I’m at the mercy of my voice. Which I know sounds extreme. But what I mean is that my voice is, to me, like a paintbrush or a hammer. It’s a tool I’m dependent on, but one that I can’t see. If that tool isn’t in good shape, everything musically grinds to a halt. Which is very different than the mechanical problems a guitar player or a cellist has – if they have an issue with their instrument it can be seen – and if it can’t be repaired, it can at least be replaced. But you can’t see your vocal chords (unless I guess you have a lot of mirrors?). And if you screw it up, you definitely can’t replace it.
Which was brought into vivid focus for me recently.
After a rehearsal a month ago I felt a sharp pain in my voice. I sing *loud*, so the occasional hoarseness after a spate of shows isn’t uncommon for me. When we did our recent European tour, we played 27 shows in 28 days, and we were all pretty fried vocally after. But this felt different, and it didn’t go away. I tried vocal rest, hot tea, cold tea, lukewarm tea, not singing, only singing softly in the shower – the pain persisted. I was worried that I had done something that had caused irreperable harm to my vocal chords. Which, as I’m sure you can imagine, was pretty terrifying.
With each passing day I grew more nervous. Music is my life, and I’ve ordered my career around singing. Absent that centralized core, the options looked bleak. Perhaps I would become a jazz pianist, or focus more on electronic music, or work more on production. Perhaps miming? Marcel Marceau undoubtedly isn’t remembered for his singing voice, and Bowie was a mime, so it couldn’t be all bad.
After a couple weeks, I figured that something needed to be done, so I looked around for a recommendation for an ear, nose, and throat doctor who specialized in singers. Which was how I found myself in the waiting room of Dr. Kessler, surrounded by the effusive praises sharpied onto the record covers lining the waiting room – everyone from Mariah Carey to Engelbert Humperdink. Some choice quotes:
- “Thanks for keeping me on the field” – Justin Timberlake
- “You’re the best Dr. K” – Madonna
- “Justin Bieber” – Justin Bieber
This was my first medical experience outside of the typical turn-your-head-and-cough-type situation (fortunately), and as we went through the history of the situation I found myself examining the doctor. Dr. K is impeccably groomed, far more tan than a New York December would naturally allow, and a warm and genuinely friendly man. He spoke efficiently and economically, but not quickly. The initial array of throat swabs and visual examinations provided an unclear picture, and he cleared his throat and said “Well, I just hope we can fix this.”. I felt my throat tighten.
Dr. K’s main weapon of choice is a metal endoscopic wand about a foot long. The device has an incredibly small video camera on the end of it that is used to examine the vocal chords directly. He tilted my head to a specific angle, I opened my mouth, and he inserted the scope into the back of my throat. “Now try to sing and hold a note” he said. At which point I did the best that one can do while a foot-long screwdriver is in their throat.
He then sat back, looked at the video screen, and smiled.
And I felt the cumulative weight of the stress I’d been carrying over the past three weeks melt away.
There wasn’t any damage. I had, Dr. Kessler informed be, an acute, stress-induced case of acid reflux that was bathing the back of my throat in acid. This caused a bunch of irritation, and the consistent pain I had felt. I could treat it mostly over the counter.
I gave him my profuse thanks, signed some forms, and in about 15 minutes found myself walking down Broadway towards Columbus Circle, dodging students entering Julliard on the start of their own journeys. I wandered around town for a little bit, looking at the buildings, trying to soak it all in.
That morning I thought I might never sing again. Now I felt like I’d been given something back – like I’d been remade whole. But as I think about it now, I know that I would have been fine regardless of the outcome of that visit. I would have made new tools to work with. The house of song that I am building would have been constructed out of different materials but would have become equally beautiful.
I would have made a great damn mime.