With the first day of autumn now behind us, every singer must face the looming threat of cold season. For civilians, a cold is a manageable inconvenience, perhaps requiring an extra trip to the drugstore for antihistamines or a day off from work. But for singers, a case of the sniffles can wreak major havoc with our instruments, necessitating vocal rest and, in worse case scenarios, cancelled performances or auditions.
Singers have more than a few methods for dealing with colds – neti pots, Mucinex, daily shots of Emergen-C – but prevention is always preferred. And so, as soon as the temperature drops and rumors of illness begin to circulate, we see the emergence of a classic stereotype: the singer scarf.
Scarves are one of the items most commonly associated with singers, and, considering the delicate nature of the vocal mechanism, it’s not hard to understand why. Singers will go to almost any length to protect their throats, especially with YAP auditions scheduled for the winter months. So, when trying to avoid a viral threat, the most practical solution is to insulate one’s throat with extra layers of wool or cashmere.
I’m no exception to this sense of caution (or hypochondria). Not only do I have an assortment of scarves for every possible weather scenario, but scarves play a major part in my daily wardrobe from approximately mid-September to late-April. Yet, even as I openly embrace the scarf stereotype, I can’t help wondering if the use of scarves as preventative measures has any basis in fact.
There’s no doubt that wearing a scarf in cold weather will promote good health by maintaining one’s body temperature. It’s also common knowledge that covering the mouth and nose with a scarf will prevent inhalation of cold air. But what about a scarf as guard against the common cold? Is there really any medical benefit to that little extra insulation?
I started hunting for any scientific data that might support my scarf habit and found several websites touting the benefits of wearing scarves over the nose and mouth during the winter months (plus one site with 37 scarf-styling suggestions: www.scarves.net/how-to-tie-a-scarf). Yet, I couldn’t find anything that claimed that wearing a neck scarf would actually ward off illness.
In fact, much to my surprise, I encountered several articles that suggested that wearing a scarf might make a singer more susceptible to illness. In one piece published in 1895 by Werner’s Magazine, author Karleton Hackett bemoans the widespread use of “fur boas” among singers:
Now is the season when the fur boa is rampant, and its evil influence stretches over all the land. We all admit that some of these boas, particularly the fluffy feather ones, are very stunning, and that it would be a real deprivation for you to discard them. Still, is the object of your study to learn how to wear a boa becomingly, or to learn how to sing? Singers, as a race, are given to coddling themselves, and one of the best ways of rendering one’s self susceptible to colds is to be over-careful.
The issue, according to Hackett, is that singers who are too protective of their throats may inadvertently weaken their immune system. He explains:
You will find that after a little rapid walking, even on the very coldest days, when you remove the boa, your neck will be unnaturally warm, if not moist with perspiration. Then, if there should happen to be a draught of air in the room where you sit, the chances are excellent that you will take cold, and that it will settle right in your throat. Of course, you won’t be able to account for it, because you are always careful to wrap yourself up whenever you go out; but, in point of fact, that is just where the trouble lies. By this unnatural and unnecessary protection you make that most important of all parts, your throat, so tender that an infinite number of slight variations of temperature, clothing, etc., that a normal being would never notice, are enough to throw you all out of order . . . The more you strengthen the throat by a wise disregard of molly-coddling, the better able it will be to stand the gyrations of our wonderful climate.
Hackett’s argument is persuasive, but it’s hard to say if an anti-scarf argument written by a non-singer at the turn of the 19th century can really be trusted. Here’s another opinion, this time from famed coloratura Luisa Tetrazzini in The Art of Singing (1909):
Personally I never wear a collar and have hardened my throat to a considerable extent by wearing slightly cutout gowns always in the house, and even when I wear furs I do not have them closely drawn around the neck. I try to keep myself at an even bodily temperature, and fresh air has been my most potent remedy at all times when I have been indisposed.
Like Hackett, Tetrazzini is in favor of “hardening” the throat as a way to maintain the body’s defenses. For a more dramatic side to the debate, consider the case of Isadora Duncan. Though not a singer, Duncan was renowned for her love of scarves and met an unfortunate death in 1927 when her red silk scarf (allegedly her favorite “since taking up communism”) became caught in the wheel of a Bugatti convertible.
Duncan is an extreme case, but it clear that the singer scarf is a contentious issue, one without a definite answer. The practicality of a scarf is different for each singer depending on the weather, the individual’s immune system, the temperature in a theater, and so on. Yet, when it comes to the question of coddling vs. “hardening” the throat, the only real solution is for singers to be discerning and weigh practicality over affectation. This doesn’t mean braving a blizzard with an exposed throat, but rather double-checking that a scarf is really necessary before adding it to your ensemble. And then avoiding convertibles.