Irritants and the voice

Irritants and the voice

Is it irritating to be a Diva?….the importance of nose breathing.

The subject of voice and irritants arises, often amongst professional voice users, such as teachers and singers. Not for who is irritating to listen to instead speaking of irritants in our environment. Teachers, Actors and Singers can work in environments with dusty, dry and sometimes chemically laden air.

I have had clients who have suffered from sudden (and often violent) allergic reactions, from aeroallergens and irritants such as cedar trees, perfumes, grasses, spray’n’wipe amongst others. Most people, understandably,  get a fright when they realise that they can’t breathe.
Most people try to talk while they are still coughing. Often not pausing to inhale again, concentrate of the breath and relax more fully. For some, it is almost as if the cough is in itself an irritant, and, by pushing through it, it will just go away.

There is a great article on aeroallergens and the voice. The difference between Asthma attacks and Vocal Cord Dysfunction is explained well here. 

So if we are afflicted with a sudden change of breathing, we might think  “G*sh, I don’t know what this is, but its making it hard to breathe, and I’m coughing” Do we stop? Do we push on and keep talking or singing?

I was in a group voice class the other day. It was utterly delightful. There was a free and open feeling in my voice aided by incredible ease of lung expansion and long and easy breaths. I found my range exhilarating, and it was one of those beautiful times where everything felt wonderful. I was in the zone. There had been noise of construction outside the studio space all morning, and suddenly the smell of burning tar entered the building. It was intense. Before I could “breath in through my nose”, I had open-mouth inhaled air laced with the smell particle of hot, burning asphalt.

What to do? I stopped. It stopped the class. I didn’t really want to speak, as I was trying not to cough, so I quietly mentioned the smell. I then started to cough a little. I was grateful for the many hours of sessions as well as professional development i have done on chronic cough as well as keeping the throat open. I was sure there was “nothing” in my throat, despite the urge to voraciously clear the living daylights out of it. So I sat with it. Quietly. Inhaling through my nose, and breathing out through pursed lips, and implementing other techniques as I needed to. It was highly uncomfortable.  I knew that it would pass, and I would have to be patient.

It was the last half hour of class, so I didn’t participate. Even though I really wanted to. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t have my breathing sorted nor my airways feeling easy and open. Breath is the very foundation of our being. It is the floors to our house, our canvas to our paint. I felt a bit “Diva-ish” sitting on the sidelines, whilst the rest of the class continued. And it was that feeling that made me feel uncomfortable as well as the throat sensations. I also was grappling with the ‘but it had felt so great, and now it feels so horrible”. However not panicking. Breathing.

It got me thinking afterwards. When is it that we push through and keep voicing? I mean in survival situations of course we would have to. It also raises the idea of what you might perceive to be a “survival” situation: If you were in a show and had one of these allergic reactions, would you still keep going? Would it depend upon how much you valued your voice (or how much monetary value it had)? If you were a Diva at LaScala, would you stop and if you were in an amateur chorus would you stop? And who would urge you to keep going? Yourself or the Director? And yes, it does gets complex. Do we place a value on our vocal health? And when is it valid rather than ‘overdramatic’? It is a tightrope that we walk on at this time: knowing our body, knowing our obligations, and ensuring we honour both as much as is possible.

These sorts of allergic reactions are largely invisible. Initially for me, there was coughing and shortness of breath, with lingering different sensations. The desire to throat clear was defintely present: If I had entered into a state of guilt such as  “They must think I am putting it on” I could perhaps have indulged in some level of vocal theatrics and throat clearing to ensure that everyone would know it had indeed affected me. And if I had panicked, I might have closed my throat and became even more breathless and sure that “something is in my throat”. Instead, I was silent. I moved towards people to speak with them gently and succinctly. I remained mostly silent, sipping water, swallowing.

It also raises the concept of internal versus external circumstances that we can change. Externally, I could have left the space, but would have been confronted by the tar men right outside the door. I went to the kitchen to see if I could get water and boil the kettle to steam, but indeed the kitchen smelt worse than the studio. So I turned my focus to my internal situation. Luckily, I had an understanding teacher that knows about Vocal Health and was supportive of the decision.

So instead, I waited, inhaled, exhaled and repeated this pattern for a while. And eventually, I had a cup of hot water, after I had “steamed” the water from the cup.

So a silent Diva of sorts…

Some practicalities…….
Why is it important to nose breathe?

Well, basically nose breathing warms, filters and humidifies air. The nose acts like a screen against anything unwanted coming into the lungs. Fumes, dry, dusty air, smoke can all be triggers for “irritants” and it usually catches us unawares. For some who have significant reflux, they may have a sudden “meeting” with the acidic taste in their mouth and throat. 

Why is it important not to throat clear?
The same cartilages in the voice box that come together gently for speaking, bang against each other strongly. It can cause swelling and irritation…and the desire to throat clear even more. The analogy of a mosquito bite comes to mind. 

What can I do if this happens to me?
Remove yourself from the irritant if it is possible, or place tour hand or scarf over you nose and mouth.
Breathe through your nose and out through gently pursed lips.
Sip water, swallow strongly.
Try not to clear your throat.
Gently hum if you are unsure and see how that feels to make sound. 
Don’t panic!