Last week I lost my voice.
I caught a cold, which turned into bronchitis, and a very swollen throat and larynx resulted in my inability to speak properly.
As an actor and voice coach, this was a little frightening. It’s happened once before in my life, and was no less panic-inducing back then: if I can’t speak, how can I act, how can I express meaning and emotion through my voice? If I can’t use my voice, how can I teach other people how to use theirs? My means of expression and communication had to change a little. And though frustrating, the experience did make me pause for thought.
I started to think more deeply about the mechanics of the voice, vocal health, the personality and tone of our voices and how these affect how others perceive us. And I thought it might be useful to share some of these ponderings, since voice and communication is what we’re really all about here at The Pitch Process.
Swelling of the vocal chords due to sickness or over-use means that they can’t vibrate as they would normally, so the sound becomes quieter, more raspy (as the air passing through them is caught), as well as being produced at a lower tone. This lower pitch is caused by the folds becoming thicker and shorter than usual (think of a thick guitar string producing a lower note than a thin one).
As a person who is used to using my voice expressively, I felt frustrated by this limited range, by my inability to speak with power and intention, by it’s quietness and how hard I had to work to be heard or understood. The importance of breath as fuel for the voice was so clear to me during this week: I had to use all my breath capacity for even a short sentence in order to power the voice. Without breath, speech cannot exist. It is so important to continue to connect with breath when we are speaking, especially when your voice is tired.
I also stopped to think how many people experience this all the time, even when not ill; a sense of frustration with how they sound or how they speak; and how passionate we are at The Pitch Process about helping EVERYONE realise the full potential of their own voices. We want everyone to speak with ease, confidence and intention.
I’m usually pretty good at this. As I said, I’m an actor, and my voice is my tool so I’m dedicated about warming up properly, using my breath to support sound, drinking lots of water, keeping supple in my range and not over-working it when I’m tired etc. So I must say, I felt a little guilty and ashamed that (as a voice coach) I had lost my voice. But I was sick. I had to remind myself of that, that it wasn’t my fault and just to be gentle and take extra care. Here are some things I did to aid recovery, which are good practice anyway, but even more so when your voice is in need of some TLC:
FLUIDS: I drank extra extra water, tea, lemon and ginger, soothing things, to lubricate the vocal folds and larynx and help to calm inflammation.
BREATH: difficult as this sometimes was, I made myself breath deeply and fully and slowly, using the breath to fuel speech.
STEAM: steaming with albas oil or plain hot water is incredibly beneficial for the vocal chords, throat and lungs (as well as being deeply relaxing for the body!). Just fill a big bowl with hot water (just below boiling - be careful as steam can scald!), and a few drops of albas oil if using. Simply sit with your face over the bowl and a towel over your head to create a steam room effect. It helps to open things up and soothe and soften (think relaxing your muscles in a steam room at the gym).
REST: obvious really. If something hurts, rest it! Especially before an event or performance of some kind. If an athlete had a race coming up they would make sure to be adequately rested beforehand in order to compete to their best ability.
Personality & Perception:
Throughout the past week I also noticed a marked difference in how people heard me, how they received me through my voice and how I therefore received myself. With my voice lower, quieter and more husky, I suddenly sounded older, more grounded and somehow more sure of myself, and I felt this too. A little more confident (though still not that well!) and perhaps more laid back; and in return people perceived me in this way.
However, when my voice came out sounding weak or unsupported or crackly, a little difficult to hear, people strained to understand me. This was frustrating for both of us, and made me feel somewhat disempowered by the inability to express myself; and it seemed to induce a cocked head of sympathy in my listener.
Our voices, how we use them and how we feel about them, has a huge effect on how we are perceived in the world, on how we communicate, on the personality we impart and on how we interact day to day with EVERYONE we meet.
I’ve always known this, but last week it was SO CLEAR to me.
Our voices are powerful, flexible, potent instruments, deeply connected to our personalities, opinions and desires. The voice coach Jeanette Nelson says we should fall in love with our voices, get to know them, support them and help them to grow. And this is true even when our voices are not working for us as we’d like. We must be gentle and considerate at these times. I am happy and grateful to say that mine has returned.