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Water Works

On a football field somewhere near you, it’s marching band season.

Members are wearing full wool uniforms, gloves, and hats with plumes if it’s Friday night or a competition weekend. They are probably wearing shorts and sneakers if it’s a band camp rehearsal. All are carrying instruments, some heavy and some not so heavy.  It’s 90 degrees with a high heat index. Kids are fainting on the field. I cannot even count how many times this happened during my 10 years as as part of the marching band staff at a local high school. After sprinting onto the field, the student was usually awake by the time I got there. My first question usually was “How much water did you drink today?” Usually the answer was, “None!” We know that exercising (and marching band is intense physical activity, for sure) in the hot, humid Midwestern, Western, Northeastern or Southeastern weather can often lead to dehydration and other heat-related ailments.  Water works to help prevent this situation.  These kinds of water works do not help.

Dehydration Symptoms

“Water is the largest single component of the human body, accounting for about 50–60% of total body mass.  The performance of prolonged exercise, particularly in warm environments, can result in a substantial loss of body water, with the potential for adverse effects on performance capacity, and an increased risk of heat-related illness. An athlete training hard in a spell of warm weather, or a person with a heavy manual job working in the same conditions, may lose several liters of sweat in a single day.” (Maughan, 2003).

Dehydration happens when your body doesn’t have as much water as it needs. This is not news to anyone, I’m sure.  Common causes are high fevers, excessive sweating, or being ill with diarrhea/vomiting.

Symptoms of severe dehydration listed on include: not peeing or having very dark yellow pee, very dry skin, feeling dizzy, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sunken eyes, sleepiness, lack of energy, confusion or irritability, and fainting.

Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration include: thirst, dry or sticky mouth, not peeing very much, dark yellow pee, dry, cool skin, headache or muscle cramps.

The solution is pretty simple—more water—yet it’s not so easy to implement.  Directors need to give water breaks. Kids need to bring water and drink it, not Coke or RedBull!

Effects of Mild Dehydration on Music Making

Most of us are familiar with symptoms of serious dehydration, but I’d like to share with you some other things that happen when we’re just mildly dehydrated.  This can and does happen anywhere – not just outside in the heat.

1) According to Katy Meassick, Performance Dietitian for the Cleveland Browns, if you’re thirsty then you’re 2% dehydrated already! She came to our school to do a sports nutrition presentation for middle school and high school athletes a few years ago. Let that sink in – if you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.  Just swigging a mouthful of water doesn’t immediately solve the problem, as the water has to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the digestive system. You have to plan ahead and drink often.

2) Hand-eye coordination is already affected for athletes at 2% dehydration.  Wow…. I wonder what happens to our hand/eye/mouth/tongue coordination?  Probably the same.  For me, when I’m a little bit dehydrated, articulation becomes much harder.  My tongue either is too dry or it’s sticky. 

3) Singers know that even a little bit of dehydration is going to affect their performance. 

The Texas Voice Center ( offers this advice:  “The vocal folds need to be lubricated with a thin layer of mucus in order to vibrate efficiently. The best lubrication can be achieved by drinking plenty of water. A good rule of thumb (if you have normal kidneys and heart function) is to drink at least two quarts of water daily. Dr. Van Lawrence, world renowned Laryngologist, often said, ’Drink until you pee pale.’” If singers are dehydrated, then the vocal folds are dry or they are covered up with thick, mucus.  Both are not good.  This is true of everybody who speaks as part of their job — teachers, I’m talking about you here!  In my college classes, the singers always have their water bottles and they understand that they need to drink often.  It is not optional for them.  In my experience, the rest of the musical world hasn’t been instructed as often or with as much intensity about the important of hydrating.

4) Self-ratings of alertness and ability to concentrate decline progressively when fluid intake is restricted to induce body mass deficits of even as little as 1–2%. At the same time, ratings of tiredness and headache increase (Maughan, 2003). How many of us sometimes struggle with focusing and alertness during a practice session and then realize that we have a slight headache and are really tired?  Hmm… many of us.  Is there any correlation with water intake throughout the day?  I bet that there is, if we start paying attention.

5) Bonus tidbit – Coffee and alcohol do not count as water. Sorry.

I don’t play in a marching band, so this doesn’t concern me, right?

Wrong. Dehydration is not football field dependent.  A similar environment exists when you’re doing outside performances in the summer while wearing full black concert attire.  Another potential scenario is when you’re playing outside weddings/receptions for a few hours. It may not involve incredibly taxing repertoire, but you’re still outside in the heat and humidity. Dehydration can even happen in the winter due to the dry, heated air inside buildings. Symptoms include chapped lips, flaking skin, dried up crusty sinuses. The moisture gets sucked out of your skin, mouth, sinuses into the dry air surrounding you. If chapped lips are problematic for you, check out this article.

What to do about dry mouth? 

You show up on stage for your recital. You’ve adequately prepared your music, your mind, your body, your concert clothes…and your mouth is so dry you can’t even swallow. Your hands might be shaking and you might notice that you’re breathing really quickly.

This is part of a sympathetic nervous system response, the good old fight or flight response. Your body is rapidly releasing hormones to allow you to remain and fight against a potential threat or prepare to run away. Blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate all increase. Your brain shuts down systems that aren’t necessary at the moment, like digestion and procreation. Who cares about digesting that tasty grass if you’re a zebra running from a lion on the savannah? Digestion starts with saliva in the mouth, so saliva production stops. What to do?

1) Drink water backstage.

2) Take water onstage and drink it when necessary.  Who cares if it looks weird? 

3) Spend a few minutes getting your parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” component, to take over. The easiest way to do this is to attend to you breathing.  See Tis the Season article in the December 20, 2018 issue for more information about this.

4) Prepare adequately by not overloading on coffee the morning of the recital and making sure you’re drinking enough water (and eating intelligently) during the day.

At some point, we have all learned that it’s our responsibility to make sure our car has fuel if we want it to run reliably. It’s much easier to fuel up at the gas station if you can drive in, rather than have to walk there for a gas can or recruit friends to (yipe) push the car in.  Similarly, it’s our responsibility to make sure our body has what it needs to run reliably. The bottom line is that we all could probably benefit by increasing our water intake. The choice is yours!


Maughan, RJ (2003).  Impact of mild dehydration on wellness and on exercise performance. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57, Suppl 2, S19–S23. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601897.

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