As many of my students know, in addition to founding Starling Voice Studio I am also a professional actor/singer and have been for quite some time.
My path to singing hasn’t been the easiest, but through this journey I have become a better singer and teacher. I’m happy to share my story with anyone who asks me because it has not limited my career at all – I am exactly where I need to be. If you hear me sing, you do not hear a pathology, but I know it’s there and have worked very hard, along with many professionals, to be vocally where I am today.
This summer marks ten years since my vocal surgery, but that was not the start of my vocal journey, nor was it the end.
When I was a sophomore in high school, and had been taking voice lessons since seventh grade, I woke up one morning and had lost the use of my instrument without showing any cold symptoms. I was referred to the Philadelphia Voice Center, an ear, nose, and throat medical practice, who specialized in working with professional voice users. A bunch of tests later, it was revealed that I had three issues that needed attention. The first was acid reflux – something many singers have due to deep breathing affecting the lower esophageal sphincter opening. The second was a right vocal fold paresis. There are two vocal folds that produce sound when they touch and vibrate. If one has stopped working (as it does with paresis), the other fold has to overcompensate – leading to vocal fatigue. Lastly, I had a small bump on my vocal fold! I worried that this was a node – a singer’s worst nightmare! Luckily, it wasn’t – the bump was a small polyp that had developed due to the paresis that could go away with therapy.
For the acid reflux, I received medications to try and control the problem – which in hindsight was a quick fix (and could be an entire blog post of its own). After months of singing and speech therapy, the polyp did go away. It also helped with the paresis. Singing and speech therapy works!
During junior year of high school as I was starting to figure out my college plan, I was told that musical theatre singing would be too hard for my voice. Instead, I decided to go to Penn State for classical voice. During my first three years of undergrad, I was singing okay, but my upper range was always hit or miss – it was hard to rely on my high C’s, and it was extremely frustrating. As an opera singer, I wanted to sing high, light coloratura repertoire, which is very hard when your high notes are unstable. I also had a voice teacher at the time that made me feel like my paralyzed vocal fold was an extreme handicap, therefore I felt held back by being given “safe” repertoire at the time.
Junior year of college during my annual check-up, my doctor asked if this was still my career choice (um.. yes?) and recommended having vocal surgery the following summer. During this surgery, called a thyroplasty, a piece of animal fat would be inserted next to my paralyzed vocal fold to create more closure between the two folds. This would help eliminate vocal fatigue because my left fold wouldn’t have to work so hard to touch the right fold. It would also potentially allow me to access whistle tones, helping my upper range (those high C’s)!
The summer between my junior and senior years of college, when most people are getting ready to apply to graduate school, I was about to have surgery, undergo complete vocal rest, and completely relearn how to sing. Fun fact? I had to be awake during the surgery. This was so I could sing to ensure that the fat was placed in the correct spot. Yes, it did feel awful and strange. I went two full weeks on vocal rest, then it was back to singing and speech therapy.
Ten years later… I now have whistle tones and basically only sing musical theatre! During
graduate school, I met my current voice teacher and life mentor who showed me the full potential of my voice. If you hear me sing, you do not hear a pathology. My paresis has never come up as an issue. I enjoy sharing my story because I hope it will help to end the negative stigma that a vocal injury equals no career. My journey has taught me patience, perseverance, and to trust that everything happens for a reason.