I’ll begin with a disclaimer/preface. After publishing the first introductory post in this series, a small number of close friends and/or colleagues messaged me with versions of a warning. “This is the kind of thing professional singers usually keep quiet.” On the other hand, I’ve had readers reach out to express their enthusiasm for this series of blog posts, unceremonious as they are bound to be. I value all their opinions immensely whichever side of the coin they fall on. What’s true is this: mere hours after I had my moment (a moment like so many others to be sure), many more people, friends and acquaintances alike, reached out to assure me this wasn’t unique. This can and does happen to everyone, in fact it probably will happen to every singer at one point or another, despite his or her best efforts to prevent vocal catastrophe. And yet no one talks about it! That’s precisely what scared me so much – I hadn’t heard the stories. I assumed this MUST have been catastrophic. Thankfully, it turned out it wasn’t anything of the sort. That being said, it’s not the worst thing to assume the worst. It’ll drive you nuts, but to do so keeps you cautious. If there’s any doubt in your mind, why not go see an ENT? Even if it’s just to restore your peace of mind. I think it’s important that other singers know that there will be moments in their careers when they are unable to sing, and there isn’t a weather forecast for that kind of thing. But I won’t pretend to be an expert either; this has never happened to me before in my life. Or maybe it has, and I never realized it; maybe it happened sitting on my ass playing video games on an off few days from performance or rehearsal and I just never knew because I was having quiet “me time.” Paradoxically, the best way to examine your vocal health (short of scoping your insides) is to test it out and sing. And even when you think you’re singing through some nasty shit, it’s likely someone else has had it so much worse. Don’t freak out and take a break. Meanwhile, wouldn’t it be nice to know there are more people just like you?
DAY ONE: Isn’t it Neat?
Yes, that’s a thinly veiled quote from The Little Mermaid. I’ll keep the referencing to a minimum from now on. Or not. Who knows? What’s that word again? We’ll see.
So I woke up. Cool. That’s the first step I guess. My morning routine doesn’t typically involve much of my voice anyway. Nothing unusual there. Except maybe that I’d otherwise be more prone to making, as my brother describes it, “weird noises.” Indiscriminate lip-trilling and the like. You know, it actually feels weird when my lips are unoccupied (Freudian slip, no doubt). It’s like a facial fidget. Instead of tapping a pencil against a desk, I just throw in a lip trill. I have to say, I miss that in my morning routine. Alas. I didn’t wake up quite as early as I wanted to, but I’m cutting myself some slack here since, you know, current circumstances are unusual for me to say the least. Anyway I’d rather find parking at school right away then hang out and make breakfast at home, so I grab my Prednisone and go!
Okay, first major obstacle of the day: Highland Coffees…and how to order…anything. I guess all those people who suggested I get a little white board weren’t actually joking. Maybe 60% joke 40% no but actually do that little thing. And anyone who frequents Highland Coffees knows the baristas are selectively hard of healing as it is. Light-bulb! I pull out my phone, make a new memo, and type:
small orange juice
chocolate muffin with fork to go
What a genius is me. I’m titillated and proud on the inside, but I sheepishly display my memo. Interestingly enough, the barista just takes this for it is. I’ll see how this plays out as the week goes on, but this was also the case for my lunch later at Inga’s. Except that time, I felt like a damn fool because I left one item off of my order, thus had to edit it after he already rung me up, and then pointed to the tiny added text at the bottom. How much easier it would be to just talk! I’m sure he was screaming on the inside: “DUDE WHY DON’T YOU JUST SAY SOMETHING!?” Afterwards, I considered how important it is really to have creole mustard on my sandwich…
Ah, class time already. I finish my muffin, swig my Prednisone (and Doxycycline) down with some water, and go! Business as usual, except that I couldn’t willfully participate. Thankfully all my professors knew of my “situation.” There were certainly moments in my first class, which is structured as a discussion-based seminar, when a thought would strike me and I’d get that eager twinge to just articulate it already and cut somebody else off from speaking. This was when silence hit me hardest. No amount of wild gesticulation or faux sign language can amount to meaningful contribution to conversation in my case. For now, yes-or-no questions are my rickety gateway to relevancy in any conversation. That my friend texted me after I already ate lunch to ask if I wanted to accompany him on his lunch break took me completely by surprise. Am I really capable of being good company if I can’t say anything back to you? Or maybe friends are best valued for being listeners rather than active commentators? In any event, I was flattered, but also I just ate so, like, never mind.
Silence really is neat. People quickly forget you’re around. They acknowledge you physically, but conversation never really veers in your direction. Hence how intensely frustrating it must be when you want to join a conversation as a talker when you just can’t find your way in. I surmise I would avoid conversation altogether if I wasn’t currently surrounded by musicians (and singers familiar with the concept of vocal rest to boot).
By far – and for lack of a better word – the neatest part of my day was in rehearsal for The Mikado, which I’m currently assistant directing at LSU. The main director worked with the women’s chorus while I took the men’s chorus upstairs to another rehearsal space to review their staging. It only hit me a few hours before the rehearsal that I would somehow have to communicate with ten actor-singers in absence of my main method of communication. I had to figure out a way to lead the rehearsal in silence.
My first instinct was to let them in on landmark formations. Initial staging happened so quickly that there wasn’t any time to run anything. I thought to myself “GREAT” because there’s a big whiteboard upstairs. Naturally when I got there I neglected to bring my own dry erase marker. I was unaware up until now that faculty at LSU must provide their own dry erase markers. Erasers on the house, but don’t ask LSU for your markers I suppose.
My friend ran to another room and luckily found one there. At that point I indicated to the men to look over the music while I took some time to write on the board. At least, that’s what I attempted to explain. I thought big presentational arm sweeps might make it clear I was trying to address the whole group…I don’t think they thought that. I also thought pointing to my music would make it clear I wanted them to check their music. That was mostly wasted effort. As soon as I started writing on the board, they immediately started taking notes, as I would have wanted them to do anyway. I basically constructed what looked like football plays on the board with initials and numbers. Oof, football. Been at LSU one year too long already.
Thankfully, the music director was able to join the men’s chorus rehearsal to play piano after he finished rehearsing with the women’s chorus. We sort of coordinated a rapport, where I would communicate something to him whether by pointing, gesturing, writing a note on the white board, or (and I wouldn’t recommend this) mouthing something. Turns out, mouthing words is the least effective form of non-verbal communication. There just aren’t a lot of people out there capable of reading lips, and most certainly if they haven’t been practicing it all their lives. Additionally, mouthing words, as hard as you might try, inadvertently causes you to phonate, miniscule as it might be. I repeat, avoid mouthing whenever you can. It ain’t worth it.
But in this setting, it just felt impossible not to mouth at least a little. What a peculiar challenge it was, to be the leader figure in a room of people all looking to you to clarify their questions. Without your answers, they are effectively clueless, and yet you lack the ability to vocally articulate them. It was rather bewildering and short of actually saying “is it hot in here or is it just me?” I was fanning myself like crazy. Good thing The Mikado requires fans…oh so many fans.
I grew to rely on the percussiveness of the fans. When you zuk a fan, it makes a pretty awesome sound. One of my friends described it as a big fart. I can’t say I completely disagree. Also, zuk? Zook? That’s always what we called the rapid opening of a fan when I did The Mikado back in my CLOC days. That verb could be invention for all I know. The point is, I could use the fan to my advantage, garnering attention quickly, either with a startling zuk or by tapping at the white board with my fan like a yardstick to indicate what formation the chorus should be in next.
Able to utilize the music director as my voice box once removed, I was quite impressed by how much we managed to effectively review in tandem. Well, actually, who can say how effective it really was. Something was accomplished in that rehearsal, and I managed to do it without speaking, sans one slip up when I accidentally uttered two small words, followed by a facial expression that I could only describe as that look toddlers give you when you just caught them misbehaving and they know it…just more bearded and wrinkled in my case. I don’t even remember what words they were. Nevertheless, by the time the rehearsal concluded, I determined that was the most I missed my voice since this quest for absolute silence began. How efficient language is! And being the Jersey boy I am, there are few things I hold more dear than efficiency (especially now that I’m living in the Bayou of the Deep South).
Part of me wants to rank modes of non-verbal communication in terms of predicted effectiveness, as if I’m now the authority after just one day. But quite simply, no one person communicates with you in the same way. And this is true of human nature. We change our behaviors and our habits to either cater to or emulate the people we find ourselves surrounded by. We will change our voices for such occasions. A voice is much more malleable than a face. I can’t Picasso my nose in reality, but I could do some gnarly shit with my voice to get a point across. Without that voice, an apparatus I’ve spent so much of my life training to be flexible and powerful, I sense I am lacking in charisma. My voice helps to make me dynamic. Can that be compensated for successfully?
I head to our first staging rehearsal of Sweeney Todd. It’s just the opening ballad, so as Sweeney I’m thankfully not missing much in this rehearsal. I just watch the staging from the side perusing my score in its entirety, mostly for shits and giggles. I know I know it, but being out of commission for the sing through just two days ago, I’m even hungrier to perform it as perfectly and nuanced and artistically as possible. My double is blocked to basically stand and sing ominously on a platform that’s invisible to us now. That’s all simple enough.
But I zeroed in on the chorus, and having been in the chorus of Sweeney Todd years ago myself, lemme tell ya, it is NOT an easy chorus sing. And a lot of those singers really have the capability, but it’s so much wailing on High C’s and D’s, and then you have to repeat the same spots over and over in rehearsal and I just wanted to let them know IT’S OKAY TO MARK!
But what do I know? I’m the one who’s currently the vocal gimp! Where do I get off wanting to let people know marking is okay? Sure, I do it all the time when I’m of the mind to. But as is my example, marking can't always save you, so is that all just futile too? All I could do was text my friend (who plays the Beadle and gives many of the chorus members voice lessons as a part of his doctoral requirements), asking him to let them know that it’s okay to mark if they need to. Knowing how much losing your voice for what seems like no good reason sucks, I’d prefer not to consider too vividly how physically blowing it out must affect you.
Between my starting this draft and now reaching its conclusion, more people have messaged me to express their “get wells” and stories of empathy. One in particular I’ve had the pleasure of performing alongside and directing on stage. She has a superb voice and one of the soundest, most solid techniques of anyone I’ve performed with close to my age, and even she admitted to me this exact same thing happened to her in Baton Rouge around this time last year. “It’s just something that happens that I thought would never happen to me either but lo and behold it did,” she writes me. Perhaps it was the weather, the climate, not being from the area originally, the Louisiana cooking, the stress, or it was just nothing at all.
I apologized to her, confessing that it selfishly makes me feel better to know that she too isn’t invincible. “You will be fine,” she said. “Take it one step at a time.” She signed the message with a warmhearted emoji. That’s millennial sincerity if I ever saw it ;)
After rehearsal ended, I spent the rest of today writing...this. I’ll be getting to sleep soon. Goodness knows I need all the sleep right now. Until morning...