Singing with Asthma
4 Questions about how to cope with asthma during singing
First and foremost: I am not a doctor. In this article, I won't claim to improve your singing with asthma or give you any medical tips on how to improve your asthma. I am a professional singer AND asthma patient for all my life.
I want to talk about coping with your asthma while singing through four questions:
Four Questions Singing with Asthma
1. Can I sing with asthma?
Asthma is one disease but different for everybody. Most people with asthma can sing. Some of them hardly encounter any problems, while others have big difficulties with their breath when they sing. For some people with severe asthma, singing might be too much.
Taking vocal lessons
When you take singing lessons, these often involve also breathing exercises. Controlled breathing is essential for a healthy vocal technique. Always listen to your own body when you do those exercises. A teacher might take it too far for you. That’s not a problem: just take some rest and see how far YOU can get. What I also experienced is that some teachers were a bit too careful with me because of my asthma. It’s always a good idea to tell your teacher about your asthma, so he or she can adapt activities to your need. But remember it’s you doing them and it’s your job to feel if they’re fit for you!
2. Can I sing in a choir with asthma?
Again, yes, most people with asthma can. In a choir, the hurdle is the sometimes long lines and notes you have to sing without breathing. First, it’s good to know that there exists something called: choral breathing.
Choral breathing: breathe when you need it
Because you sing one voice with multiple people in the choir, you can alternate the places in which you breathe between you and your fellow choir members. This also allows you to inhale more often. You can even inhale within a word.
Some conductors don’t accept choral breathing. If the breathing marks the conductor tells you are too long for you, just smuggle in some breaths all the same (TIP 1). If you get remarks on that, talk to the conductor privately. If there is no way out: find another choir.
TIP 1: skip the consonant
Imagine you’re singing the sentence ‘The earth is beautiful’ in a choir. Your out of breath after ‘is’, but you’re not allowed to breathe there. Breathe, but leave out the plosive ‘b’ of ‘beautiful’ and join in again softly from ‘eautiful’. This makes your breaths less notable.
TIP 2: Learn to control your airflow
Learn how to support and control your breath. You can sing significantly longer lines if you train your breath support. Preferably do this with a vocal teacher.
3. How can asthma medication impact my voice?
Many asthma inhalers CAN have a side effect of a dry throat and a hoarse voice. Just stopping your medication is never a good idea. If you have vocal problems and you think they might be related to your asthma, go to your doctor. They can check if your asthma is really the cause and, if possible, prescribe a different medication.
TIP 3: Use a spacer
Discuss with your doctor if it might be a good idea to use a spacer for your inhaler. They can reduce the risk of side effects on the voice.
TIP 4: Water, water, water
Always rinse your mouth and throat with water after you used your inhaler. Drinking a lot of water is also beneficial for the voice.
See this website for even more great tips: Astma.org advice about asthma and music
Remember: your voice only sounds because you can breathe. Breathing is so much more important than singing.
Personal story (don’t try this at home):
Things that can happen if you stop taking your medication to ‘save’ your voice.
There are a lot of vocal teachers who are uncomfortable with there students using asthma medication (or any medication at all). I have struggled with this. This is not about one teacher, but about multiple, plus the hesitations of other students to use (asthma) medication. Of course, when training as a professional, you’re worried about your vocal health more than any other part of your body.
Listening to stories of others
I was influenced by people telling that asthma medication is harmful to the voice. So I reduced my inhaler to one time a day maximum. I went to my doctor and he said that was ok. He wasn’t such a good doctor for me. I experienced periods of four weeks of closeness in my breath regularly. I started to think that was normal.
Age of your lungs: 74
Until I had to change doctors because I moved. This doctor called me in for a lung test. That didn’t go so well. The assistant told me I had the same lung capacity as a 74-year-old. At 25. She told me: the medication in your inhaler works only for 12 hours. If you take it one time a day, it will never be enough.
After a few visits to the specialist and 8x the medication I took before, my lungs were back in a normal shape for my age. I then discussed with my specialist to halve my medication again (so still 4x what I did before) and I am so much better now!
TIP 5: Listen to yourself and your doctor
Don’t listen to your vocal teacher (or in case of professionals, to colleagues) when they try to be a doctor. If they notice something and you think they might be right, go to a doctor to check on it. Otherwise, just pretend to be listening.
4. How can I cope with my asthma during singing?
As I said before, it’s helpful to learn a proper singing technique when you have asthma. You will learn to sing with less effort. You spend only the necessary energy.
There are days that your asthma will be worse, for example, if you’re recovering from an attack or cold or when you have allergies. Apart from taking rescue medication, there are a few things I feel help.
The following tips I got from my own experience. Things might work differently for you. The best advice for you might be to stay silent for a few days or to sing more comfortable repertoire. It’s also trying what works best for you.
TIP 6: Take rests.
Make your practice session an interval training: take short pauses regularly and drink some water in them.
TIP 7: Loosen up your respiratory muscles
In those bad asthma periods, my breath gets stuck. This means it feels cramped to breathe in and out, and that makes me lose the agility I need to sing intensive pieces. It’s like pumping your tire with a very narrow tube: there is just too much air pressure against your vocal cords. They won’t be able to vibrate so freely.
I always try to loosen up my muscles around my lungs, by moving my torso, my shoulders, arms and hips. The panting dog exercise can also help to loosen the diaphragm. Accent Method breathing helps too. The exercises in that method make sure the respiratory muscles stay flexible while not getting weak. These exercises don’t heal your lungs, but can at least give a feeling of more freedom.
Learn more about breathing and singing in this video:
TIP 8: Relation between nerves/stress and tight breath
I also experienced that when I’m nervous or stressed this feeling of being stuck gets worse. At some point, I got nervous for being nervous, and so I ended up in a spiral of nerves and obstructed breathing. There is no simple solution to being nervous. Still, for me it already helped to realize that my asthma actually felt worse because of the nerves. Before a performance, I often take preventive rescue inhalation.
Read more about singing with asmthma
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When we speak we hardly ever think of the length of the words we say. We just say them and usually they’re short.
When we sing this is so different: notes can be very long. In this explanation I will give you tips on how to sing long notes without pressing them. I will give you a technical and a musical path. Both paths reinforce each other.