Dear Doctor Jahn,
I’m about to go touring…again. It’s on a bus –across the country. Last year, it was a heck of a lot of fun, but I was plagued with low-grade infections which led to less than ideal performances. I don’t smoke (though I’m around it!) and don’t drink too, too much. I’m just wondering what advice do you have for me to be the healthiest I can be on this year’s trip?
Dear Jack: Touring is difficult, both for your voice and your general health. There are many reasons. The schedule can be hectic, arriving, unpacking, rehearsing, performing and packing up again. It is stressful to deal day after day with new circumstances, different venues and different people. You are constantly in a noisy environment, since even on the bus the ambient noise level is significant, which can lead to voice strain. Depending on your group’s smoking policy, your bus may be a traveling gas chamber, filled with second hand smoke which is irritating to your throat. Stress relief often takes the form of parties, which are again noisy, smoky, and not good for your vocal tract.
The Road To Vocal Health
First, get a good set of ear-plugs, or, if you can afford them, noise cancellation head phones. Bose makes a rather expensive set, but cheaper ones are also available; just reducing the ambient noise level on the bus goes a long way towards allowing you and your throat, to relax. You can attach the phones to your iPod or CD player, and replace stress-inducing traffic noise with quiet music.
Next, try to prevail on the tour manager to get rid of smoking, or at least localize it at the back of the bus. Limit second hand smoke irritation by breathing through your nose (not your mouth) and use saline nasal spray frequently to help trap smoke particles in the nasal tract. Drink lots of water on the bus (you may need to sit near the toilet, but that is a small price to pay).
Have a routine that you adhere to daily. It should include some quiet time, even if just going for a short walk in a park or wooded area. If your hotel has a gym, try to use it- exercise is great stress relief.
Go Beyond the Basics
If you know how to meditate, a few minutes daily can be very refreshing and balancing.
At the risk of being anti-social, don’t be the life of every post-performance cast party. Your voice is your living, so don’t waste it on things you don’t get paid for. This is especially important for shows where the roles are not covered: the show and the rest of the cast depend on you being healthy and strong.
Try to eat well, not out of machines back stage- few years ago, while touring with the Metropolitan Opera in Japan, I noticed that many musicians were eating out of the machines, which were filled with high sodium noodle soups. These are not only lacking nutrition, but also can increase high blood pressure.
Try to pick up fresh fruit and produce whenever possible. If you get comfort from certain foods, try to make them part of your routine; a morning bowl of oatmeal, perhaps with fruits or nuts, is a very healthy anchor to your daily menu. Take dietary supplements, especially Vitamin C, spaced over the course of the day. Before leaving on tour, consider going to your doctor to pick up emergency drugs, such as a course of antibiotics, just in case.
Finally, call home! Some of the stress of touring comes from losing contact with your family. If you can, call, or e mail, regularly to keep yourself emotionally anchored during your travels.
-Anthony F. Jahn, MD, FACS, FRCS(C)
This discussion is for general information and not to be construed as specific medical advice that you should obtain from your own physician.
Dr. Jahn is an internationally renowned otolaryngologist based in Manhattan with a sub-specialty interest in the professional voice. His practice includes classical and popular singers. He holds academic appointments at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Westminster Choir College in Princeton. He is Medical Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and former Director of Medical Services at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Dr. Jahn has published several books for vocalists, including “Vocal Heath for Singers” (Singdaptive) and “The Singer’s Guide to Complete Health” (Oxford University Press).