One of my most favorite blogs is run by Rachel Rambach at Listen and Learn Music. She is a blogging queen! And a great role model for anyone interested in (1) starting a blog or (2) improving a blog. In one of her latest posts, she mentioned that she lost her voice. I commented and mentioned my month of silence a couple of years ago. Then she asked me over Twitter to explain more about my experience. And she wanted ALL the details. So, here’s what I remember! (Short story is that I lost my voice on a monthly basis starting in October 2008, until I finally took an entire month off work and didn’t speak a word in April 2009.) 

The Trials and Tribulations of Fall 2008: In October of 2008, I caught a mild cold. I felt well enough to continue to work, and so I did. My schedule consisted of 3 adult sessions plus 1 or 2 early childhood classes per day. 

Sometimes I facilitated bedside music therapy, sometimes groups, sometimes individual home-based clients. But all the toddler groups were held in private homes with sometimes as many as 14 kids with their parents. So, needless to say, I lost my voice in October. Gone. Poof. But, fortunately, I got it back quickly, and resumed work. I kept up my hectic schedule however. In November I caught another mild cold, and started to lose my voice. I canceled a couple of sessions, then resumed work soon thereafter again. Same thing happened in December. I caught another cold, started to lose my voice. I continued to work, taking a few sessions off here and there.

The Frustrations of Winter 2008-2009: When I caught another cold in January, I felt pretty frustrated. My voice was raspy, tired, and weak. Again, I canceled when I had to, but being self-employed with no “sick days” pressured me into remembering the importance of paying rent. [Oh yeah – Gotta do that…] I started using more recorded music in sessions, movement, miming, drumming with no chanting or singing, stretching, and anything else I could possibly think of to reduce the strain on my voice. When I look back, none of it helped me. The less I used my voice, the more I used and abused the rest of my body. I would come home *really* exhausted. My legs HURT. My back was in PAIN. Even being in great physical shape did not alleviate the stress that I held in my body while I facilitated sessions. The pain in the rest of my body gave me an anxiety lump in my throat, which then hurt my voice even when I wasn’t speaking. (More on anxiety lump in the throat below…)

Again in February, same thing. I lost my voice. Each time, my voice became worse and worse. Each time, I felt more and more pain in my throat. Each time, I became more down on myself, mildly depressed. But I persevered. After all, it’s the hard work that pays off in the end, right? Wrong. It happened again in March! This time, I had an EXTREMELY important presentation the day after I caught laryngitis. I couldn’t miss this presentation, or so I thought. I felt like I was at the end of my rope.

I did something that I hope I will never do again: I visited an ENT (ear nose throat doctor) to get a steroid to help me through just this one presentation. So, I awoke the morning of the presentation with absolutely NO voice. I inhaled the steroid. That gave me a man’s voice for an hour to give the presentation. Then my voice flew the coup again in the car on the way home from the presentation.

Major Reality Check of Spring 2009: I had gone a bit too far I think. I remember taking a nap after that presentation. As I lied down, I decided that I needed a major lifestyle change. So, I conspired with another friend who had similar vocal issues. We decided together to take a bunch of time off work in order to rest and heal completely. Besides, every time I went back to work, my voice was never 100%. I was hoping that if I took a bunch of time off, then my voice would return to 100%. And we did. My friend and I took the entire month of April 2009 off work.

It was wild! It was a stay-cation! I did a lot of writing. I carried around a whiteboard where ever I went. I constantly wore scarves and carried around hot teas. I did not speak, whisper, whistle, or make a peep. I wrote emails to local voice experts asking how I can adjust my vocal technique. I planned for voice lessons in May, specifically to address my technique. I even went on a blind date during my month of silence. It was hilarious. He agreed to take the silence vow, too. So we only wrote notes and drew pictures back and forth while walking around La Jolla, CA. I went to Whole Foods and tried all the weird and crazy vitamins, teas, elm bark, St. John’s Wort, ginger root, bioplasma, and things I can’t pronounce. (Actually, I LOVE roasting fresh ginger tea even now. Delicious.)

But towards the middle-end of April, it was hard. I cried a lot. It was really frustrating and difficult. I wanted to get back to work, but I never wanted to lose my voice again. I was afraid. But I did a lot of self-investigation in the silence, and I think I grew a lot as a person. It was worth it.

What was causing the laryngitis? I did some energy work to figure out what the DEAL was with the obnoxiously recurring laryngitis. I learned that the throat is one of the most common areas of “getting stuck” with women. The throat is the body’s center for communication, self-expression, creativity. Why was I getting STUCK there over and over? I also became more aware that any time I felt anxiety, I would get a lump in my throat. I still do now. I remember getting this lump when I was a little girl, too. When I was a little girl, I was always really really afraid of getting in trouble, and I always wanted to be GOOD.

Here’s what I think my throat was saying to me then: “I want to say something, but I’m afraid I’ll be severely punished if I speak my mind.” And here’s what my throat says to me now: “I want to say something, but I’m afraid I won’t get approval for what I have to say.” Pretty common theme in my life. I started writing letters to my throat. I won’t share them here because they are terribly long and sappy.

But you get the point. I realized that in order to heal my voice, I have to heal my stress, and heal my whole body. I can’t get along with substituting movement and miming for the voice. If my voice hurts, then I have to spend more time listening to what’s going on in my whole body/mind/spirit. Alright, so I started healing in April and thinking ahead. Once my voice reached 100%, I knew I would need a good strategy for keeping it that way.

And so I birthed these ideas about taking care of myself before my clients (way before the blogging bug hit me!). I followed tips #2, #4, #5, and #6 for myself in every session when I came back to work. I lightened my physical exertion. This was back in the day when I used to jump around and move theatrically with crazy facial expressions just to get a tiny movement response from a client.

I realized that excessive physical exertion wasn’t necessary. This was also in the days of putting lots of “expression” into my voice (also to get client response): Louis Armstrong-esque grumbles while singing the blues, super high notes, singing loud, pushing chest voice.

I realized that excessive vocal exertion wasn’t necessary either. And the coolest part was that even though I came back a calmer, quieter, and more introspective therapist, my clients were all still super happy. I would still get great responses and reach my clinical objectives, and nobody fired me even after returning to work with a renewed “self-preservation” attitude. Oftentimes I get an even greater response from clients because I stay grounded, centered, and self-preserved in sessions.

When I returned to work, a couple of my toddler groups had dissolved. Then eventually over the next year, I graduated all of them out of my studio and into their next musical adventures. Everyone went separate ways. And I was no longer exhausted at the end of my days. I think my voice and I could handle one toddler group at a time now, but I haven’t facilitated any toddler classes in about a year. I’m getting some inquiries and interest, so we’ll see what happens. All in all, here’s what I learned:

1. If my voice is tired, it’s my entire body that needs a rest. The miming, movement, drumming, and instrument-playing is not a good substitute for my voice. It works temporarily, but when the laryngitis recurs over and over, it wears on the whole body. When it comes to prevention, I lean towards the “body as a whole-system” idea rather than only treating the voice and throat. I get headaches when I’m hungry (two distinct areas of the body), I get butterflies in my stomach when I’m nervous (emotion –> body part), my voice reacts when I stub my toe (two distinct body parts), and when my voice hurts, I’ve personally experienced faster healing when my whole body rests and heals.

2. There needs to be an even exchange of energy throughout my day. If I’m putting out tons of energy, and not conserving any for myself, if I’m exhausted by the end of the day, if I have any pain in my body anywhere at any point during the day, if my voice starts to feel strange, then I have to take time to pay attention to myself, conserve energy, alleviate my stress, and clear my mind completely. Whether I stretch for 5 minutes, go for a 3 mile run, do Bikram, jump in the ocean, sit quietly doing absolutely nothing, or cancel sessions. Clearing my mind and moving my body are important for me to feel good. Now, when I go into a session, I have the mindset of conserving my energy.

3. I don’t have to make all my income in my session hours. When I scaled back my sessions, I made less income at first. NOTHING to me is worth the risk of losing my voice, not even money. Instead of freaking out because I was making less money, I really felt deeply grateful that I had a voice. Everything happens for a reason, and everything always works out in the end because… I was inspired to find other income streams. Now I have launched Music Therapy Ed and the affiliate programs mentioned on the Disclaimer Page. Plus I subcontract out some work through my company Sound Health Music. I’m also learning to live with less and minimize my lifestyle. In addition, I’ve adopted this philosophy: I’m a producer, not a consumer.

4. I can cancel any session, any time, and nobody is going to fire me. I’m a total wimp about being sick and canceling now. If I have the slightest throat tickle with sniffles, I immediately and shamelessly cancel sessions. It is rare because my default setting is more like work hard + play hard, and I don’t get sick very much (knock on wood). But also I can make sure I’m not canceling the same clients over and over since I bounce around dozens of facilities. This is “Complete Opposite Kat” from when I was a kid and had to attend school regardless of how badly I felt. I quickly got over that however. =)

5. My absolute, number 1 clear and true priority is my health. NOTHING to me is worth the risk of losing my voice. Ever again. By the power vested in the kingdom, the power, and the glory. For ever and ever. Amen.

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