Removing the Stigma of Vocal Injury

Pushing-through culture has us all avoiding rest.

Pushing-through culture has us all avoiding rest.

A crucial time in any singer’s life is the moment something doesn’t sound quite right. It can happen once, or many times over the course of a life or career. As much as I advocate now for artists to seek treatment as soon as they feel something is off, I remember my own prideful nature when I was young. I just tried to ignore the strange flipping sound on 2-3 of my notes, hoping it would go away. Someone else had to tell me I should go. Even though we read articles, watch documentaries and have a general sense of how to take care of our bodies, sometimes it necessitates an authority figure to encourage you to take a closer look.

I’ll Sound Better Tomorrow

Keep it to ourselves. Don’t tell anyone. Is this really happening? I shouldn’t let anyone know. Is this because of the fact that we can’t see our voice box, so out of sight out of mind? Is it because we feel that emotional connection to our voices and if we admit that we are vocally injured, how are we supposed to keep creating art? I think perhaps the biggest factor is that we feel our career will be over. It’s hard enough to be a singer with a fully-functioning set of pipes. Who wants to hire one with a history of injury?

Do we feel so overprotective because creating voice is an instrument that compares to no other? So many things have to align like breath, blood, energy, rest, hearing, feeling, and memory that while singing seems like what most people do in the shower, a well-trained and engineered performance takes so much dedication and practice.

Let’s Talk Sports…

A similar media coverage falls on athletes. If they are injured (possibly because of the size of muscles or bones that are commonly injured, and possibly because compensation by other body parts can occur) there is usually always a positive outlook. “He’ll be out for a few games.” “He’s out for the rest of the season". “He received a shot and can play for the rest of the game.” Everyone takes a knee, they all stand when the player is walked off the field, and when they get carted out of the stadium everyone cheers in solidarity. Vocalists do not get that same positive outlook. It seems to always be shrouded in mystery. It’s as if it is leprosy or a slow-killing cancer that will grow if it’s talked about, and can ruin anything it touches.

Home Remedies are just that…

We seem to search for the cheap or friend-recommended fix a lot of times because as artists, we are strapped for cash. Any person truly relying on gigs to make a living can relate to this. You may have 5 gigs during a week that you are constantly preparing for, and expecting pay from. All the while, people are constantly trying to devalue your work because you are “just a singer,” and wish to pay you the smallest rate possible. If injury sets in, how will you cover your bills? On the other hand, the small percentage of folks who have seemingly “made it” because they have a management team and a slew of publicity, still have people depending on them for commission and jobs. They feel very similar pressure when vocal problems occur.

People want to know how they can fix the voice problem on their own. This is dangerous for many reasons. If you wait too long after you know something is not right, you are potentially causing more damage that will make it difficult to recover. If you take medication to help you “push” through a performance, you are again putting yourself at risk for further or more extensive damage. If you get a medical opinion early on, you can do the best thing for your instrument. A broken string gets replaced right away on a violin. A reed gets replaced if malfunctioning. If only, there was no stigma for singers.

Hashtag #voicerest

Social media has made it seem like artists everywhere are having vocal issues. News spreads a lot quicker and more widely than ever before. I believe, however, that it is just a way that artists can be more truthful about it to help disgruntled fans understand and to help work through it themselves. Recently, Texas Country Artist Wade Bowen had a very public showing on his Facebook Page about his vocal injury and physician recommendations. He attended a big show after his surgery, and was present and played, but did not sing because he was healing. Producer, Singer and Actor Justin Timberlake, vocally injured, recently did an interview with Jimmy Fallon completely silent, as he was on vocal rest. Singer SZA recently publicly announced her vocal injury issues on Twitter, only to delete the tweets soon after. I feel that if more individuals were able to compensate, like Justin and Wade did, with no fear for backlasth, and by completing their engagements to a degree without having to cancel, the stigma would not be so great.

A New Leaf

I am hoping that if more individuals see that vocal problems may not always mean the end for a career, we can help artists navigate the murky waters of vocal rest and modification. Help by sharing your own vocal issues so that together, we can lessen the stigma and help encourage self-care.

Kristie Knickerbocker, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and singing voice specialist in Fort Worth, Texas. She rehabilitates voice and swallowing at her private practice, a tempo Voice Center, and lectures on voice science nationally. She is part of the Professional Development Committee for ASHA Special Interest Group 3, Voice and Upper Airway Disorders, and a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the Pan-American Vocology Association. Knickerbocker blogs on her website at  www.atempovoicecenter.com. She has developed a line of kid and adult-friendly therapy materials specifically for voice on TPT or her website. Follow her on Pinterest, on Twitter and Instagram or like her on Facebook.

Posted on January 16, 2019 .