Wild Fires and Your Voice – 2020 update

Every year, it seems that California’s wild fires become more frequent, bigger, and closer to our cities. People in evacuation zones sadly face the biggest risks and disruptions. But everyone in the region can see and smell the smoke that turns our sky such an eerie yellow-gray—or worse.

Vocalists use our airways in special ways, and so we have our own reasons to be concerned. For those in or near a fire zone, here are my suggestions, updated to the 2020 COVID-19 era, when the lung-and-airway problems from fires compound the disruptions to daily life—and breath– that we already suffer due to the pandemic.

GENERAL HEALTH RECOMMENDATIONS

The American Lung Association has up-to-date guidelines here. “Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners and air cleaners. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting to keep from pulling outside air into the room. Air cleaning devices that have HEPA filters can provide added protection from the soot and smoke. Place damp towels under the doors and other places where the outside air may leak in.” 

MANAGING NOSE AND THROAT SYMPTOMS

If you feel nose/throat irritation or congestion following smoke exposure, interpret this as an inflammatory response, not so much an allergic response. To support the protective tissues of nose, throat, & lungs: Drink lots of tea (hot or cold); decaffeinated tea is fine. Take anti-inflammatories if you tolerate them.

Try using a nasal moisturizer, such as an over-the-counter saline spray, or the simple saline gel that you can swab or dab inside your nostrils. Or rinse your nose using a Neti pot. The mild steroid sprays such as flonase or nasocort may help for the worst days, but check with your doctor to be sure they are OK for you.

SHOULD I STILL WARM UP?

If you don’t have chronic breathing or heart problems, and you’re not feeling shortness of breath from the smoke, a gentle warmup of body, breath, and voice is probably OK. But if your nose or throat feel irritated by the smoke, even a little, assume that your vocal cords are slightly inflamed as well. It’s important not to push your voice in this condition.

Instead, sing more quietly, for shorter periods of time, and in a conservative range. Don’t try to test or force your voice higher, louder, or longer than it wants to go. Just as when you have a mild cold, pushing or straining to try to sound “normal” will just increase the inflammation, and will reinforce bad habits of technique.

In general, focus on your intended technique (things like placement and throat posture) while tolerating not sounding your best. If your singing breath feels different—more shallow, less comfortable—stay focused on the muscle patterns you’ve relied on before, but use shorter phrases (refill more often).

As an artist: singing about despair or hard times may suit you; or choosing cheer-up songs; or some combination. An acute emergency, on top of the longer-lasting hard time that we are in this year, challenges all creative interpretations. But staying true to your emotions day to day, and connecting those with your voice, can be an important part of your practice and long-term wellness.

I MAY HAVE TO EVACUATE MY HOME. HOW CAN I FOCUS ON MY VOICE?

Life and family come first of course! But when preparing for possible evacuation, don’t forget your musical instruments, and backup copies of important recordings (demos or masters), right along with the usual recommended supplies, legal & medical documents, prescription meds, and computer backups.

I’M JUST FEELING WIPED OUT FROM THE HEAT AND SMOKY AIR.

If you’re not up to normal voice practice, you can still do mental practice (imagine warming up and singing with perfect technique). Or use the time to memorize scripts and songs, practice diction or instrumental skills.

I FEEL OK, BUT STRESSED.

Keep up intake of high-nutrition foods, with extra stress-relief supplements like vitamin B, C+flavinoids, multi-minerals, and plant-based anti-inflammatories. If you cope better with stress by taking action, call artist friends in riskier areas, offering storage for their musical instruments or songbook libraries. And—especially as so many people began wild-fire season in a pandemic-era state of disruption and anxiety—give your brain a break when you can.

You’re probably learning a lot this year about your own best self-care practices; you’ve found your preferred relaxation and meditation apps, recipes, and routines. I’ll just offer one that might seem silly, but that really worked some years ago, in a bad/hot/smoky summer: my husband and I sat through three showings of a movie about surfing. Neither of us are athletic nor ‘beach people’ at all; we just needed to mentally immerse in—and gaze at—a blue ocean full of cold surf and carefree people! I was amazed at how refreshed my brain felt afterwards. If the penguin movie had been available, that would have worked too. No one goes out to movies now, of course, but streaming makes even more choices possible; you might look for travelogues about glaciers or waterfalls. Anything to counteract the orange skies outside.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Both pandemics—in general—and the worsening heat+drought+wild-fires around the world (and erratic hurricane patterns, and generally odd weather), can be linked to climate change. If you have any mental space to spare, let this season motivate social action on this global issue, as well as in the environmental justice movement that links climate change to systemic inequality.

Finally: when the smoke clears, you’ll have something new to write songs about. Below is one of mine, from a few years ago.

Stay healthy, and stay vocal.//

End of October, the canyons were burning

Arson and wind stirred a terrible flame

Orange tornadoes and animals running

Buckets of ocean drop, steaming and strange

 

Fire and Air, Earth and Water

Changes will come from one or another

Where do you stand when your life is reeling?

Feeling the fire, holding your ground

Till the healing waters come down

Feeling the fire, holding your ground

Till the healing waters come down

“FEELING THE FIRE” (c) Joanna Cazden 1993,

on Living Through History CD (p) 1997

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