The Dreaded Air Con
Not something I immediately associate with vocal practice but increasingly in my career air conditioning has become an unavoidable obstacle, and one that certainly needs addressing.
Air con, of course, can be an absolute life saver. It makes unbearably hot days bearable and stops air becoming uncomfortable and stagnant. However as a singer there are a multitude of issues that arise when air con is brought into the vocal equation. My work for the last 2 years has been predominantly abroad and the worst offender for use of air con is undoubtedly cruise ships. Although hosting a world of opportunity and travel beyond your imagination, they also provide home to some of the most aggressive and persistent air conditioning systems I have ever encountered. So why is air con so bad?
Upon researching the pros and cons of using air con the main issue that came up was poor upkeep of systems resulting in bacteria and infection contaminating the air supply. Generally, employers make an effort to ensure the maintenance of their air conditioning systems is tickedy boo (there’s no way they would want to pay you unnecessarily for copious sick days, or of course make their guests sick!) so if we remove this con what else remains?
Well first off, we have the spread of bacteria. By this I mean from the air source as opposed to within the system. Air con works by a process of taking air from the environment then cooling and reheating the air before it is redistributed. On a ship this is done on a large scale and air is circulated through the entire system. Therefore if one person gets ill, it is likely that a majority of the ships inhabitants will too. Ships maintain pretty strict rules on reporting any sickness you have – to the point not reporting an illness can result in dismissal! – purely due to this. So the best way to help yourself and your fellow crew is to stay well. Sounds obvious but it is certainly worth going the extra mile to protect your and other people’s health. Wrap up warm in a cool climate; if you go out in the rain make sure you dry off or have a warm shower straight away; take plenty of vitamins and maintain a healthy balanced lifestyle. No one wants to be that person who brings the rest of the crew down with a cold!
The second issue is one that predominantly affects vocalists and is of little consequence to other musicians and crew members. As well as circulating the air, air con systems also dehumidify. This in fact was their original purpose when invented in 1902. As air travels across the evaporator coil it absorbs the heat but also wrings out the moisture, hence why air conditioning systems have drainage systems attached.
Basic image of air con system
As the air dries, so does your body and as a result so do your vocal cords. This lessening of moisture leaves the vocal cords more prone to inflammation and the development of nodules as they rub together at a high intensity in a dry environment creating friction. When I first started working on ships the first thing I noticed was waking up with a raspy sound and a dry mouth. Initially, as many singers do, I blamed myself and put it down to poor technique or insufficient warming up. It wasn’t until I had struggled through a couple of contracts that another musician commented on the dryness of the air onboard which led me to looking into how I could maybe counteract this hinderance. Below are the easy remedies I have found invaluable to my vocal practice while working in these dry environments.
Hydration – Now this could have many an article in it’s own right but quite simply it means drink plenty of fluids. Avoid drying substances such as caffeine, alcohol, smoking or smoky environments. Drink at least the recommended 2 litres of water a day. When I am on ships I drink far closer to 3 or 4 litres with ease, with at least a pint of water being consumed upon waking. A night’s sleep in that environment will wreak absolute havoc with the voice so it is important to hydrate soon upon waking.
Invest in a humidifier – Whether you go for a warm or cool mist it doesn’t matter but replenishing the moisture in the air you are breathing is invaluable to a vocalist. I personally go for a cool mist humidifier (best £35 ever invested!) to avoid the potential of mould build up that can occur with a warm mist source. Both have their pros and cons, but it really is down to personal preference. The air con will take the moisture from the air as opposed to from your body meaning your vocal cords will be more hydrated and your skin wont dry or crack as easily. It is best to go for something without fragrance or menthol as this can irritate or dry. Both types of humidifier are easily available from stores such as Argos, a link to which is included below.
In order to measure whether your humidifier is on the correct setting for the room you can look at buying a hygrometer which measures both room humidity levels and temperatures and these are available through amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0775WSBG4/ref=asc_df_B0775WSBG452532308/?tag=googshopuk-21&creative=22146&creativeASIN=B0775WSBG4&linkCode=df0&hvadid=205312686904&hvpos=1o5&hvnetw=g&hvrand=14625317162889332603&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9045794&hvtargid=pla-423476532395 for instance) Ideal humidity should be between 50 and 55% to avoid any heath issue and to avoid unwanted moulds or bacteria in the environment. Alternately you will know if your humidifier is on too high for the room as there will be excess water on the walls and floor.
Alternately if you are in urgent need of humidity placing a small bowl of water in your room will have a similar affect. I’ve done this at home for years and it really is a godsend on days where the natural air is very dry – air conditioning isn’t hugely required in the UK! Other common methods for increasing humidity include hanging a wet towel in the room, placing water containers in direct sunlight or on radiators and air drying clothes inside.
Steaming – inhaling steam is the quickest form of hydration as the fluid passes directly through the vocal cords where it is absorbed. There are many ways you can steam but for travelling a handheld steamer (either one where you just pour in boiling water and inhale or an electronic one which heats up the water itself. These can also be good for your skin as the hot steam will open the pores and help remove any build up of dirt within them. A couple of different types of steamer are featured below.
Additionally for those with a little bit extra cash to spare, it really wouldn’t hurt to invest in a nebuliser. These are slightly more expensive and not as readily available, especially if you go for a handheld device (I have a Beurer portable nebuliser which comes in at about £85, link – https://www.beurer.com/web/uk/products/nebulization/nebulization/IH-50) but well worth the money. These work most effectively with a 0.9% saline solution (equal to the concentration of salt in the body) which is relatively easy to make. You can make your own at home following simple online instructions but do ensure your salt is clean and without iodine (as this can irritate the folds) and your water has been sterilised. I personally buy in a premixed salt solution from NeilMed (http://shopuk.neilmed.com/Products-UK/Sinus-Rinse-UK/Sinus-Rinse-120-Regular-Mixture-Packets_2) for fear of creating something that will cause harm rather than help the situation.
Another great source of relief for the travelling singer is nasal irrigation which, yes, is just as disgusting as it sounds but hey, singing can’t always be glamorous. With all the pollutants travelling through the air con system there is likely to be an increase in mucous production to counteract this. Cleansing the nasal passages regularly will remove excess mucous which can drip onto the vocal folds and cause inflammation. A neti pot or a pressurised sinus rinse bottle (or similar product) will do this job perfectly and again a great range of products is available from NeilMed
Most importantly good vocal health and habits such as vocalising regularly, warming up and generally looking after your body will help counteract the detrimental effects of an air conditioning system. If you have any further queries please feel free to pop them in a comment or drop me an email direct via the contact link above.
These pointers are from my experience working on a cruise ship with very aggressive air con systems, however can apply to those working in offices and similar environments where aircon dries the surrounding air. I hope this article will prove useful to singers in all atmospheres.
Time to go do a quick preshow steam! Thank you for reading