feel
freer and speed is more effortless. Nectarines and sweet fruits can be a way of getting moisture to
the important parts of the body faster I’ve found, but as a general rule allow 20 minutes for any
water to get to anywhere useful. Top up on stage, but if you’ve dried out this won’t help.
Now the dreaded exercise.

I have always done sit ups, press ups and light weights at home and
have a morning and evening regime. From a flexibility point of view this is great and we need a
strong core for support but there are other issues. There is a reflex that happens in the throat and
this can be really obstructive to wind players and singers. Take your dominant hand, hold it palm
up. Now with your other hand apply light pressure then release, repeat. Can you feel a tension in
the throat too? This reaction can cause a change of tone a sharpness in pitch and squeaks. In
singers we loose range and either yodel or choke on notes. So any increased fitness on the main
muscle groups used in our lines of work will make us a lot more consistent.

For us the muscles are the pectorals and stomach in the main, so crunches and wide stance press ups are excellent for this. Please take medical advice if you’ve not done any exercise for a while. The yoga moves dog
up and dog down are also brilliant toners.
This is a topic where I could write a book but in summation, try to keep active, adrenalin sports are
fabulous if you can do them, if you can control yourself when you’re scared you will be fine in front
of an audience. Hydrate, water is so important and we really neglect it.

Diet is really important, high sugar content leeches the cells of nutrients and water, don’t do chocolate bars before or between sets; if your at a wedding try to plate up some food for after if you can’t eat a clear hour before
going on and even then creamy sweets or indeed any dairy is mucus forming,leave until after
playing. Exercise to get the relevant muscles fit, tongue included. When you are ill clean out
mouthpieces frequently, if you have proper laryngitis don’t sing, if you have pharyngitis you won’t
be able to sing, but playing is thin toned but doable.

Don’t assume it’s o.k. to stop using plugs, with a cold as you don’t hear volume in the same way and did I mention water , HYDRATE.



THANK YOU Neil for a great post.

Next week look out for the next post in the series NO PLAY, NO PAY ….VOCAL CARE.

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1 comment

  1. Lady Saxophonist

    Thanks for the very informative comment from Neil.
    He is a very good singer too.

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