For vocalists, we occasionally reach a point when we are physically unable to produce sound. The reasons can vary such as: upper respiratory infections, GERD or acid reflux, vocal misuse, and vocal hemorrhage*. Attempting to sing with vocal loss can be dangerous and exacerbate damage to the vocal cords. Recovery time can take days to weeks, depending on the severity of the issue.
My recovery range after vocal loss is usually between 1-2 weeks. It doesn’t occur often, but when it does, it always is at an inconvenient time. For example, I have had to cancel upcoming rehearsals, performances, and classes due to vocal loss. Fortunately, I am usually able to find subs, but I much prefer singing. Vocal loss also means I can’t speak to relatives, friends, or servers at restaurants.
If you play an instrument, you take it to the shop to be repaired when something happens. You likely also get a temporary replacement to play in the interim. For vocalists, we go to an ENT (Ear, Nose, & Throat doctor). They examine us and prescribe us treatment that almost always includes “vocal rest”-- aka no singing or speaking for an extended period of time. We may find a sub for gigs, but there is no replacement for our voice. Like your instrument, my voice is priceless.
30 Rock took a comedic spin when Jenna wasn’t able to sing due to a psychological block. However, this is rare. I have never encountered a singer physically unable to produce sound because of a mental blockage.
The vast majority of time, a vocalist stops singing due to a physical health problem. Vocal rest is a last resort; we’d much rather sing than be confined to an unwelcome and unplanned period of silence. It’s a very stressful, frustrating, and vulnerable state to be in. We love to sing, and not being able to is like losing a limb.
Here’s another interesting article published by the Guardian.
Singers take many efforts to protect their voice (e.g. drinking lots of water, wearing scarves, lozenges, washing hands a lot, steam, vitamins, rest, etc.) But sometimes, illness slips in despite great precaution. Here are some tips on how to support a singer who has lost their voice:
- Be prepared for the singer to communicate via text, email, or pen/paper. This helps insure complete vocal rest.
- DON'T ask them to talk, sing, or whisper. Whispering tires the voice even more than ordinary speech.
- DO ask the singer what would be most helpful for them to recover. Each singer knows their instrument best, and they’ll be able to communicate what is most needed (e.g. rest, medicine, a visit to the doctor, etc.).
- Create a contingency plan together. Hopefully it won’t come to this, but it’s good to have a backup plan. Options could be cutting the pieces where the singer performs, playing different repertoire that doesn’t include the singer, have someone else play the singer’s part, or find a sub.
- Kindly check-in. Losing the voice can be like losing a limb for a vocalist. Checking in from time to time shows compassion and can be a friendly moral boost.
This is just a glimpse into the world of vocal health. I hope that it was a helpful contextualization, and please feel free to reach out with any questions!
* Vocal hemorrhage is when a capillary on the vocal cords bursts. Warning signs can be hoarseness and coughing a lot. Generally, singers should avoid ibuprofen to treat menstrual cramps and pains, as this medicine can increase the risk of vocal hemorrhage.