Whether or not you fancy yourself a singer, your identity and individuality are tied inextricably to your voice. You have points of view, opinions, monologues, “hellos” and “goodbyes,” “thank yous” and “your welcomes,” tidbits of advice to offer, acknowledgements to make, likes and dislikes, songs of praise, words of disdain, comments you can’t just keep to yourself…well…if I went on you’d get sick of me! Try to make a list of each and every way you use your voice – big and small – throughout the day. Chronicling your daily vocal data would make for a very exhaustive exercise. And who would care anyway? Are arbitrary “good mornings” really something worth jotting down every time you say them? Is that what makes you so exceptional? What about the food you order, the numbers you repeat back over the phone to an automated answering machine currently annoying the living crap out of you, the simple shouts uttered to get your friend’s attention across a room, the talking you do to yourself when you’re alone at night? Again, I could go on and on. But no matter how inconsequential the task, it all has to be articulated, and for the majority of us as humans, that is performed vocally. You are your voice.
So what if you lost it?
Stripped of his or her ability to phonate, a person starts to feel effectively less than human. If you are someone who believes humans are unlike any other organism on this planet, you might argue language is what differentiates us from “the animals.” Without that supreme mode of communication, natural selection has it out for you, and in a more primitive world silence might even be the death of you. Granted, being mute is a disability like any other. A mute person isn’t any more or less fortunate than a person who’s deaf, for example. As for my muteness, I’m very fortunate it’s self-induced, and temporary at that.
I will preface this by saying I am a singer. My voice is therefore desperately dear to me – it’s my personality, my soul, my calling card, my way of life. Perhaps a non-singer in this situation wouldn’t have done quite so much soul-searching. But even as a singer, I hadn’t realized how much I take my voice for granted every single day.
It started on a day that really was like any other. I commented to a few people throughout the day that I had that perpetual “thirsty” feeling. Meaning, I’d have the sensation of thirst, but no amount of water seemed to quench it. Otherwise, there was nothing unusual. I chalked this slight anomaly up to the batshit weather we’ve been having in Louisiana lately. Other than that, nothing out of the ordinary. I’m a second year master’s student in the School of Music at Louisiana State University. We’ve been having music rehearsals for Sweeney Todd for the last few weeks, but they’ve been nicely spread out up until now. Even with weekly voice lessons, coachings, chamber choir rehearsals, and my church job calls, any exhaustion I was feeling was physical. With a 20-hour assistantship and a packed class schedule, I’m really just running around all day trying to get everything else done. When I joke that “I never have time for music at music school,” I’m seldom facetious.
It was the day of our first memorized sing-through with the entire cast. Again, I hadn’t noticed anything strange except the weird thirst factor. Up until now, I had been talking and phonating normally, though I hadn’t had the chance to do any prolonged amount of singing prior to this rehearsal. Then when I got to “My Friends,” I suddenly couldn’t sing above my passaggio (my “break” in vocal slang) without sounding totally wrecked. For me, this meant anything above Middle C was…not ideal. I find it troublesome describing exactly what it sounded like. It wasn’t just hoarseness or an inability to access my head register. To my ear, it sounded otherworldly. I was sweating with confusion and dismay, especially since I wasn’t in any pain whatsoever and I wasn’t changing anything about my singing on top of it. After the number, the conductor very kindly asked me “is it just phlegm or…?” I didn’t know how to answer. I asked him if I could step out and vocalize somewhere else. I spent some time in a secluded little practice room at the other end of the building. Incidentally the light switch was broken inside. It was me alone in the dark with my newly broken voice, trying my best to sing like I had done just a few days prior. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t rectify it. I did the unthinkable (at least in my case): I told the conductor I couldn’t sing the rest of the rehearsal. Thankfully, he conceded without hesitation.
I sat their silently for the duration of the memorized sing-through, mouthing alongside my double cast singer, looking our conductor dead in the eye, making sure he knew that I knew every word, every pitch, and every rhythm despite my silence. It was the best I could do to distract myself from how overwhelming this all felt to me. I was disappointed in myself, embarrassed that my cast-mates (many of them close friends, not just colleagues) witnessed me crash so hard, and also kicking myself, feeling like I let down my conductor, an artist I admire, respect, and am happy to call friend.
Throughout my life, Sweeney Todd was a show I grew up knowing, and a role I always wanted to play. Over the past few weeks, I learned every note, both the right and wrong ones (Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou are exceedingly difficult to get out of your head when you’ve been listening to the Original Broadway Cast album since the age of 12) and I was so excited to finally put it into context with the rest of the singers. Instead, I sat there vacant and impatient, wishing I could get a doctor on the phone even though Baton Rouge goes to bed just after five in the afternoon. When I wasn’t mouthing along, I was entertaining nightmare scenarios in my head, and reliving separate conversations I’ve had with singing colleagues and previous teachers from New York. They always referred to Sweeney Todd as a show that rips your voice apart. When I was cast in the role, just as many people congratulated me as admonished me sternly. “Be careful, Brad! Don’t blow your voice out like Len Cariou!” Thankfully I have the advantage of not being expected to perform it eight times a week! But I was being careful, wasn’t I? Dammit, I was! So what did I do to end up like this? I didn’t understand it.
It was a textbook case of “it could happen to you.” Or at least that’s the idiom to which I clung.
After the rehearsal that evening, I stuck together with some of my friends to study for a Song Literature listening exam the next morning. You try dropping the needle on any song from Dichterliebe, Frauenliebe und –leben, and oh so much more, plus trying to remember the subtleties between songs that on one hand say “It HURTS that I LOVE you,” but on the other hand say “I saw you in my dream and YOUR LOVE HURTS ME SOOOO!” Oh and there’s not one, but two separate songs in there about forest elves. Thanks, Mendelssohn and Schumann, oh so much. To clarify, our class had only been with this music a week and being in my current state, I found it maddening, exacerbated by my having to wait until morning to call the ENT offices. It just wasn’t all staying in my head.
Instead, I wrote a number of emails that night to members of the School of Music faculty explaining my “situation,” as I referred to it. They included Michael Borowitz, John Dickson, Blake Howe, Dennis Jesse, Dugg McDonough, and Sandra Moon, and every one of them could not have been more supportive. This put me far more at ease, as many of them empathized, citing moments in their lives just like this one in mine. In particular, Dennis called my phone to check in on me offering words of encouragement and serenity (though it is a tricky thing when asked to explain why your voice isn’t working via vocal production over the phone…but it wasn’t like I had stopped speaking altogether at this point). Sandra Moon emailed me back to say “we singers tie our personality in with our voices, but you have to separate them and not let it get you down,” which actually brought some tears to my eyes. I felt so cheesy and sentimental crying about it. It’s sooooo “not me” or whatever. Then my friend noticed me fighting back tears in our study session, turned to see that I was okay, hugged it out with me, and apologized there were no tissues left in Dennis’ office because she legitimately used them all when she had a sinus infection last week. The first of many paper towel runs that night, I assure you.
Imagine you owned a shop and you woke up one morning to discover it had burned to the ground overnight. That was the brand of vulnerability I was feeling. My business and livelihood was at stake and I felt so out of control.
Thankfully I was able to see the ENT the next morning (incidentally I had to miss that Song Literature exam because of the appointment I made in the morning). And after Dr. Jack Breaux’s examination of me, I could put some of the nightmares to rest. It was a freak incident after all! Talk about timing, geez! Also, ÉLAS!! STELLE!!! WHY ME!?!?
He explained there was nothing permanent or requiring immediate action. But there was evidence of bruising on my right vocal fold (weirdly, just the right, not the left), as well as swelling and inflammation along the walls of my throat and in my nostrils. He attributed many of the tiny anomalies in there to potentially being allergy-induced, which might explain the “thirsty” feeling. But as I wasn’t experiencing any pain despite my incident, Dr. Breaux advised that I not throw caution to the wind. He told me I had to go on total vocal rest for the next seven days, effective immediately and that he was prescribing me Prednisone and Doxycycline.
Uh. Woah, dawg. Chill.
I admit I’ve always found that “vocal rest” thing funny. I’ve even openly made fun of people doing “vocal rest.” Also there are legends about singing on Prednisone and how it’s bad bad BAD, which Dr. Breaux acknowledged. Then again that’s a nine-day dosage and he was requiring I be totally silent for seven of those days. That seemed sensible enough. So none of my previous notions seemed to matter. I agreed wholeheartedly. I ought to seriously give this vocal rest thing a try.
This was all a very long preface to say I am currently a voluntary mute, and boy oh boy how freakin’ weird it is to be one! I always knew I was a boisterous, effusive person, but it takes a lot of work to compensate for even one of those fallen pieces of me, and I hadn’t realized how much of my animated character manifests in my speaking voice. I comfort myself by saying I’m just like Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Except totally not. Except also yes. I just wanna be a part of your world of talkies again. The business of silent movies isn’t the finest career move for me.
Yet I’m glad I’m doing this. And I’m perfectly calm now. I actually feel really good about everything. As I learned from Spamalot, “always look on the bright side of life!” I'm quickly starting to believe this is a good experience for everyone to have, singer or not. Yeah, it’s nuts to duct tape your mouth shut short of actually duct taping your mouth shut, but it’s also bizarrely therapeutic. I’m on a mission. It’s an adventure to discover those moments in my everyday life when I don’t absolutely need to use my voice, and those other moments when you just wish you had one so terribly. Then again, so long as I can write I haven’t really been silenced, right? Or have I? Ok, I’m rambling here, but I haven’t been able to talk to anybody all day! (“Cabin Fever” from The Muppets: Treasure Island begins to play)
So here’s what I’m going to do: I’ll be writing an entry for every day of my journey on VOCAL REST!!! (It felt like it deserved caps just now.) The good, the bad, the weird, and maybe the ugly too…
So I just explained the idea to my boyfriend literally just now, but literally. He texted back “Awwww I like that idea” followed by “you’re really bored aren’t you…”
I’d like to think of it as inspired, baby.
Join me in my silent chronicles, won’t you?