On Friday morning, instead of rising blissfully full of turkey and mashed potatoes, I woke up with the telltale signs of an impending cold. I went on the attack. Canceled plans? Check. Extra hydration and rest? Oh yeah. Echinacea, Vitamin C, Zinc, and Zicam? Absolutely. Raw garlic? Yikes, but let’s do this.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, the cold has changed its permanent mailing address to my nose and throat. I know exactly how I acquired this unwanted tenant–teaching is opening oneself up to a petri dish of possibility every day. A student waltzed into my studio last Monday, and when I asked my standard, “how are you today?” she replied, “I’m good; my throat hurts really bad, though!”
Did we learn nothing from the pandemic?
Guilt rushes through my whole body. I drank wine on Thanksgiving, and alcohol torches the immune system. I didn’t stand a chance. The classic shame reel plays in my brain: “This is my fault. I bet responsible singers didn’t drink on Thanksgiving.”
Nobody likes being sick, but singers can’t get sick. A cold, allergies, or flu could mean ostensibly setting fire to hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, I couldn’t nip this cold completely in the bud on Friday, so here I am, four days later, hacking away and feeling my vocal range dwindle by the hour. It’s like having the polyp again, except snot rolls down my face as I type. Too graphic? Oh well, bodies are gross. You’ll be ok.
Overzealous voice teachers love to tell their students what they “need” to do to care for their vocal health. Drink plenty of water. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Don’t smoke. Eat well and exercise daily. Sleep with a humidifier. Get adequate rest. Avoid loud environments that require a raised voice. Don’t scream or yell. Be perfect and do not have fun, ever. You will get sick and lose your voice. It’s no wonder my first reaction to getting a cold (a mild illness that we all know is notoriously difficult to avoid) is that it’s my fault. Hey, brain– I’m just a human who was out in the world with other humans, and this caused me to catch a minor cold. Stop being so mean. I can hear every voice teacher I’ve ever had lecturing me in my head as I tell my other inner voice to shut up.
For example, this is the kind of literature that keeps singers up at night:
Of course, I read this now and think, “how did I not realize that a spiral of vocal misuse and a general laissez-faire attitude toward my vocal health was going to hurl me toward vocal injury?” My answer to that question is in a few of my past posts: denial. I also think scaring students into believing a single glottal attack gone wrong or yelling at a party will result in permanent vocal damage. Haven’t you ever heard a baby cry? Their vocal cords are fine.
At worst, this minor cold might cause me to cancel auditions and sing less well at a gig this weekend. That is truly the worst outcome, but many of us genuinely lose it when we’re ill because we risk losing income and opportunities. I know professionals who quit singing because the sheer pressure of remaining in pristine vocal health at all times is too emotionally and mentally taxing.
Despite my Nyquil-induced haze and copious napping over the long weekend, I still sat at my tablet to write. I may be forced into a polyp era of vocal rest until this cold passes, but writing has yet to betray me. My vocal folds and nasal passages are an absolute mess, but my mind and fingers still work. Singing is so fickle; writing is not. As long as I’m conscious and inspired, I can put words on paper. It’s comforting to know I’m not rendered completely useless by a sniffle.
I feel myself shifting away from singing just a little. I’m not sure if it’s permanent, but I need to feel like I’m working toward something meaningful, and opera just isn’t there for me right now. I’m not sure if it was ever really there. The familiar feeling of imposter syndrome sets in as I browse articles on how to start freelance writing– who am I to write about anything? What do I even know?
The quest for a purposeful life haunts me as my thirtieth birthday looms closer by the day. I wanted to be a full-time operatic performer. Who am I kidding? I still want that. I pursued that dream, albeit with many mistakes that likely prevented the desired outcome, at the expense of everything else throughout my twenties, and I can’t shake the thought that I have nothing to show for myself.
The catchphrase, “life is short,” is meant to inspire us to take risks and enjoy ourselves because time on this earth is fleeting and precious. I agree; don’t get me wrong. However, if you’ve spent enough time around me, you probably heard me posit, “life is long.” This privileged saying relies on my fortune of living in a relatively peaceful country with adequate healthcare and the hopeful absence of early-onset illnesses and accidents, but if all goes well, life is long. I have time. You have time. Life may be short, but if we’re lucky, it’s not that short. The ability to pursue a meaningful existence doesn’t conclude at thirty years old. Admittedly, it gets a little more challenging to pursue my particular goal, which I already feel. Companies that heard me in years past when I was a worse singer don’t grant me auditions anymore because of my age. I believe Taylor Swift recently called herself a “geriatric popstar.” She’s 32 years old.
I’ve decided that my thirties will be about diversifying my skills. I crave the operatic career; I really do. That’s not going to disappear. When I look past the desire for a life in music specifically, I feel an impetus to do something interesting, something most people wouldn’t be able to do. I want to enjoy all of what life has to offer and achieve something great. Maybe it’s a bit Pollyanna-ish, but I believe we’re all capable of something great; we just have to dig deep inside ourselves to discover what we can offer.
On Saturday night, I popped a couple of Nyquil, made myself a cup of Good Earth tea, and settled on the couch to watch the 2019 biographical comedy film Dolemite Is My Name. Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, an aspiring singer who works multiple dead-end jobs to support his equally dead-end musical career. One day, inspired by the stories of a homeless man who visits the record store where he works, he begins a stand-up career that leads to a string of comedy films in the 1970s. He is known as the godfather of rap.
Rudy Ray Moore felt like a failure. His attempts to forge a musical career led only to closed doors, and he was stuck. Due to his creative mind, work ethic, and a stroke of luck, Rudy eventually made his mark in the music industry. He didn’t give up; he merely diversified his skill set and shifted his perspective. I admire that.
We may not have learned to stay home when we’re sick from a two-year global pandemic, but I think we learned how to modify plans when necessary. I didn’t believe I would ever live in Minnesota again, and here I am, happily typing away in the suburbs. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I hadn’t been open to exploring options outside of a strict performing career. Openness is the most important quality I’ve cultivated over the past couple of years. I’d like to take a page out of Rudy Ray Moore’s playbook– I’m open to exploring skills outside of singing.
At this exact moment, however, I’m most open to another cup of tea and a dose of DayQuil. The snow is falling beautifully outside, the lights of my garland flash on the fireplace mantle, and I need another Kleenex, or I’ll scream. ‘Tis the season, indeed. Eat your raw garlic, and take care. You’re still a worthy human being, even when you’re sneezing on yourself.