“My throat hurts” is one of the most common, stressful situations for a singer to experience, especially with a performance just around the corner.
Just as any musician would care for their instrument, singers must go to great lengths to protect their voices. The word “voice” spans many aspects to consider, including your vocal cords, throat muscles, breath support, and other related muscles.
There are many reasons one could experience pain while singing, and a sore throat could develop. Let’s begin with the most simple and work our way up from there.
Vocal fatigue is when a singer has pain in the throat, and their vocal tone becomes hoarse or raspy. It can stem from overworking the voice, not warming up, and incorrect—sometimes downright horrible—technique.
To circumvent vocal fatigue, avoid yelling and talking too loudly for too long and have a thorough warmup routine before practice and performance.
*A huge hack for the average singer is this: does it hurt when you swallow? If so, DO NOT sing. This will spin you backward, and you’ll run the risk of damage and prolonging your illness.
A True and Informative Story
Years ago, I had a dear friend that I knew from my college days. She and I had both trained under the same teacher. A total guru, if you know what I mean. And we placed 100% loyalty and trust in this teacher.
Everyone I knew who went to this teacher got better and worse. This brilliant teacher had amazing ideas. (He’s since passed away, God rest his soul). But even the best have blind spots.
He had tried to synthesize a certain belt technique with the mixed voice method espoused by one of his colleagues, whom I later studied without in L.A.
In other blogs, I’ve told an in-depth story of the great vocal genius Seth Riggs. In my first lesson, I realized I had been using the WRONG MUSCLES to sing higher notes. In fact, whenever I’d sing, my throat muscles were tight, and I often experienced a pinching feeling on higher notes the second I went above middle C on the piano.
The name of Seth’s methodology was “Speech Level Singing,” and I fully subscribe to this. Without it, my throat would always hurt, and my voice was severely limited, trying to sing high notes, make a natural sound, or just trying to hit notes that were never supposed to be that hard.
Years later, after learning to disengage muscles that have NO business assisting—or rather, might I say interfering—with vocal cord vibration, I began teaching as an associate under Seth Riggs and eventually as a Master associate, which was the honor of a lifetime.
I was known in my community as an innovator and the man who could “see inside your voice with his ears.” Throughout my life, I’d done a LOT of things and was quite average. But this was not one of them.
So my friend from college had given up on singing but ran into me and heard the drastic, positive changes in my voice. She immediately thought she’d humor me and take a lesson.
The breakthroughs were IMMEDIATE. Suddenly her pitch problems mostly disappeared, and high notes came naturally.
But the biggest revelation was after the lesson when she said……………….
Wait for it………………
“Hmm, I don’t have a sore throat from singing!!!!”
This eventually was my calling card. Of all the things I’ll discuss here, I can say that I’ve taken the throat pain out of the singing process! I’m so thankful I get to do this for a living!
Systematic Vocal Training
In 1998, I released a program titled ‘Singing Success’ with the subtitle ‘A systematic vocal training course.’ In fact, all I did was take my most universally successful exercises and warmups from all my teaching.
These exercises were systematized into specific lessons designed to target the voice as a whole, with each subsequent lesson adding on more difficult vocal coordinations to challenge us all to sing the hard songs, build endurance, and improve ease and quality.
I’m extremely thankful to say this program is an international bestseller and even more grateful for the thousands of testimonials from so many who say, “I no longer get a sore throat from singing.”
It’s also nice to get a call from a client after the Grammy Awards, thanking me for my warmups. 😉 😀
Diagnostic Vocal Coaching
Systematic training is universal and great for the ‘self-taught’ singer who simply needs a plan. BUT…. pros train with a vocal coach most time. One-on-one coaching is what we’ve termed at my studio, “Brett Manning Studios,” as diagnostic vocal coaching.
This type of coaching is often for those trying to fix or prevent vocal damage. Sometimes with the assisted guidance of throat doctors (ENT).
At my studio, my Uber-talented associates will immediately help clients sing without pain, improve their overall sound (tone and style), free up the high notes and enable a deeper self-expression that sets them apart.
Sometimes singers have to come to us after surgery or vocal rest due to vocal nodes or nodules. Many times we can hear the swelling in the vocal cords (not ‘vocal chords’…. this spelling refers to a musical chord), the extremely limited vocal range, throat tightness, lack of breath support, and overall stress levels.
Also, a diagnostic coaching session or visit to an ENT can help you discern if you’re getting a sore throat from singing or from sickness or some other cause. A sore throat has multiple factors and sometimes a combination of many factors.
For example, other reasons a singer might feel pain include allergies, muscle fatigue/muscle tension, or simply it’s cold outside.
The Importance of Healthy Vocal Cords
We’ve already established that as a singer, your vocal cords are your instrument and require care and consideration. Healthy vocal cords will allow you to exercise your full range and produce a full, pure, and engaging sound.
Even if you’re more Megadeath than Mariah Carey, if you want a career as a singer, your vocal health should be your number one priority, especially if you sing aggressively!
Many famous singers have spoken out about vocal health. Julie Andrew’s tragic story of losing her voice all began with a cyst requiring surgery that went horribly wrong.
Since then, she has served as an honorary chair for the Voice Health Institute along with Steven Tyler, Christina Perri, and others.
This should concern us when so many professional singers end up needing vocal therapy or even surgery on their vocal cords. For more info on this, read my blog on vocal health:
Having a vocal coach can help prevent fatigue in the early stages. Having someone with extensive experience listen as you practice singing will help keep you, as the singer, remain aware of your own health.
As a singer myself, I know the temptation to push through throat tightness and pain with “proper breath support” and improper technique, only to experience temporary relief. However, that could lead to permanent damage, which leads to a loss of vocal quality.
Can You Harm Your Vocal Cords?
Yes. Some bad habits can result in damaging your vocal cords. Things such as untreated allergies, smoke (first- and secondhand), tension, overuse, and abuse (like screaming) are all potentially damaging to your cords.
Also, Irritated or inflamed vocal cords won’t close efficiently, thus preventing you from hitting high notes in your range or clear tones. Rather you’re producing a rougher, more breathy sound throughout your range.
If you feel discomfort when singing, consider vocal rest. Vocal rest is the elimination of all vocals (don’t sing or talk) for a period of time. It allows your body time to reduce inflammation of the vocal folds without irritating them more and causing vocal damage.
Laryngitis symptoms from abuse
This is extremely crucial to understand and discern. HOWEVER, self-diagnosis can be tricky. This is why I constantly tell singers to have a knowledgeable coach and a reputable throat doctor (ENT).
But we can often recognize when no symptoms of illness are present and feel the stubbornness in our vocal cords as a result of singing too loudly or yelling at a sports event (I confess, as a father of 2 very athletic children, I’m very guilty of this), pushing the voice beyond what you’ve trained for or talking too long and forcefully.
Often, the results are cords that are so swollen or inflamed that the tone is perpetually raspy, and the range is severely limited. An omnipresent sense of throat irritation often arises.
Also, a sudden break can develop as a result of developing a sore throat from singing and continuing to sing.
*HOWEVER….. I’ve sung on mild Laryngitis when my tone quality was compromised, but my throat muscles were fine, and I had no soreness. Strangely, I sing a little easier during this challenge!
However, this is NOT recommended. I just know my voice after dozen years of experience under every condition imaginable. A great coach can assist you in knowing what your voice is capable of under stress as well as helping you keep your throat healthy.
This song was one that I waited a long to sing. I knew that there would be an allergy attack or reflux situation that would give me a natural breathy tone and increase vulnerability in this deeply emotional song. Hope you dig it 😉
A shock about your sore throat
When your throat muscles—at least the ones you can feel and we can see—feel raw and inflamed, that’s a warning sign that your voice as a whole is in trouble. But here’s the shocker:
The vocal cords don’t have nerve endings. This means you can’t actually ‘feel’ the cords. You can only feel the surrounding musculature and the increased difficulty when you sing.
Knowing the fact helps you to understand warming up and training your voice. If it hurts to sing, you actually may just be using the wrong muscles to sing. The muscles you feel make confused with the sound you hear. This is why we get incredulous (filled with disbelief) when we hear people sing high so easily.
Laryngitis symptoms from illness
In the above-mentioned song, I spoke of having Laryngitis and singing anyway. To reiterate, singing with Laryngitis is NEVER recommended. You have to know your voice inside and out before doing this.
In my case, my Laryngitis was from singing while recovering from sickness. They were Skype sessions, so I wasn’t contagious. Sing responsibly, right? 😊
Mount Sinai hospital defines Laryngitis as:
Swelling and irritation (inflammation) of the voice box (larynx). The problem is most often associated with hoarseness or loss of voice.
If this happens, vocal silence is the first step. And no matter what, no singing, no yelling, and avoiding whispering. This airy sound still inflames your vocal cords. And once you’re in the state of recovery, be sure to check in with your coach to gently rehab your voice before you start to sing again.
This is the time when I get to zealously proclaim that my Vocal rehab course has helped countless singers, and the testimonials regularly flow in as singers use this groundbreaking program.
Also, if you don’t experience immediate recovery or if you’re getting worse by the day, GO SEE A DOCTOR!
Advice for Maintaining a Healthy Singing Voice
Having several warmups you do before practicing, recording, or performing is critical to vocal cords that ‘stretch’—or better to say ‘coordinate’—easily, allowing you to sing notes with quality, ease, and control. But the RIGHT technique must be applied to alleviate throat pain and stress on the vocal cords.
Typically, you should NEVER sing hard songs without warming up, especially if your throat hurts while singing!
Also, maintain vocal strength by warming up a few times a week. This will ensure that you’re ready when an unexpected opportunity comes your way!
Hydrate Your Voice
Hydrating constantly is another way to reduce strain on your voice. Studies show that dehydration, even for a short period of time, causes increased effort in vocalization.
Think about the vocal cords as the motor of your voice! Hydration helps increase lubrication of the voice, much like oil is necessary for keeping your car engine from seizing up.
Many singers describe this sensation once dehydration occurs. The vocal cords can suddenly feel stuck and refuse to vibrate freely. Don’t allow yourself to get there!
Some schools of thought endorse room-temperature water only. I’m NOT keen on that thought. In fact, if your voice is feeling trashed or swollen, alternating between iced water and warm tea can have the same effect as an athlete icing and heating an injury.
Ice or cold air can reduce swelling, but then you need warm liquids to increase circulation. This is a voice hack I learned from a profoundly talented opera singer.
Viscosity and hydration
The cords have a substance coating them called viscous or respiratory mucosa. This is a thin, almost watery layer that protects the surface of the cords.
Smoking, singing in a dry environment, or lack of proper breath support can also exacerbate this loss of viscosity and interrupt freely vibrating vocal cords.
Some singers experience too much of this respiratory mucous in the form of thick phlegm. This can make the voice feel like you’re running in the mud trying to sing. Surprisingly, a little bit of organic cheese helps me restore that viscosity. Not everyone responds the same to certain dietary restrictions.
Hydration isn’t what most people think.
Refer to my blog on Vocal Hydration for more informative methods to remain hydrated. Because there are many myths about hydration, but let’s just say you need trace minerals in your water, or you’ll never be truly hydrated.
Since I started singing, I struggled to learn to drink room-temperature water in place of ice-cold drinks, but it’s effective!
Humidify Your House
Dry air is the single most common cause of a dry/sore throat. That makes sense, right? A dry throat can lead to a scratchy throat due to loss of viscosity and rob you of your best tone quality.
A humidifier running in the background will not only help hydrate your entire body, but it will also help your singing career thrive. Many superstars have a separate, large suitcase with multiple humidifiers to keep their voices from drying out in arid or frigid climates.
Take Vocal Naps
We already discussed vocal rest. Vocal naps are where you stop singing or speaking for short periods throughout your day. Most singers will tell you that vocal naps help prevent a sore throat, especially if they are running a rigorous schedule, such as putting on a show.
I know it can be difficult for singers to avoid singing when the radio kicks on or when a favorite song pops up on the trusty playlist, but believe me when I say it’s beneficial enough to put in the effort, especially if your throat hurts.
*Warning: I’ve seen singers keep impossible schedules and wear out their precious voices signing hundreds of autographs and losing their voices as a result. Don’t use your million-dollar racehorse to pull a plow!
Expert Advice to Avoid A Sore Throat While Singing
Be Sure Your Microphone is Loud Enough
If you’re singing into a mic, it is important to check the volume levels before you begin. If you’re out of balance, it can lead to screaming, which, as we’ve mentioned earlier, can cause you to use more air, putting air pressure on your vocal cords and causing a sore throat.
Set the Key
If you are doing a solo performance, make sure it is in a key that fits your vocal range. Any song you sing should allow you to use a good mix of your chest voice, head voice, and sometimes falsetto. Even professional singers have a preferred key.
Also, every voice has certain money notes, where the shape of your face, vocal cords, resonators, articulators, and air pressure come together on certain pitches and maximize tone on particular notes. A coach should be able to help you with this.
Also, check out my blog on “money notes,” which will describe how to achieve what is called formant. An expansion of sound without an increase of musculature or air pressure.
Stay Within Your Vocal Range
Stretching your voice is a good thing as long as it’s done properly. (Utilizing singing lessons is one path to explore that could help you.) However, it is important to know your limits. Using proper technique is much more important to a good performance than having a four-octave range.
Also, remember that effective methodology coordinates the voice towards high notes and alleviates a stretching feeling in the throat.
Do Not Over Breathe on High Notes
Over breathing is very common in the higher register. When you reach for that high note, it’s tempting to over breath. It feels like if you just push a little more, you’ll get there, but it’s not so. Over breathing will cause too much strain on your throat muscles by overloading the vocal cords with more pressure, introducing the outer muscles of the larynx and resulting in a sore throat you’re trying to avoid. Vocal lessons, as mentioned earlier, are an easy way to have someone help you learn that control.
Maintain Proper Body Posture
Many people scoff at the idea that your posture affects your performance. The truth is, it does! Singers, especially, will experience better breath control (consequently giving you enough air), be able to produce sound with less effort, and have increased control over their soft palate just by standing or sitting correctly.
And please, see a chiropractor and/or massage therapist. I have benefitted greatly in my ability to maintain good posture with each visit. And I ALWAYS sing better after a visit. Plus, if you have a tight or kinked neck, an adjustment can bring immediate relief!
Avoid Dairy While Singing…perhaps?
To be sure, I know TONS of singers—including me on most days—who can drink milk, eat a cheese pizza, or have a bowl of ice cream before a performance and be just fine. Maybe not for the long haul. Especially if the quality is poor.
Much of our dairy, unfortunately, is loaded with hormones from steroids designed to fatten cattle quicker to increase profits. These hormones can trigger an allergy response.
Also, antibiotics and a grain-only diet—rather than organic grass-fed cattle—can trigger allergy responses. Find out if you’re actually allergic to milk.
Most dairy, especially ice cream and milk, can (and for some singers, WILL Always) cause phlegm and mucus. This coating on your throat and vocal cords will make you feel the need to clear your throat. If you’ve ever coughed or cleared your throat until it hurt, you can imagine the danger of singing post-dairy, assuming that it affects you negatively.
If you didn’t get enough sleep or ate inflammatory foods, you might be tempted to blame your vocal troubles on caffeine. But I know 1000’s — yes THOUSANDS of singers who won’t sing until they have their coffee. I’m one of them.
But, caffeine tends to dehydrate, so you have to stay ahead of the game and do all the hydration techniques mentioned in my blog titled “Vocal Hydration” or subtitled “how to fix a dry throat.”
In the end, everyone is different. Some people are grossly allergic to caffeine. So, of course, they should avoid coffee.
You can try different nutritional protocols and sing on your standard diet. Then sing after eliminating certain so-called ‘danger foods. If you sing better without them. Who can argue with you? But you have to make that call.
Overcoming Throat Irritations
In summary, there are ways to overcome a sore throat and keep your throat healthy, so don’t freak out.
If you feel a sore throat coming on, take vocal naps. If you’re experiencing allergies, drink lemon tea, throat coat tea or, my favorite, Calli Tea. You can call my studio to find out which is best for you!
Also, be gentle with your voice. If you have a cold, rest. Most people are sleep deprived. You need sleep to recover.
Some singers really endorse the use of a Neti pot. A Neti pot is used several times a day to flush the nasal passages and clear the mucus out with a saltwater solution.
Do your own research on any saline (salt water) nasal treatments. There’s controversy about side effects. Ask your doctor and make up your own mind.
If you are serious about your vocal career and are consistently experiencing a sore throat or strained vocal cords, you need a trusted, certified coach!
Read: Singing Through Sickness
Keep a Checklist
One of the simplest ways to stop yourself from getting lost whenever you’re suffering is to run a quick list asking, “why does my throat hurt”? This is a summary of when you need and, at-a-glance, a concise overview.
- Bad technique- This is the first place to check if you’ve never experienced painless singing.
- Lazy warm-up habits- Sorry to be blunt, but assuming the first point in this checklist is good to go, you might be the cause. Don’t EVER skip the warm-up.
- Lack of physical warm up- Increasing circulation and warming up your body decreases the time necessary to warm up your voice. Save your voice for singing, and don’t wear out by taking too long on cold cords.
- Bad health- sickness, allergies, reflux, diagnosis of inflammatory issues, or some other related issue.
- Bad nutrition- Too much caffeine, alcohol, illicit drugs (and even some prescription drugs).
- Horrible sleep- One of THE biggest killers of the voice. This includes sleeping with your mouth open (bad sinus issues can cause this) and restless or insufficient sleep.
- Emotional stress- Ask yourself an honest question. Then, seek counseling.
- Vocal fatigue- Weather habitually pushing your speaking voice or singing voice, you should know how much you can take by now.
- Physical fatigue-This is a huge drain on the voice. You cannot sing to the top of your game when you’re in a state of fatigue.
- Travel stress- Time zones interrupt the body’s circadian rhythm. Also, the change of climate, temperature, pollen and mold in the air, humidity, and elevation affect the voice.