A Singer’s View of Voice Problems

“The only thing better than singing is more singing.”
~Ella Fitzgerald

I was diagnosed with nodules when I was in my Masters’ degree – for classical voice performance. When I was in the ENT’s office, I realized that I didn’t know anything about how my voice worked. Not really.

Sure, I’d been taking voice lessons since I was in high school, sung in choirs forever, and I had even taken one semester of vocal pedagogy. But that didn’t teach me about my voice. I just hadn’t been paying attention.

So here I was in this chair – alone – crying. I barely heard what the ENT was saying. I just didn’t know what this meant for me – for my singing career that hadn’t even started yet. I heard him say that this was most likely caused by “vocal misuse and abuse.”

This is, as I know now, an unfortunate standard line still used in too many clinics. I was doing everything that teachers and coaches and conductors told me to do! How was I abusing my voice?

I went on immediate and complete vocal rest, found a speech therapist, and dropped out of the lead role in the opera. (And then had another night of crying about that.)

Looking back, I see the earlier signs, and I see the behaviors and vocal habits that weren’t helping my voice. One of which was pushing my voice to make the fuller sound that I thought others wanted. Overall, I was just working so hard to please people – to give them what they wanted and to be the voice that they wanted to cast.

At the time, I just didn’t even know what my baseline of vocal effort could be, which means I didn’t even know what my voice really sounded like. I was very proud of my sound, and yet I was manufacturing it at a high cost. I truly thought that how I was singing was as easy as it got. I barely exhaled, my “support” was always engaged, and I felt like I was SINGING. It was active. And then, over time, singing quietly got harder. And then sometimes there would be a small delay at the onset of when I’d start a note.

There were days every so often when my high notes weren’t there. But I didn’t know that these were signs. I just didn’t know.

In the weeks after the doctor’s visit, all I kept thinking was that I was “damaged goods.” As part of my financial aid, I had a teaching position giving voice lessons to non-music majors. How could I do this, when I clearly didn’t know what I was doing – I had broken my own voice? I was just so scared to make sound – or to sing confidently. That fear actually took a few years to fully subside.

Over the past ten years, I’ve had a voracious appetite for any information regarding the voice. I took all the training I received to heart and eventually began working with singers who were in recovery. I felt their frustration and helplessness. It’s scary.

The most important thing to know is that it isn’t the end. It really isn’t.

In fact, going through something with your voice can make you more mindful, more aware, and more knowledgeable about your voice. Most importantly, it can help to shed light on the root cause(s) of the issue so that you can make adjustments in your vocal function and habits and be stronger than before! Vocal injuries and obstacles are not the end. They’re just a cue for you to listen to yourself a bit more.

The more that the general public can get behind this idea, the less we’ll feel like we have to hide it and suffer through rehabilitation in secret. The existing stigma (which is a whole other larger issue) has not made this easier, but it has to be okay to admit (preferably early on) when something feels off, so that you can make some changes.

In the meantime: learn the signs of fatigue; find a voice team that you trust; discover what makes your voice feel good, strong, and flexible; and ask for help as soon as something feels wrong.

Since it can seem like the voice is us, we can very quickly make the connection from “my voice is struggling” to “I’m failing.” That is not the case. There is no shame in taking care of yourself. In my case, there were just so many things that I didn’t know. I was trying way to hard and didn’t realize it.

Now I know, ask for help and move on.

Brittney Redler
PhC, MM, Certificate of Vocology


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