My post, “How to Cure a Hoarse Voice,” is, by far, the most-viewed on my blog. I get lots of views and comments all the time, and I’m so glad the information has been helpful to people. It’s easy to share the information and say, “Just wait. Don’t talk.” But when it’s actually happening to you, when you’re actually unable to speak (or on the verge) it’s tough advice to take. In fact, I had to take that advice myself about a month ago. My hope in sharing this story with you is that, when you start seeing (hearing) red flags, you will recognize what is happening and know when to take it easy.
I have developed acid reflux over the years. I only get it if I’ve overeaten a few too many times in a certain period, and it does put me at risk for infection; when my throat gets raw like that, it’s easy for bacteria or a virus to sneak in and get me sick. I’d been feeling weird for days, and then my voice started getting weaker and weaker. This leads me to the main takeaway of this post:
When you feel your voice getting weak and you think something might be wrong, do not push it.
I was at my day job, and on break. I was obsessed with a certain Latino pop song and was doing a casual recording to see how my Spanish sounded. The artist is not Mariah Carey, but there are little vocal frills that add a certain amount of athleticism to the song. I thought that, by pushing through the texture, weakness, and the stuff in my throat, maybe I’d shake it off. How very wrong I was. No sooner did I get back from break that I found my voice was entirely gone. Literally, the most I could get out was a whisper–no vocal involvement whatsoever–and we all know how bad whispering is.
In fact, I have a recording of my voice failing, and these are the signs you want to look for. I pridelessly am sharing this with you. For comparison, I’ve made another very casual recording of my voice as it would have been that day, had I not been ill. It’s not perfect, either (I didn’t exactly warm up for this), but it gives you an idea of my normal, healthy voice (caution to you headphone-listeners):
Hear how my voice leaps from note to note in a facile way. There is little texture to it, and it sounds bright.
Now, compare that to the mud that follows. Follow along with my commentary:
0:00 Right off the bat, you can hear the texture of my failing voice, the weakness of my vocal chords, and also just how sick I sound. You can also hear that all the notes are falling pretty flat, despite how hard I’m trying (which only makes it worse, as you’ll later hear). Also, these “frills” and “athleticism” I mentioned are almost nonexistent because my voice just can’t do it.
:15 At this first leap in pitch, you will hear how much flatter and inaccurate the following notes become. The more whispery sound that follows and subsequent throat-clearing (shame on you, Morgan!) is my body’s natural response to try and protect my voice by manufacturing mucus. Why didn’t I listen?
:25: This is when my voice starts wavering and sounding like someone’s going crazy on the pitch modulator for a synthesizer. Listen how quickly this situation deteriorates.
1:03 My voice cracks after hammering that A note for so long. Sayonara.
Not long after this recording was made, my voice was entirely destroyed, and I didn’t get it back for almost exactly two weeks.
Did you get that? Two weeks.
Had I not ignored the signs, tried to push through, and ignored my body’s natural defenses, I may never have completely lost my voice. Certainly not for two weeks, at any rate. These are the times when we must remember to be patient, relax, and care for ourselves. Whether you’re a singer, actor, public speaker, or other admirable voice-centric profession, our voices are our livelihood. Without them, we cannot work.
On top of the physical damage, there are also considerable expenses that come up for us professionals: permanent damage not only limits our capabilities but also changes our sound. With my bright, young voice, my most marketable self if the bubbly retail-type. If my voice were suddenly to drop in pitch and gain texture, I’d have to completely rethink all of my marketing and record all new promotional demos. And then, in the more extreme cases, there is surgery for those who develop nodules and polyps. It is not cheap.
I would rather take two weeks off from using my voice than risk damaging it for the rest of my life and career. Sometimes, as I said in the original post, it really does take a while. And it’s always longer than we want. Describing how frustrating that experience was will have to wait for another day. I encourage you to think of the bigger picture the next time your voice is setting off alarm bells. The more you rest your voice early on, the sooner you will be on your way back to vocal acrobatics.