If you are a singer and you know yourself as one, singing is part of your identity. This is true if you are a dancer, an actor, a painter or, in fact, in our society where work is a crucial part of one’s adult persona, if you are any type of professional in the arts. What you do and who you are, are one and the same. If you lose the ability to do what you have done, you also lose a part of yourself and that can be devastating.
Many famous singers have had episodes where they have lost their voices or become incapacitated. Sometimes, as with the recent case of Adele, the problem is acute, is addressed, and the singer recovers to go on, hopefully as good or better than new. Sometimes, as with Anna Moffo, a great voice and artist who lost her ability to sing never to have it return, the story doesn’t end so happily. While Ms. Moffo went on to become a patroness of the arts and do a world of good in other ways, her attempt at a vocal “come-back”, after years of not singing, was a dismal failure and she never again attempted to sing in public after it was over.
Voices can change a lot over time. They always darken and usually go down. Sometimes they get husky and frequently they lose range, both at the top and at the bottom. A few lucky souls like Tony Bennett and Barbara Cook, Sheila Jordan (and even Mick Jagger, who never sounded good in the first place) haven’t changed a whole lot since they were in their prime even though now they are considered “senior citizens”. Other people choose to give up singing because they can hear and feel that what was once there is no longer and they don’t want to be remembered for being less than they once were. This is a hard choice to make but sometimes it is the one that makes the most sense.
Because opera is the most vocally demanding style that also has the most exacting musical criteria, it is often so that opera singers retire from the stage while they can still sing but before they lose their ability to do repertoire at a high standard. Sometimes they can go on to have decades more life singing in other styles (quite a few have gone to Broadway successfully). It isn’t usually so, however, that a “retired” pop singer is going to move over to another vocal style, but some have been able to continue performing as actors who don’t sing. Julie Andrews is certainly in that category.
The famous people have more to lose in terms of their reputation, of course, but those that are not famous have a lot invested in their singing, too. It can be just as awful for someone who has sung for their entire life to lose that ability, for whatever reason, because of the deeply personal connection they have to the experience of making vocal music. Hearing yourself sing, feeling your voice make sound through music is a very unique experience and not having access to that joy, to that energy, is a big loss. For some, singing is the very fuel of life itself. It is the juice that makes everything “go” and the motivating force that drives life on a day to day basis. It isn’t easy to put into words what the loss of singing can be for those who call themselves “singer” but is can be a source of deep sorrow and mourning, not unlike the experience of losing a loved one. After all, for true singers, the voice and the song is the loved one, and it is a significant absence when it is gone, never to return again.
For those of us who are in the support professions, helping vocalists sing with freedom, ease and joy, it is imperative that singers who are experiencing any kind of voice loss be handled with the utmost respect, care, compassion and solid psychological support. If it turns out to be the case that the voice will never return to normal, surrounding the singer with loving understanding might be the only solace that can be offered. While we may not be able to make the problem disappear or even help it significantly diminish, it is within our capacities to ease the burden by acknowledging the singer’s suffering. The courage to go on might just come from the words we choose to speak to someone who can no longer say, “I am a singer”, and that could end up being the reason that life, even without singing, can still go on.