Sick singers & when it's best to shut up about itEditorial
If there’s anything I can say about opera singers, it’s this: I’ve never, not once, envied their jobs.
Singers, you are an extraordinary species with thick skins and high levels of bravery coursing through your veins. I hold no jealousy or envy for your well-deserved spotlight. But I say carefully as your friend and coach: there’s something I really wish you’d stop doing.
Is it singing a late entry because you held the previous phrase for too long and didn’t leave enough time to breathe? Annoying, but no. Is it setting too slow a tempo for yourself and then running out of breath? Baffling, but no.
I really wish that singers would stop telling their teachers, coaches, and conductors that they’re sick.
To be more specific: it’s most irksome when a singer shows up at a rehearsal or a lesson, planning to spend it singing - yet they add a little caveat at the beginning of the session to the effect of, “Just so you know, I’m not feeling 100% today.”
It’s not that singers aren’t allowed to get sick, or that they should pretend they’re feeling great when they’re full of phlegm and their throat is on fire. And certainly, there are instances in a singer’s career where they pretty much have to sing when they’re not feeling so hot.
But singers, if you show up to a coaching or a rehearsal and you feel the urge to tell your coach or conductor that you’re under the weather, ask yourself this: what do you expect will be the outcome of your volunteering this information?
By telling her you’re sick, do you expect your coach to look the other way when you make sub-par sounds? If your coach is going to ignore problems, isn’t that a waste of time and money?
By telling him you’re sick, do you expect a conductor to shrug and move on if you can’t do something you’re asked to do because your sick instrument isn’t working for you? If a conductor can’t ask for what he wants in a music rehearsal, isn’t that a another waste of time and money?
Given that singers all inevitably get sick, and sometimes illness is a serious professional inconvenience, what’s to be done? The answer is simple: own your problem. Singers, you’re in charge of your own instruments, and only you really know whether or not your too sick to sing. If you aren’t going to be functional at work - if you can’t make a sound or get any real work done - be brave and admit it.
In cases like these, you’re either going to cancel your coaching or call in sick for rehearsal (a decision, to be fair, that presents its own enormous set of problems). In a worst-case scenario like a dress rehearsal, you go to rehearsal and call ahead to let them know you’ll be miming all your lines.
But if you’ve still got some voice in you and you’re planning to sing, it’s an exercise in professionalism to resist the urge to qualify your work by telling your boss you’re sick. Show up, sing your stuff, and don’t create a problem before there’s a problem. If you get strange looks and questions about your health, there’s no need to lie about it. But by making a point to preface your singing with an “I’m sick” warning, what you’re really saying is, “please don’t judge my work too harshly”, which is a safety net that savvy singers don’t need.
Singers, you spend your days being braver and tougher than most people; in most cases, your coaches and conductors can’t dream of making the sounds you can make with your voices. So if you feel like laying out a just-so-you-know-I’m-sick caveat comment, remind yourselves that you know your voice better than anyone else. That means you have to take responsibility for what you can and cannot do - but it also means you just may be the only person in the rehearsal room who even notices all that phlegm.