Chocolate, Steam, and Salt: The MacGyver of the Voice
by Melissa Wimbish
Special Interview with Phyllis Bryn-Julson
Among the many things I love about my teacher are her tricks of the trade, or “street smarts” when it comes to the business of singing. With the demands of the career that she has successfully pursued, she knows firsthand that it is not always wining and dining and singing a few pretty notes. Quite the contrary. Singing while sick, singing while exhausted, singing after long travels, singing after singing after singing; it is all part of the life. In this interview, she offers some extremely valuable tips that she has picked up along the way. Use them, pass them along to your students, carry on the legacy!
What remedies do you suggest to singers when they are feeling like they are beginning to lose their voice or develop laryngitis?
Salt. It will not only bloat, it will heal. Get salt around the gums. Gums are one of the places in the body that are the most horribly filled with germs; these and the teeth need to be cleaned in order to help keep the throat healthy. I’m not so thrilled about Listerine but some people like to use that. Munch on salty things – not gobs of it – in France they always gave me jambon. Saltine crackers are good, too. Salt also heals the stomach if you’re nauseated.
Citrus. If you’re feeling swollen, eat a whole orange or grapefruit, even a lemon although it can take enamel off of the teeth if it becomes habit. Citrus juice is usually last on the list because they add water to it and other things to sweeten it.
Chocolate. 85% chocolate is helpful in getting rid of laryngitis.
Coca-Cola. Remember, it takes rust off of cars. It’s great if you’re losing your voice. Just sip on it and let it sit in your throat. Yes, sugar is terrible for you but this clears off your cords if there is anything (like phlegm) just sitting on them. If you don’t like Coke, I advocate Perrier or a really fizzy, bubbly water.
Steaming. Get a pot of water, heat it up (and don’t burn yourself!), put a towel over your head to trap the steam, stick your tongue out, and inhale. Do this every 20 minutes or so when you’re in a real bind. One time I completely lost my voice and had to sing the Gliere coloratura concerto two days later. I steamed for one full day, had one rehearsal on half a voice, continued steaming, and was able to perform the following day.
Sleep and elevate. Your body has to rest in order to have the energy to fight whatever is attacking. You need plenty of sleep. Avoid lying on your back so that the sickness doesn’t have a chance to sink deeper in the chest and the throat.
Be wary of “typical remedies”. Stay away from tea, coffee, and most cough drops. They are terribly drying. Don’t forget to drink lots of water; that never gets old.
Know what you sound like. Sometimes it’s a very minimal difference and if you have a recording or have someone else listen to you to reassure you it can really help your state of mind. Many times “they” can’t tell a major difference in your singing voice even though you may be suffering.
Try not to get sick in the head. Your psyche tells you that you can’t sing. It’s a very tricky thing to have the instrument in one’s body and when you get sick, you’re thinking about nothing but your throat. Try to focus on getting better rather than letting the sickness get you overwhelmed.
Where did you learn these tricks?
Traveling in foreign countries and LOTS of personal experience.
Have you found that these remedies really work?
Every individual body is different, so everything doesn’t work for everybody. These things are definitely worth a try when you’re pressed for time and need to get healthy enough to perform.
Besides some of these remedies, how were you able to stay healthy in order to give over 100 concerts a year?
Berocca Plus. It was forty dollars a jar which was very expensive at that time. I never got sick on that vitamin. I read the label to see if there was some kind of upper in it, but there wasn’t. Even with 2 small children I was able to stay healthy. The drug was taken off the market some time ago in the states, but I was told by my daughter that you can get it all over Europe and Canada. It was incredible.
Did you find that singers developed reputations for being unreliable if they got sick frequently?
Yes. Lots of singers have reputations for fizzling out. Conductors won’t hire you if you have that reputation. I have heard them say, “They can sing the 1st and 2nd performance but not the 4th and 5th,” and you knew they were talking about someone that wouldn’t be rehired.
Recognized as one of the most authoritative interpreters of vocal music of the 20th century, Phyllis Bryn-Julson commands a remarkable repertoire of literature spanning several centuries. Born in North Dakota, she began studying the piano at age three. She enrolled in Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, studying piano, organ, voice and violin. She received an Honorary Doctorate from Concordia in 1995. After attending the Tanglewood summer music festival, she transferred to Syracuse University, studying voice with Helen Boatwright, completing her BM and MM degrees. During these college years, she made her debut with the Boston Symphony in Boston, Providence, RI, and Carnegie Hall in New York. She ultimately sang with this orchestra and the New York Philharmonic dozens of times.
Ms. Bryn-Julson collaborated with Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporaine for much of her career, taking her to numerous festivals in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the former Soviet Union, and Japan. She has premiered works of many 20th century composers, some of which were written for her. Included in this list are Boulez, Messiaen, Goehr, Kurtag, Holliger, Tavener, Rochberg, Del Tredici, Rorem, Carter, Babbitt, Birtwistle, Boone, Cage, Felciano, Wuorinen, Aperghis, and Penderecki.
In recent years, Ms. Bryn-Julson gave performances of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments in New York at the Guggenheim Museum with Violaine Melançon, violinist. She took part in the Radical Past series in Los Angeles, giving four performances of the great works of Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Cathy Berberian, and Luciano Berio. She toured with the Peabody Trio throughout the United States and Canada, and recorded works of Samuel Adler for the Milken Foundation in Barcelona. She also toured with the Montreal Symphony, performing the award winning opera Il Prigioniero by Dallapiccola. Performances occurred at Carnegie Hall, and in Montreal. Following this, she premiered the same work in Tokyo, Japan, where it was staged and televised. With Southwest Chamber Music Society, Ms. Bryn-Julson has performed and recorded the complete works of both Ernst Krenek and Mel Powell. Last season she premiered and recorded An American Decomeron by Richard Felciano, commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, and written for her and the Southwest Chamber Music Society.
With over 100 recordings and CDs to her credit, Ms. Bryn-Julson’s performance of Erwartung by Schönberg (Simon Rattle conducting) won the 1995 best opera Grammaphone Award. Her recording of the opera Il Prigioniero by Dallapiccola won the Prix du Monde. She has been nominated twice for Grammy awards; one for best opera recording (Erwartung), and best vocalist (Ligeti Vocal Works). She has received the Amphoion Award, The Dickinson College Arts Award, The Paul Hume Award, and the Catherine Filene Shouse Award. She was inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in 2000. She was the first musician to receive the United States – United Kingdom Bicentennial Exchange Arts Fellowship. She received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Syracuse University, the Peabody Conservatory Faculty Award for excellence in teaching, and the Peabody Student Council Award for outstanding contribution to the Peabody Community.
Ms. Bryn-Julson has appeared with every major European and North American Symphony Orchestras under many of the leading conductors such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez, Leonard Slatkin, Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Gunther Schuller, and Erich Leinsdorf.
Ms. Bryn-Julson’s students continue to win prizes and awards, and have made careers in some of the leading opera houses and orchestral venues. They have had contracts in opera houses in Zurich, Duesseldorf, Vienna, Paris, Lyons, London, and Sydney, and in America, the Metropolitan Opera, Houston, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.