Two Tiny Pieces of Gristle

Your vocal folds are two tiny pieces of gristle – ligaments – that open and close over your trachea to protect your lungs from foreign objects. The fact that they make sound is a secondary function. If your vocal folds do not close firmly you will find it difficult to do any activity that requires exertion, as we need the resistance to help firm up the muscles in our torso that do most of the heavy work in vigorous activities. You could even find it hard to climb stairs or have a bowel movement. Of course, if they do not open, you would quickly die, as air would not be able to go into or out of your lungs.

The vocal folds are quite small. They are shorter in length than the last digit of your pinky finger and quite a bit smaller in size. They work for you as described above, in addition to making every single voiced sound you will ever utter, for your whole life. They can be injured, diseased, or disturbed by outside forces (like intubation for surgery) and once they are permanently damaged, it can be very hard to get them to go back to normal function. You can live without them but only if there is another way for your airway to be protected and continue to function. Your larynx, which is a sinoval joint like your elbow, can also be dislocated by a blow to the throat, and you can develop arthritis in this joint, too. All of these things impinge on your ability to speak, breathe and stay alive. They, of course, can also effect your sound.

Imagine, then, making a living singing or speaking. You are dependent upon these two tiny structures which you cannot see and can barely feel. You are dependent on having them do whatever you want on demand at a high level of efficiency and you cannot evaluate their condition except by making sound and judging both the sound as kinesthetic feeling and as auditory feedback. This is a precarious place at best and when it becomes a part of earning a living or, worse, of being very famous, you are living with terror every single day. You can become acclimatized to it, you can block out the fear. You can live a life that is built around taking care of your body, your health and your voice. Still, things can go wrong for no particular reason and it can be very very difficult to straighten things out on your own.

Even the highest level medical specialists, who work with internationally recognized celebrity vocalists on a regular basis, only have a few options to help their patients. They have prescription medicine, including steroids of various kinds, and NSAIDS, they have sprays, and drugs to regulate sinus issues and GERD. They have surgery with both cold instruments (blades) and with lasers. In between, there are Speech Language Pathologists, some of whom have expertise in working with voices that speak professionally and/or also sing and some of whom do not. You have to inquire. They can help restore normal function but they cannot help restore normal singing function unless they also sing and have taught themselves some kind of interface. And, depending on your personal circumstances, they may or may not have the expertise to address your specific vocal situation. The doctors do not always agree on what is wrong or how to fix it, nor do they agree on what needs surgery and what kind of surgery is best. It varies.

Therefore, in some ways, you are always living in a state where you are at the mercy of the Fates. If you notice something in your voice that wasn’t there yesterday and shouldn’t be there are all that continues through to tomorrow and perhaps the day after, you begin to worry. What is that? What’s wrong? This can make you seem like a hypochondriac to the average person. It can make you seem “overly sensitive” and “highly reactive” and “too much” but pay no heed to such exterior judgements. You are well to notice every small little wiggle and squeak. It can not only mean the end of your livelihood, it could, if serious, mean the end of your life, since throat cancer can sometimes show up first in your sound. If not caught early, you could let it go on too long to be effectively treated.

And, when things are going well and your voice is doing what you want it to, remember to be grateful. Remember to regard it and yourself with respect and with appreciation. Bravely share what you want to create with your voice and notice how incredibly wonderful it is to know that your sound is unique in the world. The two tiny pieces of gristle that we call the vocal folds are there to serve you and for most of your life, they do.

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