Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How to Turn Vocal Cords Into Corn Flakes: Singing Vs. Air Conditioning

Yesterday I started warming up a very gifted student of mine and her singing sounded like her vocal cords were made of corn flakes. “You sound air-conditioned out,” I said. “Huh?” she replied. “Do you run your AC at night?” I asked. “Yes, I blast it,” she answered. “Is that a problem?”

I don’t know how she missed all my ranting about air-conditioning and what it does to the voice, but in case you have missed it too, here goes: Vocal cords like to be moist. Air-conditioning cools the air by pulling moisture out of it. Breathing air-conditioned air dries out your vocal cords.

Remember Border’s Books? I was playing a gig at the west Los Angeles Borders in the late 1990s. It was icy in there from the AC. I was wailing away when all of a sudden: no voice. Gone, just like that. It was a duo performance with my drummer pal Albe Bonacci, so I squawked a barely audible: “Drum solo!” and dove for my water bottle. Once I was hydrated my voice returned enough to finish the show. Later I read that it was zero humidity in LA that day, and the Borders AC was drying the air who knows how much more. My poor vocal cords didn’t stand a chance.

Some singers are more affected by AC than others. Before that show I’d noticed some vocal dryness from AC, but I’d never experienced just how much it can mess with the voice.

We had a very mild winter and spring here in Nashville, Tennessee, which does not portend well for the summer. On Cinco de Mayo I sat sweating in the park, watching the wonderful Fisk Jubilee Singers. It was 90 degrees at 5 PM in early May and I thought “We’re in for it this summer”. AC is necessary when it gets really hot. What’s a singer to do?

1) Ceiling fans. Some think they are bad since they can blow dust and other allergens around, but I love them. Just wipe the dust off the blades periodically.

2) Build up your tolerance for heat. When students aren’t around I keep my thermostat set at 80 degrees. No kidding. 82 at night, and that’s for my labrador's sake since she can’t take off her coat. It’s the green thing to do, too.
Last summer the government of Japan requested that the country's workforce keep the thermostats in their office buildings set at 82.

3) Wear light clothing made of breathable fabric like cotton and silk.

4) Drink gobs of water, room temperature. A gallon a day at least, says Carlton Lee, the LA voice doctor I sent all my students to when I lived there. See my article on what singers should eat and drink for more on that.

5) If it’s really hot and you must run your AC, run a humidifier as well to put some moisture back in the air. Cool mist humidifiers won’t heat the air, but regular cheap humidifiers are often quieter, so take your pick. I use the latter.

While I’m ranting, what’s up with movie theaters, restaurants, museums etc. where the thermostat is set at 62 in the summer and 72 in the winter? There I’ll be in my nice summer dress in July, shivering away. My local movie theater finally changed its ways this year, but before that I was taking my down jacket with me to summer movies. Don’t the owners of these places realize how much money they’ll save on power bills by adjusting the thermostat a bit? Not to mention conserving energy.

Okay, back to singing:

6) Warm up and do your practicing early in the day, before the heat rises and the AC kicks on.

7) Warm up and sing in the shower where it’s good and steamy.

8) If you live in humid places like Tennessee, take breaks while singing and go outside to get some moisture on your vocal cords.

Don’t think that celebrities are immune to the effects of AC. When Celine Dion had her zillion dollar concert hall built for her in Las Vegas she made sure it was humidity controlled. Plus there’s a steam room backstage for her voice. Sounds good to me!


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  3. I bought a new car last year and was so happy to have AC as my old car didnt, but now my voice is shot to pieces. I HAD NO IDEA that AC affected the voice (sad) now I am struggling to reach notes I had no difficulty with before...(super-sad)

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