This morning, I woke to find I'd lost my voice for the first time in a decade. Yet, this was, serendipitously, something of a gift. I was preparing for a retreat that Becky Gilhespie and I are running called, ‘The Singer and the Self,' and having to ask some big questions.
Now, with the very subject of discussion 'gone,' I was forced to face them head on. Asking, how does the voice connect to the 'self'? And, is our voice the sound of our ‘self’ and what happens if the voice cannot express the 'self'?
Growing up, my voice was always just there. Like the breeze on my skin, or the ground beneath my feet, it was an inarguable part of existing.
Until it wasn’t.
Around the age of 15, my voice began to take on a mind of its own. This was a time that coincided with divergences in the inner and outer world in which I existed: there was the normal stuff like new hormones, bodily changes and teenage self-consciousness. Also the pressure was mounting as I gained a place at the elite performing arts school. Then, I lost my father to suicide which brought about some big feelings, to say the least. My life was fracturing and reforming, and my voice wasn’t keeping up. Whatever the reasons, a splitting of the voice and the 'self' was ocurring.
That said, I didn’t notice this at the time. Not in any big way. I began to observe that my singing voice was no longer ‘just there.’ What had always felt like an intrinsic part of my ‘self’ was behaving like a thing with it’s own mind, showing up one day, then stamping it’s foot the next, obstinate as pressing old play-doh through a spaghetti machine.
Professionally, things moved fast. At college our agent showcase was round the corner. By the time I was nineteen, auditions were coming in for big jobs. I gripped my voice by the hand and told it to stay with me.
Yet, the inconsistency wasn’t shifting. In fact, the more I worked on my voice, the less it listened to me. At college we were told to fight with everything we had to win a place in the West End race. I did. I chased my voice like an illusive spectrum through a maze holding a golden ticket to get me across the bridge from one life to another.
When it did work, I felt infallible, ready to take on the world, visible, worthy. Not only because of the responses from my peers, and tutors but in some bigger way: I had found my way of communicating. My voice took hold of the messy chatter inside and made sense of it. My voice was the only thing I felt good at. It was my future.
But then there were the other days, when it no longer felt like my voice. There was this new weighty lower range that hit the ceiling unless I heaved it upwards like an unwieldy boulder. And then, across the gulf of a crevice large enough to send me tumbling into no man’s land, this odd ‘higher’ voice that was flimsy enough to fly away. I felt shame at these sounds that came from my body but felt nothing to do with who I was.
Around this time, the ripples were gently spread into my social life. I was now twenty and sharing a house with my friends, yet most nights I was hiding in my room. Otherwise, my voice wouldn’t show up for class the next day. On nights out, my voice would turn and run by midnight, leaving muscle ache, and huskiness, the glass slipper version of the real thing. I’d pull back in the darkness of the clubs in case anyone tried to communicate.
At weekends, I’d get the tube into central London alone where I could hide amongst crowds who wouldn’t ask me to speak. This was the only place I could find myself again, listening to my inner voice who was still there with me when my outer voice had disappeared. This voice became even more precious now I knew that I couldn’t reply on the outer one.
The lack of control infuriated me and sometimes my resolve left. If my voice was mistreating me, I’d mistreat it. I’d drink more, smoke, sing as loudly as I wanted over the music, and stay up all night. The next day, my voice wasn’t there but these times I made it happen. I told it to go. I was in control.
Except I wasn’t. Without my voice, I felt lost in the hugeness of everything with nothing to offer. Inside me was messy and loud and without a key. I reached out in this big wide world but it didn’t connect. I wasn’t sure who I was, or where to be.
Finally I went to see an ENT consultant and - to my relief - I was diagnosed with soft nodules. The relief was immediate. I could see the little bump on my vocal folds: the culprit of years of this internal shame, frustration and disconnection I had hidden from view. Now it had a name. It wasn’t something in me. It was on me. There was a clear plan, away from this uncomfortable past few years, and towards the future I wanted. Or so I thought.
The plan was to drink 2 litres of water a day, complete voice rest, to see a speech therapist and to take Gaviscon for the reflux that the consultant told me told me was coming up from my stomach and aggravating my vocal folds
‘Like leaving a violin in a case of acid overnight,’ he said.
With new certainty, and hope, I followed their plan. There was nothing more important to me. When it ended, the nodules were gone and professionally, things progressed. I got my Agent, my first West End show, then another. I started playing lead roles. I kept up the treatment plan yet things weren’t getting better.
I practised relentlessly. I’d warm up relentlessly, coaxing, pleading before every audition or show. A hundred times. A thousand times. Surely the theories of muscle memory had to work, if I just practised enough? I inhaled more steam than air. The doctors kept pumping me full of pills: Gaviscon, omeprazole, ranitidine, more, more, more to stop the reflux. When the pills didn’t work, I was sent for an operation, a thing called a Nissen Fundoplication, essentially tying up my oesophageal sphincter to prevent the abrasive acid getting to my vocal folds. Jamming a cork in a bottle, push it down, suppress it, numb it, plaster over it.
I gave up performing at the end of that contract and started learning about the voice. If I couldn’t conquer it, I wanted to understand why.
Without the pressures of having to perform, I released the very pressures that were restricting it. It wasn’t immediate. Many of the muscle patterns from holding my breath and pushing my muscles had become habitual, but as I began to understand the mechanics I started to retrain.
I quickly saw that the voice loss had triggered an effect much more profound than a little pink nodule or a bit of extra stomach acid. My voice and I were triggering each other in an impossible circle: the voice loss transforming the way I interacted with the world around me, my terror of the thing itself perpetuating the cause. The effect was creating responses in the muscles of the voice, the body, the breath, the brain and the nervous system.
Now, today. I have to admit this was all coming back. It was 7am. Time to get the kids to school. I was still waking up and figuring out if this was just ‘morning voice,’ but it wasn’t. It was very difficult to produce even a few low notes. Whilst my articulators energetically performed as normal, there was a low, gravelly, muffled nothingness below. For some reason, my vocal folds were not happy.
As I faced this, no one else noticed. The kids were each very much in their own worlds. The eldest wanted to talk about lego, the next eldest had just had a dream where I was eaten by an ogre, the next one down was having a meltdown because the arm of her cardigan was inside out and the two year old was pretending to be a tiger.
I did a hasty self-check at what this could be: I spent the night before, leading a choir where I couldn’t help myself singing flat out over the group for 90 minutes, but I was pretty sure, it wasn’t anything functional. I do this every week. I’ve not had a problem before. I could feel no tightness, or pain, no sense of the ‘lump in the throat’ or the sensation of something pressing against the lower front of my larynx which I used to. Of course, this doesn’t always rule out a problem as the vocal folds have almost no sensory feedback but I took comfort in knowing that my voice had been fine last night.
Unless I’d been belting out showtunes in my sleep, it was probably just the cold moving low enough to affect the larynx. The mucosa that makes the top layer of the vocal folds thick, gunky and unable to vibrate with any ease. My throat was inflamed so maybe the muscles lower down were too.
Despite the memories rising as my heart beat shouted ‘Danger! Danger!’ I chose to switch the lens. This was an opportunity! To revisit the experience of ‘voicelessness’ again with fifteen years experience as a vocal coach, now knowing that the voice is not an ambiguous and illusive thing but engineering that I am familiar with.
How is the ‘self’ connected to the voice? I began to observe what was happening.
‘Mummy! Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!’
It’s a funny thing with voice loss. I’d forgotten that, even if people around you know you’ve lost your voice, they still expect you to talk. Until you lose your voice, it’s just there, like the nose on your face. It’s near impossible for people to understand. It’s part of existing, like reading facial expressions, gesturing, and reaching out to pick up a cup of tea. It’s not something that can be ‘lost.’ Until it is.
‘Mummy! Mummy!’ It’s my eight year old, ‘Look at Iron Man’s car. It flies as well as goes underground! Mummy! Why aren’t you listening!’
‘I am,’ I croaked, but looking at him and nodding wasn’t enough. We were missing something: the autonomic verbalisations that pepper all conversations. The ‘umms,’ ‘yeahs,’ and ‘uh huhs,’ we offer to affirm to the speaker that they are being understood, that we are in this journey together. He didn’t feel like I really understood how cool his lego vehicle was.
‘Mummy! Where are my shoes?’ the six year old, ‘Mummy! My shoes? Can you help me find my shoes?’
Then there was the effort! Unless we recite a re-rehearsed script, speaking should be spontaneous. We only realise what we want to say as we say it. You should have to heave and haul the voice into action. I could already feel the urge to run away. It’s not only the effort and discomfort, the very act of intuitive conversation becomes something awkward, responses falling late, breaking the natural musicality of exchange. You’re no longer in sync with your own words. Your mind has been and gone, as the voice struggles to keep up like an annoying echo on the telephone line.
This was the time I most wanted my voice: too far away to touch, I knew that only the voice could reach them. The thread we throw from one to another: sound passing from inside ourselves, into another, vibrations we create travelling through the air to be received and re-perceived by the catcher. This. This is what allowed humans to become the most powerful creatures on earth. Johan Hari said as much in, ‘Sapiens,’. Our voices allowed us to overcome our relatively weak physical abilities by building relationships, working in teams, and expressing our unique selves. Without our voices, we are vulnerable, stripped of these tools and armour, desperately using your bare hands against the clang of metal.
And I don’t believe that is down to language, or at least, not only down to language. It is about the nuances we are capable of expressing.
Through the day, it continued. I had a business meeting on Zoom and could feel my own skin tightening as I navigated a new relationship in monotones. Without the prosody of nuance and subtext, words had to be carefully chosen for exactly what they were. Trying to replace these subtleties with gestures, body language and facial expressions doesn’t cut it. You are an alien speaking a half language, jokes fall flat, only the shell remains, a skin discarded as the real thing looks on in bafflement.
At dinner time, I watched my two year old eating. As usual, she was providing a constant undercurrent of ‘Mmms,’ to her chewing and I realised something else: it wasn’t only that I had lost a way of interacting with the people around me, I missed the feeling of vocalising as well. The sense of vibrations grounding me to my body, the sympathetic rumble down the sternum, the gentle hum of warmth that floods through the bones and cartilage in the face, the pain releasing endorphins that come with it. And, within we vocalise, we exhale. To stay mute is to hold your breath, or at least to deny the healing effects of the longer exhalations that go with them, something that has huge consequences for the nervous system.
When I started thinking about the Singer and the Self, I assumed that the voice is the culmination of the ‘self’. I certainly find that when I am singing, or when I am using my voice to teach or interact. I don’t doubt that it’s the expression of all that is inside us yet, now that it was taken away I saw this anew.
Because my ‘self’ or inner voice was still here, chattering away despite the outer grunts and growls. The issue was that I could only communicate that as my swollen and mucousy apparatus would allow.
The voice is the culmination of the ‘self,’ but which self? A spiritual perception of ‘self,’ or ‘soul’? The one that captures every part of you from your upbringing, to your genetics, to your present state of mind? Is it neurons? Trillions of interconnections, forming a narrative of consciousness in a two way conversation between the brain and body? Is the ‘self,’ actually outside of us: the sensory symphony we are just reactive to? Is it the noisy voice that compares you to your peers, or feels anxious about the email that landed?
To me, the ‘self’ was the inner voice that remained when the outer voice failed. One that I heard more clearly this morning. It’s the inner voice that is always still in the eye of the storm, like a light deep inside you. The voice that accepts that you are you, and knows that, if you trust that, you will become the best version of yourself, that that is the only thing to strive for.
Is the quest to get this voice in harmony with the outer voice? So we can truly ‘sing from our hearts’ and ‘speak out truth’?
Back in 2003, it really wasn’t possible for me even if I’d not cared about hitting the notes, my outer voice wasn’t in harmony with my inner voice. Something had become functionally out of whack.
That’s why the very sensible treatment plan was about as useful as building a palace without bothing to look at the foundations, and ground you’re building on. That treatment plan was never going to work for me because I was over working, over interfering with something that should be intuitive, over thinking instead of feeling, and consciously getting in my own way. More than that, I was too afraid.
In this state of fear - of flight, flight or freeze - of sympathetic nervous system overload, or whatever you want to call it, my body was constantly ready for action. The nervous system was interpreting imminent auditions and a struggle to interact socially with the world around me as being as threatening as a pack of hungry lions waiting in the shadows. In fact, I probably would have faced the lions in exchange for a promise of hitting the notes every time.
Take the reflux: the Gaviscon did nothing to dissuade my nervous system that these lions were about to attack, and it was time to fight. Blood to the peripheries, ready to run. Breath quickening. Muscles tightening. Vocal folds clamping. With the beast about to leap, how was there time for the body to prioritise anything as secondary as good digestion, and repair of the body?
SOVTs, laryngeal massage, voice rest. All these tools in vocal rehabilitations have to be given to the patient along with the awareness of why and how to use them. When you understand the voice, the body, the mind, the nervous system, and the tools to strengthen them you can use them in a way that makes sense for you.
If we can listen to that inner voice and find a way to allow the outer voice to respond in harmony and partnership, it is quite something.
Rachel is the founder of The Sing Space, home of the Vocal Gym™ providing a space where singer can attend daily online singing classes to help you discover techniques to provide the freedom to sing across all genres. www.thesingspace.com. The 'Singer and the Self,' retreats were created with vocal coach, Becky Gilhespie.
Rachel Lynes -vocal coach
These articles aim to simplify and clarify. My aim is to give you clear exercises that make a big difference.