Three years ago today, I had nodes removed from my vocal folds. It feels like such a long time ago now that I almost don’t believe it happened. Sometimes I look at pictures from the weeks after surgery–my current headshot was actually taken two weeks after surgery when I was still barely speaking–and I can’t even remember what it felt like.
The recovery time for this kind of surgery, they tell you, is six weeks. That is, six weeks of slowly increasing the amount of singing and speaking you do every day gradually, doing prescribed exercises twice a day, graduating to melodies without text and then finally adding text (I sang a lot of “Abendempfindung” and “Lydia” in a low key). At six weeks, if you’ve done your work well (and I was so paranoid that I was going to screw something up, but I never did), you’re cleared to sing in public. But why would you want to? I’ve discussed this with a number of friends who have had similar issues to mine, and we all agree that it takes much, much longer than six weeks to get back to “normal.” And for me, there was no “normal.” I had been dealing with vocal health problems since before I was aware that there was such a thing as “vocal health.” So I was pretty much starting from scratch. I think it took about a year for me to feel like I was in a position to really take my new voice out for a spin, when I was understudying Elsie Maynard in The Yeomen of the Guard. It was an immensely frustrating time. I was working various unpleasant day jobs involving a lot of talking, plus applying to grad school, unsuccessfully, and finally giving my senior recital, all the while feeling like I was never going to be ready to have a singing career.
But you know what? Because of that year, I know my voice inside out and upside down. I had to build it from the ground up. And the operative word in that sentence is I. When I had surgery, and I realized that I was going to have to be responsible for all of the recovery work, and no one was going to hold me accountable for it, something shifted. All of a sudden it was like I was in the driver’s seat of my life as a singer. I think this is something that a lot of singers never learn, especially if they go straight from undergrad to grad school. And now that I think about it, if I had never had surgery, if I had never learned how to take control, if I had never had to seriously think about my own limitations, would I be in France right now? If I’m being honest, probably not. I don’t think I would have had the guts before. You don’t realize before you have a surgery like this that it doesn’t just change your voice (though my doctor told me that I would have high notes I had never even dreamed of, and he was totally wrong, but that’s okay, I’m eternally grateful to him anyway!), but your whole outlook, your whole identity as a singer.
And yet I’m not really supposed to talk about it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, blogosphere, but I’ve been kind of skirting the issue for months. Every time I discover something that my voice can do that it couldn’t do before surgery, I want to write about how surgery changed my life, but I stop myself because who knows who might be reading this? What if somebody important finds this entry and decides not to hire me or accept me into a program because I’ve had nodes? Personally, I believe that somebody who has gotten him or herself through a traumatic surgery and its recovery would be an asset to any grad program or cast, because they’ve already proved their determination and strength of will. But there is just an incredible stigma attached to any kind of vocal cord injury or surgery; most people assume that it was something the singer did wrong. Which is sometimes the case. But especially with college-age singers, there are so many different possibilities: singing the wrong repertoire (usually as assigned by a teacher), oversinging because of choir/a cappella groups/opera rehearsal/class/voice lessons, extracurricular activities, sorority and fraternity life, never learning (because it isn’t usually taught until senior year) how to take care of one’s voice. In my case, I had been overdoing it and losing my voice since I was nine years old at summer camp, being told to cheer for my color war team because whoever cheered the loudest would get the most points. And in the professional arena, there are all of the pressures of a career, travel stress, immense amounts of preparation, schmoozing, networking, too many gigs, acting while singing and sometimes losing control of technique…who knows? But one thing I do know is that for the most part (with one or two very notable exceptions), no singer says to him or herself, I am going to do whatever I want to my voice, and I don’t care if I get nodes! Because a singer’s instrument is an incredibly precious thing. You only get one. Most of us do everything we can to take care of our instruments, and some people are just susceptible. Other people can sing an opera rehearsal then go out for drinks afterwards, and wake up and do it again the next day.
I remember trying to tell people that I was going to have surgery to have my nodes removed; a lot of singers and professors asked me if I wasn’t going to try voice therapy first. “Isn’t surgery a little drastic?” Don’t be hasty, they told me. Have you explored all of the options? The answers? Yes, surgery is incredibly drastic, and yes, I have explored all of the options. I actually was diagnosed with nodes in May of my junior year of college. My teacher suggested that I have the surgery that summer and come back ready to go in the fall for senior year, but I decided to wait. I called the doctor and said, “Listen, if I do nothing, what’s going to happen?” And he told me that nodes can only get worse if you make them worse by abusing your vocal folds. So I said, great, I’m not having surgery yet. I went to a couple of voice therapy sessions, and I carried the exercises I learned with me to my summer program that year, where the feedback I received renewed my confidence in a huge way. Then I came back to school and was cast, nodes and all, as Valencienne in The Merry Widow. I worried about the state of my voice every day for months. By the time the show closed, I knew a few things about myself. A. I was not ready to give up on singing as a career, and B. I could never have a singing career if my chief concern was simply being able to phonate. I said to myself, “Self, Sheldon Harnick held your hands on opening night and told you you were beautiful. You have the potential to make something of yourself in this career, and you can’t do that if you are limited in what you can do by two little bumps.”
When I applied to grad school, I wrote about the surgery in all of my essays. I was twenty-one with a single college role under my belt and almost nothing to talk about for 1000 words; when one school’s essay question was something along the lines of “discuss the greatest challenge of your life,” what else did I have to choose from? I took a couple of sample lessons, and because I was still only five or six months out from surgery, I was nowhere close to peak voice. One teacher told me, when I cracked on a B-flat, “If you want to be competitive in your repertoire, you’re going to have to be solid on that.” So I had to explain to her about the surgery. She just said, “Ohhhhhhh.” Should I have told her at the beginning of the lesson? Should I have let her believe that I just wasn’t an especially good soprano? And at one of my auditions, I sang “Du gai soleil,” and then was asked, “What do you have with high notes?” The answer: nothing, because nothing higher than a B-flat is working. I didn’t expect them to ask me that, so I fumbled a little and ended up explaining that less than a year ago, I had my vocal folds lasered. Later that evening, I sat down with one of the teachers at that school, who said, “You know, in the future you probably shouldn’t be so candid about that.” I’ve been told not to tell possible voice teachers about it, but how can I possibly leave it out? It’s like going to a new doctor and not telling them about some procedure you’ve had because you’re embarrassed, when really, they ought to know. But my college voice teacher, who encouraged me to have the surgery and helped me every step of the way, told me, “It’s in the past, and you’re a totally different singer now.”
Well, yes. I am. And it’s mostly because I had surgery, because I made myself go to a practice room for five minutes twice a day, then ten minutes twice a day, then twenty, and because I carried around a mini-dry erase board and a marker for weeks so that I could talk to people without going over my speech limit. Because I drove an hour each way every two weeks for voice therapy, because I had a tiny video camera stuck up my nose and through my nasal passages to view my vocal folds, because I know so well what it feels like to be limited and now I’m not.
It’s actually been kind of a harrowing week, because I really walloped my vocal folds from Sunday through Tuesday, and the weather doesn’t know what it wants to be, and I’m having trouble getting past the exhausted funk I’m in right now. But yesterday, I finally felt better vocally, and I practiced, and it was like the sun came out. And I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything in the world. (Plus now when I go to the doctor’s office and the form asks, “Have you had any major surgeries?” I get to write “Microlaryngoscopy.” Except that I actually had to go through it, how cool is that?)
Happy anniversary, vocal folds. You’ve worked hard. You deserve a Mont Blanc from Angelina and a pot of tea.
“Next week on the twentieth of May,
I proclaim Liza Doolittle Day!
All the people will celebrate the glory of you
And whatever you wish and want, I gladly will do.”
“Thanks a lot, king,” says I, in a manner well-bred,
“But all I want is ‘enry ‘iggins’ ‘ead!”
(There aren’t any videos of Julie Andrews singing “Just You Wait,” but I discovered this one last night and I just had to share! And particularly appropriate too, when you consider that she pretty much tops the list of famous people who have had vocal cord surgery–right up there with Patti LuPone and Natalie Dessay.)