A month ago, I got a call from a client I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. A lot had changed in her life since then, including that she’d recently sustained a vocal injury.
Even though Marjorie had just been given the all-clear for us to work together, it wasn’t fallout from the injury that stood out in her voice. It was a type of tension that hadn’t been there when we’d last worked together. Marjorie was anxious. She was holding her breath, her voice, and herself back.
Hesitation is the last thing you want as a singer. But I don’t blame her for being nervous. I get it.
Back in my college days, I was cast as a lead in one of the school’s shows. A few weeks into rehearsal, I got a cold that turned into a chest infection and– never having had an issue with my previously indestructible voice– popped antibiotics and continued to sing. I went to all of my lessons and rehearsals and even gave a recital, coughing, compensating, and clearing my throat all the way.
And then, two weeks before opening night, I woke up without a voice.
The ENT I went to– my first time to such a specialist– was a kind man who assured me that I would be fine. My vocal cords weren’t damaged, but they were terribly swollen and needed time to heal. He recommended complete vocal rest– total silence– for 14 days. If I did that, I would be as good as new.
Meaning, that the next time I sang would be on opening night.
Fortunately, the show went well. After a slow and gentle warm up, I plowed into my songs and heard my voice, strong as ever, back in action. I was ecstatic.
But once I walked off of the stage, something happened to me.
My voice was fine. But I wasn’t. I was terrified. What if opening night had been a fluke? What if finishing the show’s run and returning to my training and performing schedule would cause more swelling? What if I lost my voice again?
All kinds of doomsday scenarios filled my head, none of which had anything to do with what had caused the problem in the first place: singing on an infected throat. Even though I was entirely healthy, even though the possibility was incredibly unlikely, having lost my precious instrument once– something I had previously thought impossible– I was now terrified that it could happen again.
Logic rarely has the power to change a mind run by fear. But there is a path back from that scary mental and physical place. Walking it requires:
Bravery. As wary and careful as you may be tempted to be, once you get the all-clear from your doctor, it’s imperative to fully and properly engage your voice. You need to go for it. When we favor our voices, as we would a sore ankle, the apprehension and hesitation result in compensation, leading to tension and bad habits that often land us right back where we started.
Trust. Engaging fully requires trust. Of ourselves, our voices, and the specialists who have far more experience with vocal recovery than we do. When they say we are OK, we need to trust them. And how do we do that? We build trust by trusting. You may be afraid of getting hurt again, but your voice isn’t. It exists in the present moment, not in fear of the past. Join it there.
Gratitude. The practice of gratitude is a powerful tool, in all areas of our lives. It brings awe and reverence to even the simplest and smallest of things. As well as to those that matter most to us, particularly in their temporary absence. Allow your heart to fill with appreciation for your precious instrument. And take care of it with the same amount of attention and gratitude when it returns in full.
Acceptance. When things go sideways, it’s easy to venture into the realm of right, wrong, fair and unfair. But resist the temptation to judge, blame, or shame yourself, others, or life for what happened. Being frustrated, angry and afraid are normal responses to an injury and the related fallout. But holding on to those emotions for too long hardens our hearts and breeds resentment. Instead, accept what happened. It happened. Resistance won’t alter that reality.
Surrender. Reality gets altered when we surrender to, rather than fight, what is. Where acceptance stops our resistance, surrender allows us to go one step further and enter into the flow of healing, learning, and growing. To look newly at what may appear to be a terrible situation, and sink into the nooks and crannies of possibility there. What can we learn? What can we try? What can we imagine? How can we contribute?
Every situation holds the seed of opportunity. My two weeks of vocal rest allowed me to slow down and focus on other things, including the myriad benefits and teachings of silence. I read voraciously. I sent hand-written letters, something I hadn’t done in years. I felt greater empathy and compassion for people struggling with illness and disability. I paid more attention. I listened. I learned. I was humbled. All lessons that have stayed with me until this day, half a lifetime later.
Discipline. Last but not least, when you’re recovering from an injury– or if you want to prevent one– maintaining good habits and a proactive routine will go a long way to keeping your voice and mind healthy and strong.
Schedule Routine ENT Visits: Annual physicals are important, and so are regular visits to a voice specialist. Not only will he or she ensure that you’re vocally healthy, having a standing annual or bi-annual appointment will put your mind at ease and allow you to use your voice more confidently.
Stay Hydrated: Staying hydrated won’t entirely negate the effects of allergies, acid reflux, or a bad infection. But it will go a long way to help. I can’t say enough about the benefits of hydration for vocal, physical, and mental health. Limit alcohol and caffeine, get plenty of sunshine, fresh air, and exercise, eat living, natural foods, and make sure to have at least 8 glasses of pure, clean water a day.
Prioritize Comfort: Back in college, I wasn’t thinking about vocal comfort. I was trying to get through my sessions, recitals, and the show. My voice was telling me to take it easy, but I wasn’t listening. Since then, I’ve come to view vocal comfort as the most important marker of vocal health, as well as development. Listen to your instrument. It will tell you what is and isn’t working, how it feels, and what it needs.
Change Up Your Routine: I used to swim a mile a day, and so was surprised at the time to find myself winded and sore after a run. But I shouldn’t have been; variation of engagement is a key contributor to holistic wellness, strength and flexibility. Like your body, your voice requires new and different movements to remain in peak condition. So challenge yourself. Play with different styles and sounds. Sing in different ranges and registers. Stretch and flex your instrument, so that when you return to your stylistic center, you’ll be stronger and better than ever.
Get Coaching: In addition to regular visits to an otolaryngologist, it’s important to routinely check in with a voice coach or teacher. Even if you only get together every few months, having an objective and educated ear is invaluable. We’re too close to our singing and selves to accurately hear what may be going on. Getting outside feedback is invaluable.
Keep Things in Perspective. I love to sing. But I am so much more than a singer. It doesn’t define me and it shouldn’t define you. Cultivate other interests and take care of your whole self… mind, body and spirit. Go for a walk, practice yoga and meditation. Pick up a sport or a hobby. Make new friends. Volunteer in your community. Help a neighbor. Spending time on things outside of our primary passions doesn’t mean we care less about them. It means that we care more. Expanding our actual, in the world experiences gets us out of our anxious ruts and off of our mental gerbil wheels. It is the best antidote to self-absorption and stress and therefore, the best way to help support our vocal ambitions and personal wellness.
For me, keeping perspective means spending time in nature. I cherish my long morning walks. Stepping outside and gazing at the sunrise– at the expanse of sky, life and possibility before me– reminds me that I am a tiny part of a vastly larger whole. And that my problems, enormous as they may occur to me, are relatively insignificant and minor. A thought that, when considered with perspective, isn’t depressing. But rather, liberating.
It took some time before Marjorie was back to her brave and full vocal self. But she made it, and so can you. Just as I did all those years ago. There are always bumps on the road of life. But they are obstacles, not road blocks. Learning to navigate them with grace, patience, and tenderness toward yourself is one of the most important lessons we can learn. And the most effect way to overcome whatever challenges life throws our way.