Not so long ago Dr. Robert Sataloff presented at his immensely helpful annual medical lecture at the Symposium: Care of the Professional Voice (www.voicefoundation.org) some photos of various singers’ vocal folds. Some of them looked like they had been through a “vocal war”. Messy, pink folds with raggedy edges.
The mind immediately thinks, “Boy, these vocal folds aren’t going to function!” But Dr. Sataloff, wise man that he is, played us the voices that went along with those folds, and they would have blown you away. Amazing singing. So much for preconceived notions.
I have also seen presented at the Symposium a study of a man who was a professional singer who had had multiple surgeries for cancer whose vocal folds, also, were far less than normal. This man sang in a classical sound that was impressive and there was no indication that anything was wrong, even though his vocal folds were not in great shape.
There are other kinds of vocal fold behaviors. Sometimes the folds look normal to an ENT but do not function normally. Usually this is diagnosed as spasmodic dysphonia, but it can be other neurologic conditions that are hard to pin down. You would think, looking only at the folds, that the sound would be just fine, but it’s not. Sometimes its very bad. You would only know by listening.
There is much we do not know yet about how the voice works, in all its myriad ways, and how it doesn’t work when it doesn’t. We know next to nothing about elite singers with long careers in any kind of style, and we know next to nothing about vocalists whose voices either mysteriously “disappeared” or were in some way compromised but either fully recovered or recovered enough to go back to some kind of professional singing career.
There are all manner of dysfunctional voices out there in the professional world. Here’s an “off-the-cuff” list: Harvey Fierstein, Cat Stevens, Tom Waits, Joe Cocker, and, of course, many of us remember Janis Joplin. There are others: Louis Armstrong, Jack Klugman (in recent years), Jimmy Durante, and a foggy baritone Carol Channing. Strong careers, all, no? There are probably many others who would fit in this category, both speakers and singers, who do very well on what seems to be not so good.
Only in classical singing, and maybe also on Broadway, does a vocalist’s sound need to be pristine and powerful at the same time. In almost all other styles, a slightly gritty, funky quality can actually be an asset. It usually indicates damage, but not necessarily the end of career.
Those of us who teach need to be very cautious when we make pronouncements about what is or is not possible with those who come to us for help. We do not ever know what a human being’s spirit is capable of addressing.
I have known individuals who have faced personal tragedy in their lives that most people would find reason enough to give up on life altogether. These people faced their circumstances with nobility and courage, with determination and perseverance, and frequently, not only made lemonade out of their lemons, but shared that good beverage with others who had a deep thirst to quench. Even people with laryngectomies, who speak through a mechanical device, still have a voice, even if it isn’t the one that came with their body.
Let us all remember that we are here for only the blink of an eye and that each day brings with it another day of adventure, mystery, and unknowns of all kinds. Your voice is one of your most precious assets but it isn’t your entire life. You and it can always find a way.