I don't care how long you have been singing for. I have been a dedicated singer since I was very young, and I still have trouble singing through a cold. It's tough to hit a beautiful, clear, smooth note when you're packed down with mucous in your throat and your sinuses feel like they are about to implode (sorry for that gross mental picture I just gave you).
Especially during this winter Holiday season, while I have been sick with a cold that just won't go away, I have had to buck up and sing at various Christmas events as the main entertainer. Spending thirty minutes to an hour and a half on stage can be hard enough on your voice, especially if you are sick. This is why my wonderful voice coaches have taught me invaluable lessons on how to "sing through the sick," as well as things I have learned on my own through experience.
First of all, it is so important to be extra careful with your voice while you are sick. Singing too much and to rigorously while your voice is weak could cause nodules, which run the risk of permanently scarring your vocal chords. This is a singer's worst nightmare. To avoid damaging your voice while still performing well, you must follow a few rules.
1. Vocal rest prior to performance. Whether I will be performing in the morning or at night, I rest my voice at least 24 hours before my performance. This means either not speaking at all, or speaking softly when you do have to speak. Your voice is a muscle. Don't tire it out. Let it rest to keep its strength for your performance.
2. Drink tons of fluids. Your throat may feel dry, and drinking as much non-carbonated, non-dairy fluids as you can 24 hours before you sing could be your saving grace. It's always an awful thing to breathe between phrases in your song and end up coughing out your next note instead of singing it. I carry some minty herbal tea around with me all day to soothe my throat.
3. Get plenty of rest the night before. Your body will feel a difference in stamina and energy more distinctly when you are sick than when you are not sick. Being well-rested will give you an overall feeling of improvement when it comes to performing while you are sick.
4. Get rid of as much congestion as possible right before you sing, whether that means medication, blowing your nose, or nasal sprays. Trying to resonate your voice correctly with a congested nasal cavity is miserable, and will give you the mother of all headaches.
5. If you are performing more than one song, hydrate between songs. Keep a small water bottle on stage to clear and soothe your throat. If you are swift and discreet about it, your audience won't care.
6. Do not over-sing. Keep your voice lifted and light. Go into your head voice where you can if you are a belter or a speech-level singer. This will help to keep up your voice's stamina, and it will help to make your notes sound more clear and less pushed. You will be less anxious about hitting those high notes with a sick voice if you keep them light and easy. Over-singing and singing too often while sick is what gives singers nodes, and this could be one of the most important tips to remember.
7. Lightly warm up before your sing. This is the second most important tip to remember, in my opinion. Don't do the whole nine yards with your warm-up, as you don't want to wear out your voice before you even start singing. It is crucial, however, to give your voice a little bit of a light pre-workout so that it is warmed up and stronger for your performance. Just play around with octave scales in different keys, vowels, and vocal placements. If your leg is hurting before the race, don't run a mile to warm up, just stretch and bounce around a bit to get your leg limber and warm.
8. Be confident. Every singer performs while they are sick every once in a while, and if you follow all of these tips, it's likely that nobody will even notice. Letting your nerves get to you will only hinder your beautiful voice unnecessarily.
9. Never apologize. It has been drilled into my head for years that you never get up in front of an audience and say, "I'm sorry, I'm sick, so if I mess up, you know why." It will distract from your song, and your audience will end up trying to pick out every imperfection in your voice because they now know you are sick. It is also considered unprofessional.
10. Enjoy your performance anyway. When I sing while I am sick, I like to let myself get carried away in the melody and the message of the song, and it's almost as if I am not even sick. Have fun on stage. Let the audience feel comfortable with your performance. If you are enjoying yourself, they will enjoy you.
Break a leg, singers!