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Jan 27 2011

The King’s Speech and Extreme Vocal Repair

Published by at 10:00 AM under vocal health,vocal power

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The remarkable movie, The King’s Speech,  http://www.kingsspeech.com/ is a must for anyone interested in the human voice. It illustrates the struggle to find one’s voice under dire circumstances.  Most of us will never know the agony of a stutterer, or the frustration of someone with chronic laryngitis or spasmodic dysphonia, although the problem is more common than one would think, according to the New York Times.

However, this true story has created a global conversation on the work of extreme vocal training and repair.  In this post, we are joining that conversation, inspired by a note from one of my readers named Richard.

“I’ve had thyroid cancer resulting in surgery and radiotherapy which left two sets of scar tissue pushing in around my larynx. My saliva glands have also never totally recovered. It seems that my natural pitch has changed and recently my voice has lost its power. Any thoughts for those of us with such physical limitations?”

It takes ¾ of your body to say “hello.”  Even a sprained ankle can affect the sound of your voice. Imagine, then, how your voice is affected by a heart attack, or a more directly related disease like thyroid cancer.  I am not a physician or speech pathologist.  However, over the years, I’ve worked with many people with vocal problems resulting from injury or illness, as well as those with challenges such as stuttering, and I have some observations and suggestions for you.

Know what you are up against.

  1. When you have issues with your vocal health, it’s important to know what’s going on. See a physician and have your larynx examined. Do your own research too. If your voice is important to you, learn all you can about how it works and what can go wrong. There are some great resources on the web that can help you do your research and even point you to a good physician.  You might start by looking at the Voice Foundation website.
  2. Decide what you want to do and how determined you are. It’s possible that you will never have the voice you once had.  However, your job is to create a voice that will serve you.  You have to discover what that voice is.  Your voice is more than the sound you can make.  It is also your perspective.  What voice do you want to bring to the world ?  We don’t all have the opportunity of a Roger Ebert, who now has a digital voice created from samples of his voice before he had his larynx removed.  You may think you don’t have the funds to hire a  vocal coach like King George VI, or you may be so frustrated by the energy it takes to try to communicate that you feel like giving up.  However, with enough determination you will find a way to be heard.  Meanwhile, take care of your physical voice with all of its limitations. Drink lots of fluids.  Rest it often.  Eat right.  Sleep well.

Listen

  1. If you ask most people they will tell you that they hate the sound of their voice on a recording.  However, if you want to work with your voice, you have to hear it.  It has been shown that you can’t change a sound you can’t hear.The ear voice connection is extremely important!  Record yourself and get very honest about what you hear and don’t hear.  Pay attention while you are speaking or singing so that you can observe what is going on with your voice.  When my friend had a heart attack, he kept asking “What’s wrong with my voice?”  It didn’t sound different to me, but it did to him.  Your perception of your voice will change with any physical change in your body.  If your voice has changed due to illness or injury, you need to get used to before you can help heal it.
  2. Listen to others. What are they saying about your voice?  What does it sound like to them? And also, listen to the way others speak.  Read books on voice, and listen to singers and public speakers. Training your ears to be more acute is a big step toward changing the way you speak or sing.
  3. Listen to your heart. Years ago, I had lunch with a producer who could barely speak.  When I asked him what was wrong with his voice, he said “Nothing.  Why do you ask?”  I thought he was joking but soon found that he denied any problems.  That seemed incredible to me.  His condition was spasmodic dysphonia, vocal paralysis whose cause is not known, but often results from trauma. I can understand that there might be difficulty addressing this topic, but I also know that spasmodic dysphonia can be healed, through surgery , as in the case of Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert,and often by learning to speak as if you were singing!! You may remember that this phenomenon was illustrated in The King’s Speech, since it is also helpful for stuttering. But the voice is so incredibly linked to our hearts and souls that sometimes, vocal issues are too personal to deal with easily even when there IS a known cure. If that’s the case, find someone compassionate who can help you through that part, keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings, and make sure you take time to love your voice just as it is.

Be Diligent and Patient

  1. Voices are created, not innate. It takes a couple of years for a baby to create a voice. It takes years for a healthy voice to be developed into a healthy singing voice and even longer to create a great one.  It can take a couple of months to see measurable results even in a healthy voice.  If you have a severe vocal problem, give yourself the time you need to heal, whatever that is, as well as the time you need to create your new voice.
  2. See a vocal coach, once you have cleared that you are ok to sing or speak out.   Do some research here as well.  Make sure they know what they are doing.  As in The King’s Speech, the teacher who helps you most may not have credentials from UCLA or Harvard, but they may have the experience you need to help you change your experience of using your voice.  Your physician may be able to make a referral, or your local university music department.  Ask the coach to give you a full analysis of what they hear and what they prescribe in the way of training.  Take your time finding a coach.  When you get a referral, ask them to give you a list of their students you can either listen to, or speak with or both.  Make sure you feel you can work with the teacher and they with you.
  3. Attend to your voice every day. Practice your exercises and awareness of your voice. Listen.  Pay attention to the sound and the feeling of your voice.  Make a plan and work your plan.  Give it time.
  4. And find other ways to express your voice too. Blog about your experience.  Comment in social media.  Help others. A friend of this blog teaches a speech class even though he has a stutter.   Craig Senior is a blogger with a stuttering challenge.  If you have something to say, find a way to say it.

Update:  Just this past week, the second ever transplant of a human larynx occurred.  That is definitely extreme vocal repair.  You can read about it here.

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