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Addressing Vocal Health Elitism in the Time of COVID-19

As we continue to face one of the most troubling health crises of our generation, I feel compelled to take a moment to discuss an issue that has taken a front seat in my life over the past nine months: vocal health. More specifically: vocal health elitism.

Most trained singers are aware of the basics of maintaining vocal health. Don’t drink too much caffeine, stay hydrated, avoid smoking and other airway irritants, keep acid reflux under control, don’t over-use your instrument, always use good technique, take appropriate vocal rest measures. But the paramount, fundamental rule for all singers is this: avoid respiratory illness at all costs. If you see an individual out in public disinfecting frequent-touch surfaces, opening doors with the hem of their t-shirt, or avoiding hand-shaking (can we please just do away with this barbaric practice), you’ve probably observed a neurotic singer in the height of cold and flu season.

For singers, the COVID-19 pandemic poses a very real threat to not only our physical health, but also to our career health. With performances on hold for the foreseeable future, many careers will likely either make a dramatic shift in focus or join the line-up of figurative fatalities caused by the merciless economic consequences of COVID-19. Those who are lucky enough to outlast the financial dry spell are left to combat the more serious career threat of actually contracting COVID-19, a disease proven to have devastating effects on the respiratory tract (AKA, a professional singer’s livelihood.) We don’t know yet how quickly a professional singer can return to previous vocal ability after “recovering” from the virus. We don’t know if singers can EVER make a full recovery of their instrument. From the professional singers who have spoken out about their on-going experiences, we do know that whatever the recovery outcome, it takes a very long time to get there. I don’t say this to cause even more fear and panic, but to address an attitude shift we absolutely need to make.

On October 13, 2019, I contracted one of the worst respiratory illnesses I’ve ever had. It came on suddenly and severely. It was a Sunday night, and I had an audition on Wednesday as well as a weekend concert I was really looking forward to. (Not to mention a full teaching schedule as well as chorister duties in a production of The Mikado.) I told myself within two days I would be able to sing again and everything would be OK. I would still be able to fulfill all my singing obligations. Within a few days, I was definitely not back to singing. Instead, I was violently coughing all day and all night. I finally went to the doctor to get something to help me sleep at night. I was given prednisone and an albuterol inhaler and told I had a nasty case of bronchitis. The coughing subsided a bit with the help of medication, but lingered through the rest of the year. Needless to say, my singing voice had not returned to normalcy throughout any of this ordeal. I kept singing, though, on a weakened instrument. I probably should not have, but that’s what the financial fragility and opportunity scarcity of a singing career often unfortunately demands.

Fast forward to July 11, 2020, and I still have not fully regained my full vocal ability prior to October 13. I’ve been to the laryngologist twice and have worked with a speech language pathologist. All have told me my instrument was severely weakened by my ordeal. No pathology. No lumps or bumps. No neurological damage. It’s just taking a long time because the respiratory trauma was so severe.

I’m so incredibly thankful my vocal folds are pathology free, and that I will eventually make a full recovery and regain what I lost. However, throughout these past nine months, as I tried to make the next financially difficult decision and waited for the next doctor’s appointment, I had to come to terms with the reality that a pathology may exist. That my instrument could be forever changed because of the physical alteration that would inevitably remain in my vocal folds even after recovery. Knowing I work in a field that, for the most part, makes absolutely no room for vocal disability or less-than-perfectly-healthy vocal folds, I began to come to accept that my career as I had envisioned it might be over. My training, my knowledge, my proven artistry meant nothing unless I was able to meet the elitist, ableist timbral expectations of the professional classical singing world.

Professional classical singing community, we need to make a change. We all know the terror of something happening to our delicate, fragile, vulnerable instrument—whether it be sickness, injury, hormonal change, or simply aging. I have news for each of you. You are right to feel this terror because you cannot escape any of these things. Most of us will face devastating illness that will in some way damage or alter our voices. If we’re fortunate to live long enough, we will have to deal with an aging voice. Can we really continue to stomach the standard we have set up? That a certain timbre always trumps honed musicality, artistry, knowledge, and reputation?

Let me be clear: I am not advocating that we throw vocal health priorities out the window or cease to carefully and meticulously tend to our voices. Vocal health is essential, just as any other sort of health is. A vocal pathology should never be ignored or left untreated. However, once a singer has recovered as much as they are able, their voice may be fundamentally altered. Their voice may no longer sound identical to the ableist ideal we have glorified for hundreds of years. We need to make space for that altered, recovered voice. We need to make space for its beauty, artistry, knowledge, experience, uniqueness, capacity, and musicality. We need to continue to pay that voice rather than treat idealized timbre as the primary element for assessing the professional capacity of a singer’s instrument.

As COVID-19 rips through our lives, I hope and pray this message resounds and finds a home with a few more people than it would have in another season. We are all terrified, and rightfully so. But maybe we can lay down at least one of those fears if we will finally, as a professional singing community, promise that we will make space for each other when our injured voices recover, even if we sound a little different or our stamina is limited. If I am the only one promising to make space, so be it. I never want anyone to feel like I did. Like my changed voice would no longer be welcome in my professional sphere. That my hard work, knowledge, artistic abilities, and musicality meant nothing if my voice was in any way “impure.” So, I promise to make space for the recovered voices out there. I promise to work to dismantle the elitism, the ableism, and the mental and emotional trauma mercilessly inflicted on those who undergo vocal change. I promise to stand alongside you and offer support as you make the changes that allow your new, recovered voice to shine, as you find the repertoire and musical styles that work for you. I promise to hold on to you as you let go of the pieces, roles, and genres your recovered voice has outgrown. There is professional space for you, even if some say there isn’t. Your voice is beautiful when it is healthy, unhealthy, and recovered. Your voice will always be worthy, and it will always deserve space to be heard.

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