February/March 2014

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Road to Recovery

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Road to Recovery

The road to recovery from vocal damage – picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and singing all over again. NZM’s wonderful Finding Your Voice columnist Caitlin Smith offers helpful remedy tips from her own experiences.

It’s not encouraging to hear, “There’s nothing we can do – you’re the expert,”” from Auckland Hospital’s Voice Clinic, especially when you’re experiencing vocal difficulties that you, speech pathologists and ENT surgeons don’t understand. So it begins – the road to recovery – part nailbiting rollercoaster ride, part Zen meditation retreat, part Jungian psycho-analytical therapy.

These issues come so we can learn and improve. The voice is our best indicator of health and wellbeing – a ‘barometer of the soul’ really.

Recovering full-function can require a detective investigation as complex as episodes of The Mentalist, CSI, House, Outrageous Fortune and Dr Who combined! Not necessarily…

First, we must ascertain what the problem is. What are the symptoms of vocal difficulty? What are its causes? And then, what’s the remedy?

I like to think of everything as remedy, and approach healing from a very holistic perspective (I suspect that what I’ve been experiencing has multiple causes). Most problems are very easily fixed. It can be soul-destroying encountering difficulty where there wasn’t any, or, not being able to shake a recurring issue that sabotages on stage or in the studio. We fear we’re doing everything wrong, falsely blame ourselves or benign external forces, feel ashamed and impatient. Thankfully, it’s an invitation to become clear and aware of, “What’s goin’ on?””… Thanks Marvin.

Singers can tend towards being neurotic hypochondriacs who catastrophise vocal scenarios. Rather than pragmatically working through a calm process of deduction then solutions-focused recovery, we fearfully presume that we’ll never sing again, or at best it’s ‘one step forward, two steps back’. The good news is that there are so many sources of causality, and just as many, if not more remedies.

Take for example, nodules. Unless they’ve grown into polyps or are outrageously out of control, they can be easily healed with a few days complete vocal rest then remedial and very gentle well-placed vocal exercises (even, sustained humming, slow soft descending dog whimpers with as little air as possible). We mostly get nodules from pushing and straining the voice. However, you can sometimes get nodules from reflux, allergies, chest infections, environmental irritants/pollutants or screaming. Emotional trauma can put you in line for nodules faster than overuse does.

An accurate diagnosis depends on how well you know yourself. You are your instrument, so your emotions, thoughts, physical condition, behaviour, psyche and ‘spirit’ must be factored in. If a laryngoscopy reveals that your vocal cords are in good working order or have a little swelling, then the fun begins. Approach with great humour and curiosity what might be creating hoarseness, loss of range, breath without phonation, loss of control, pain or fatigue.

Beware the quick fix! Everything is here to teach us. GPs over-prescribe pills like anti-reflux medication Losec because pharmaceutical companies pressure them to do so. This may not be the issue. Besides, there are natural anti-reflux remedies that are a cursor click away on Google. While there, be wary of misinformation ‘online’ and ‘vocal experts’ claiming to have the only cure for nodules (which coincidentally fixes prostate cancer too… bonus). Their intent is to scare you out of vast sums of money to employ their (often trademarked) and dodgy services. Good and bad voice-use has been around as long as humans have. Copyrighting a specific technique is akin to trademarking a yoga or sexual position.

Don’t be discouraged. Learning how to be the loosest, most expressive, resonant, musical, emotionally connected, effortless singer we can be is always worth striving for. Difficulty is an invitation to upskill and practice regimes that will benefit your overall well-being (as well as career).

Be aware of the spiral of stalemate. A recovering voice is weak and tires easily, so we avoid practising which rubs our face in how bad we sound. Persevere – slowly, incrementally, build up stamina (don’’t expect to be running/singing a marathon/three hour gig without working towards full health with a conscientious daily training plan).

Sing yourself better by healing your voice through sound! Focus on technique whenever you vocalise: getting the sound further forward, more buzzy, less air, supported, breathing placed low within the body, lighter, pure and energised.

Address all the issues that may be contributing factors; allergies, insomnia, depression, anxiety, despair, grief, separation, loss, negative self-talk, lack of assertiveness or efficacy, feeling unsupported, tension, hypertension, bad posture, lack of cardio-vascular fitness, addictions (to caffeine, sugar, alcohol), fear, too critical or judgmental, surgery, medical conditions (respiratory, digestive, thyroid or heart problems), menopause, childbirth and menstruation, hormonal issues, destructive behaviours or relationships, colds, heavy voice-use/strain, arguments or difficult conversations, clothes too tight, heels too high, core beliefs about singing needing to be a strain ‘no pain, no gain’, push, too much time in front of a computer / sitting, anger and frustration (at yourself, or others), distractions of social media/work in social situations or creeping into down time, avoiding confrontation, overly rigid outlook, exhaustion, self-destructive lifestyle, worry, self-loathing, self-hatred, side-effects of medication (some asthma meds like Symbicort have been linked to vocal damage), stress, lack of practice, overuse or misuse.

Regardless of causality, the solutions are universal. Sleep, hydrate, warm-up, know your instrument and how it works, release tension through yoga, work outs, walking, dancing, enjoying the sensual pleasures of the body, healthy diet, massage, fresh air, single task focus making more space for creativity (in your life / in your body). Make yourself psychically robust so that criticisms aren’t destabilising, shake, get out of your ‘head’, hang out with kids, laugh, affirmations (the body believes what we tell it!), determination, using a light touch/lightness of being when you perform, down time, acknowledge large vocal events and how these effect the voice – recognising and finding vibration in a relaxed state (when showering, walking, lying on the floor), recognise yourself as an ‘artist’, consult naturopaths and dieticians, honour cycles (menstrual/hormonal), meditation and deep relaxation exercises, go easy on yourself, listen to music, practice mindfulness, radical honesty, compassionate communication with people you may be avoiding, acupuncture, prayer, First Light Flower Essences (they actually work!) write about/through emotional difficulties, NLP, deep-breathing exercises, swimming and creative play.

I tend towards tension (in shoulders, tongue, throat, neck, jaw, tummy, back and face). Perhaps this is exacerbated by my partial sight, not drinking (whereas before, I’d go on drinking benders to release tension – I’d call ‘blow outs’), being too analytical and cognitive… being a Virgo… all of the above? Regardless of origin, the best way to override emotional or psychological issues is to be body-centred.

We need to experience free, easy and instantaneous release of sound without sabotaging it with our ‘fight or flight’ instincts. At this core level, we must retrain our bodies to open and yield under stress. Find pleasure and joy within moments of expressive terror or challenge.

Allow it to take as long as it takes. Be compassionate, openhearted, open-minded, talk with other professional vocalists and KEEP SINGING!

Caitlin Smith –

Twitter @BraveCaitlin