Voicing My Concerns

Zachary Harris
In an earlier blog post, there was a conversation being had about the things to do with your voice to ensure your vocal health. These tips, ranging from fluids and rest to types of vocal warm ups to do for preventing injury/fatigue, are all very solid, and things that most people should one hundred percent keep in mind when preparing for shows, presentations, and general life. They are absolutely correct, and most people with vocal training (or have speech pathology expertise, and sciences of the like) will be absolutely able to give you a quick TL;DR on these sort of googleable things.

This then brings up the question of, why do posts about vocal health either not get attention, or the original poster is told to go to a doctor or vocal coach? Why are these really useful hints that google/the last blog post on vocal health not sufficient in helping me diagnose myself?

To answer this, I will ask a series of questions that I’d like you to find an answer for:

1. My voice is hoarse all the time now, what’s wrong with me? I have a show in like, two weeks!

2. My voice gets tired pretty quickly, and I am not seemingly able to sing for as long as I used to

3. It kind of hurts when I swallow, what’s up with that?

4. I have a sour taste in my mouth when I sing, what’s wrong with me?

Now that we have this out of the way, let me try to quickly answer these as best I can; I have absolutely no idea as I have never seen you sing nor have I looked at your folds. There’s no way for me, or really anyone, to actually know how to help you, though we can give you pretty general tips. Not that these tips are bad, but medically/vocally no one can know these things. Why? Because while the answer to the fourth question is probably acid reflux, and some of the other questions can be potentially a water/sleep/diet thing or a vocal technique thing (lol, which is a rabbit hole in itself) there’s no way for me to know. There’s no way for any of us to know.

 Photo by b-d-s/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by b-d-s/iStock / Getty Images

With technique it can be so many potential things: how you breathe, where your tension is, how you open your mouth, where your placement is, and so on and so forth. No one on the internet can tell you much more than “brush up on your technique” when addressing this… IF THAT IS EVEN THE PROBLEM. Without actually being able to watch you sing, no one without knowing your medical history or your general diet (or like, what you’re allergic to/how your body reacts to certain things), there’s no way for us to tell you why acid reflux is happening, or if it’s happening at all. Obviously, we all want to help, but that’s the honest truth. But let me just tell you from experience of what happened to me.

When I was in Les Mis the summer of 2014 at a local dinner theatre, I started to have a little tickle in my throat, now I was also a little sick but you gotta do what you gotta do… Right? So, the immediate remedies that were told to me by just about everyone I had ever known was to get some meds to fight the cold and I’ll be fine as long as I warm up correctly/get water/sleep. After a few more weekends of Les Mis it kept getting worse, so I went to a doctor at Johns Hopkins (yay!). I discovered that I had a vocal contact ulcer (which is this, but mine was a tinge different https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/mouth-and-throat-disorders/vocal-cord-contact-ulcers), which obviously was not what anyone had ever actually predicted was wrong. My taking of the meds, my being sick, and not understanding how to alter my instrument to stay healthy while being less than 100% led to this. Fortunately, this did NOT permanently change my voice or damage it, but I did have to go to speech therapy for a number of months to help me understand my voice better and how things can lead to that.

Professional singers and people of the like usually have a firm grasp of how their instrument works and how to change things (such as placement) to shield themselves from potential damage. How did they acquire such a skill? Usually through vocal lessons at the college level or post grad (or earlier, but many people don’t have access to quality voice lessons until later in life), and even then, you’re still constantly learning and adapting. Those teachers give lifelong skills to preserve their students’ instruments. And if anything goes awry, they go to a professional to diagnose them and give them a game plan for recovery.

While seeing a professional might not in the cards for many, and while I completely understand the fact that it was an absolute privilege for me to go to one of the best hospitals in the world to get this looked at, I cannot stress enough that without someone along those lines diagnosing you (or giving you resources along those lines) you can be misdiagnosed or not actually get to the root of your problem. Especially in high school, there is a culture of “sing through it” or “COUGH DROPS SAVE THE DAY”, and in the end scrambling to figure what is wrong with you can lead to bigger consequences.

If you are looking for some great general tips, this is a solid place to start https://allthingsbroadway.com/blog/?offset=1526896800708, but no one here in this massive group can actually help YOU specifically. Your instrument and how you use it/what you give it is all unique to you and in many instances (read: most), is not a “one size fits all” solution. Please take care of yourself, and while I’m not saying to run to a doctor every time you sneeze I just want everyone to keep in mind that we the internet can only sort of (but not really) be of assistance.