Struggling to Sing
In a letter to the editor this month, Agnis writes, “I’m struggling with my voice. I have had a problem singing for over seven years and I have been to a doctor so many times, it’s not doing anything for me … please give me any advice to treat this problem.”
Before imparting any wisdom, I must reiterate that while Choral Director offers proactive ideas for vocal health, any advice in this article should not be construed as medical advice, only as general information. As a means of conveying information, I will share a personal anecdote of my experience with vocal struggles.
As a graduate of the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada—a humid environment near the Great Lakes—having earned a Bachelor of Musical Arts with a vocal major, I was in peak vocal form. I had six years of consistent training behind me and could perform vocal acrobatics up and down my register without batting an eyelash. Through the years I continued daily vocal warmups to keep my muscles in shape while I traveled extensively—taking note of the effects that different environments played on my voice—but none of my experiences abroad could prepare me for what would happen to my voice when I eventually settled down in Las Vegas.
In the arid environment with the added stress of performing in smoky casinos, I found myself struggling vocally for the first time in my life and the experience was emotionally devastating. As a singer, the thought of losing the instrument that brings you into intimacy with an art form that soothes and ignites the soul could send you spiraling into depression. I was waking up with an unbelievable amount of post nasal drip and unable to make it through my morning vocal warmup routine. My cords felt like lead, were unresponsive and some notes were sounding airy and would drop out completely. I was also experiencing some acid reflux which became more and more prominent as time went on. Eventually, I found my way to a family doctor who suggested a round of antacid medicine with a combination of a nasal spray in order to address the symptoms which were due to environmental allergies. To add to the problem, the post nasal drip was contributing to acid reflux in a vicious cycle. I was also referred to an otolaryngologist.
Otolaryngology is the branch of medicine that deals with the anatomy, function, and diseases of the ear, nose and throat. The specialist performed a laryngoscopy—a test involving the insertion of a special camera (laryngoscope) equipped with a light through the sinuses that can look at the larynx to see what is happening. In my case, we could confirm, thankfully that there were no vocal polyps (or nodes) which are sometimes cause by vocal abuse. However, the delicate folds were swollen and red and they seemed to be suffering particularly in the area where the post nasal drip was landing. It was also discovered that as I would sleep at night acid reflux would soak the cords causing even more irritation. The specialist agreed with the plan of action we had begun but also suggested a vocal therapist.
Through speech therapy I learned that the dry Las Vegas climate and exposure to environmental irritants require a singer to take extra special care of their vocal cords—much more so than in most other cities. This “extra care” meant that I had to make a few lifestyle adjustments. In my initial meeting the speech therapist asked me a few seemingly random questions, which I answered heartily (wondering what the significance was) and during my enthusiastic story-telling she stopped me and said, “You talk too much.” I burst out laughing because she was acutely correct in her observation. I was instructed to take note of the amount of time I was spending on the phone, the amount of time it takes me to explain something, and to take vocal rest while I was healing. Vocal rest entails not singing or speaking for a period of time and will involve the support of your loved ones. You will need to use alternate means of communication including texting and note-writing as well as asking family members to remind you of your commitment to vocal rest when you forget. Another part of the therapy throughout the coming weeks was that I relearn my daily speaking voice technique. I was instructed to speak in my head voice—imagine speaking with a slightly elevated “Mickey Mouse” voice. It feels foreign and awkward in the beginning and may seem like it sounds ridiculous but it did not sound much different to my family and friends and simply sounds like you are speaking softer. This technique brings relief to your cords as they are barraged in the exact same places on the folds all day when we are speaking constantly. We addressed eating and drinking habits which I have expounded upon in previous articles. I will sum up by saying, drink water.
Eventually, I did regain my voice. I have always struggled in this arid environment, but I feel armed with the knowledge of what I need to do to heal myself in times of vocal strain, due to the team of professionals I worked with who each had their own piece of the puzzle to contribute. I can attest to the emotional despair that losing your voice can bring when you are a singer. In the end, I learned that the human body is incredibly good at restoration with the right kind of support. However, the body requires one to be consistent. One cannot expect healing if their lifestyle includes vocal abuse, for example: attending an outdoor sporting event and screaming over the crowd to speak to a friend.
My advice to anyone struggling vocally is to seek out the help of many different professionals, to make consistent lifestyle choices in support of vocal health and the body even in the subtlest of ways, and to do whatever it takes, including speaking like Mickey Mouse occasionally, to keep yourself singing for many years to come.