Monday, February 25, 2013

Speaking Out, Literally: My Vocal Cords

Something I’ve been thinking about for awhile is how we often take our voices for granted. I don’t mean “voice” as a synonym for autonomy or empowerment – “find your voice” – no. I mean on the base level of using our vocal cords to produce sounds comfortably and effectively. And to do so without hindering self-consciousness.

My relationship with my own voice, physically, medically, has been trying, and as I currently use my voice for my job, as a very important part of my job, I am grateful for the body’s ability to heal itself. I’ve lately remarked how grateful I am, not only that I manage to speak comfortably without extreme raspiness and sounding like I’m permanently getting over laryngitis, but that I can speak well enough to be on the radio. I thought a vocally demanding profession might be an impossibility for me several years ago.

In 2004, I suffered permanent vocal cord damage in the form of the development of vocal cord nodules. Because the experts at Wikipedia can doubtlessly describe them better than I: “A vocal cord nodule is a mass of tissue that grows on the vocal folds. A vocal cord nodule reduces or obstructs the ability of the vocal folds to create the rapid changes in air pressure which generate human speech. Symptoms include hoarseness of speech, painful speech production, frequent vocal breaks, and reduced vocal range. Vocal fold nodules develop mostly in adult females, and children of both sexes.”

This is a performer/ public speaker’s nightmare. At the time, as a high school student, I used my voice extensively. In addition to being exceptionally talkative, I was in musical theatre, drama, improv, public speaking, and, most importantly to my vocal use, Sea Cadets. I used my voice to excess in each of my activities and the concept of ‘vocal rest’ was unknown to me. The activity of being in the Cadet movement is extremely demanding on the voice. Between teaching classes and leading cheers and chants to calling drill commands, your voice is used and abused constantly. Especially if you’ve a persistent over-doer, like myself. During my time as a staff cadet at a Sea Cadet Summer Training Centre in 2004 I pushed my voice to its limits. I overused my voice until I lost it, or, at which point it was gone enough that I shouldn’t have been speaking, let along calling commands and yelling. However, I continued to do (and overdo) my job and pushed through the strain. I didn’t take time off or let anyone know I was effectively losing my voice.

My voice became progressively lower and hoarser. By that autumn, I saw an ENT and experienced the greatest discomfort of my life by way of the tiny camera scope thingy that had to go up my nostril and down into my trachea. I was told I had developed nodules and that they may never go away. I had to be extremely careful with how and when I used my voice, avoid yelling or any sort of straining, and generally rest it as much as possible with the hope of rehabilitating.

This was pretty upsetting at the time. While I was never a serious or accomplished singer, I did sing, and in front of people. Having been in choirs and musical theatre and a solo singer in school productions, I was devastated by my inability to sing. I don’t mean that I couldn’t sing well, or with skill, or with a great range – I mean that when I opened my mouth to sing, no sound came out. It’s as if that part of my vocal register was gone. It was just croaks and voice cracks. At age 17, after singing for fun for years and, recently, for performance, I had to learn how to sing all over again.

I was fortunate to have a very knowledgeable musical theatre teacher who taught me a lot about how to bring my singing voice back. I had to be conscientious of my voice and vocal fatigue in all aspects of my life. I continued in cadets, yet had to be extremely careful of not over taxing and had to avoid teaching drill – my favourite area to teach.

I went back to camp the following summer and did a different, less vocally intensive position. I became very aware and deliberate about the simple acts of speaking and yelling and cheering. Nothing about using my voice was “second nature,” to me for a long time, but something I had to think very carefully about. I had to consciously try to bring my voice “up” in pitch, and avoid “frying” my cords. I felt like nothing about my voice was natural, as I had to always think about how I sounded. I had never had a high-pitched voice, and now I wouldn’t change my tone and timbre for anything, but I was very self-conscious about having a “deep” voice at the time.

I remember worrying that I would never be able to have a job that revolved around my voice. No matter what I ended up doing in life, I always thought my voice would be an instrumental part of the job, as I love speaking and facilitating, presenting and describing.

Since developing nodules, I have made countless presentations, led workshops and training sessions, performed in plays, and acted in many employment roles in which I had to speak – and a lot.

I’m more reflective of my nodule situation that ever, now that I’m working as a reporter and news reader, pretty much the apotheosis of vocal use and self-consciousness for a job.

In that way, I think about my voice more than ever, but also think of it less, as I’ve healed so well that I can finally just speak first –and think later.