Vocal Silence

no speak signUpon leaving his Temple duty Zechariah was not able to speak…vocal silence because there was a crisis of belief. There were many Sundays I left the stage of our worship center with very little voice, just a whisper.  There was no crisis of belief, but there was something going on, a crisis, especially for a worship leader.

At first I thought the tired and almost non-sounding voice I was experiencing was the result of allergies or the cold I had been fighting. Not until the appointment with the Department of Otolaryngology at the Vanderbilt Voice Center did I realize that the vocal stress was not allergy related. After one quick and high-tech (video) look at my vocal folds in action, the doctors pointed out a small spot on one side of my vocal folds which was also causing irritation to the other side.

Knowing there was a significant problem with the instrument that I rely on and also make my living with caused some serious soul searching. Would I have to change jobs? Could I continue in my present job and still be effective? There was a crisis, not of belief but a crisis nevertheless.

The prescribed course of action was to arrange my schedule so that I could be silent for fourteen days. No words, no humming, no whispering. The silence would be accompanied by large doses of steroids to see if the two together would cause the ‘vocal fold spots’ to disappear.

I am very fortunate to work with an understanding pastor and understanding church that had seen me struggle for many weeks with voice production. After a quick conversation with my pastor, the fourteen days of silence was placed on my calendar.

Do you know how hard it is to not talk, whisper and hum for fourteen days? Do you know how many notebooks I went through? How about trying to participate in a staff retreat without being able to speak? Thank goodness my mom made me take typing in high school and that someone smarter than me invented text-to-speech software. I must say that you still can’t type fast enough to interject efficiently and effectively in a discussion.

Also, I did not know that silence could be so loud…it seemed every sound was amplified.

And I learned that not being able to talk is interpreted by some that I could not hear. This became very evident when people would talk about me in a meeting as if I wasn’t there, or when they would ask my assistant to ask me a question even though I was in the same room.

The follow up visit to the Vanderbilt Voice Center did not go according to my plans; the steroids and vocal rest did not do anything to minimize the spot on my vocal folds. The question “What’s next?” was obviously on my mind. I just knew the next words were surgery. I was wrong. I was reassured that surgery was the last resort and the next step was intensive vocal therapy both speech and singing to make sure that I was using my instrument correctly and efficiently.

Speak the word ‘therapy’ and visions of pain and suffering can come to mind. However, that was not the case. It was during the therapy that I was able to spend time with a wonderful Christ-follower, Dr. Tom Cleveland. Dr. Cleveland is a trained speech pathologist who is also a trained musician. Every few weeks for the next eleven months I met with Dr. Cleveland and we began to retrain my singing mechanism, working specifically on techniques to make it more efficient; in other words, being able to use less energy to create a natural sound. I was truly amazed at how simple, yet effective his techniques were. Dr. Cleveland’s prescription of vocal exercises could be accomplished in five or ten minutes. With two or more of these exercise sessions a day I gradually was able to sing with better endurance.

About every other time I would make a visit to the clinic a new video would be made of my vocal folds in action. (I would explain the process but a ‘gag’ reflex might be heard across America.) Due to the new vocal techniques there was significant positive change to the vocal folds inflammation, however, the initial spot was still there. It became very obvious to me that the ‘last resort’ of surgery was in my future.

In February of 2009 I had a pointed conversation with Dr. Robert Ossoff, chairman of the Vanderbilt Voice Center about the possibility of surgery. He confirmed what I was thinking and together with his team I began to set in motion a plan for vocal surgery.

Through the months of therapy I engaged in conversations as often as possible with nurses, doctors, and therapists concerning the timeline if surgery were ever required. Surgery; fourteen days of silence (again); gradually adding in speech doubling the time each day (5 min, 10 min, 20 min, 40 min…that was enough, more than 40 minutes and I was out of words for the day); twelve weeks of no public/performance singing…seriously?

It doesn’t matter what life situation we are facing, if we look closely we can see God was already there. In the book Experiencing God the writers list “Seven Realities of Experiencing God”. One of these became very evident to me through the vocal crisis: “God is always at work around you.”

God revealed himself through this vocal crisis; He was at work around me. He revealed that He continues to care about me and continues to invite me to His presence. When we take a moment and accept God’s invitation to join Him where He is working, our proper response is worship; an intentional response to God’s revelation.

As often happens when looking back on situations I learned that He had all this planned before I had realized there was a problem. All along I witnessed God’s hand in this journey of vocal crisis. Seeing Him make available a world renowned vocal clinic, a Christ-follower speech/singing therapist and arranging the need for surgery near the time that a seven week sabbatical was already planned. The sabbatical had been in the works for over a year and being able to arrange surgery and recovery during this time allowed me to miss only five additional weeks from leading worship.

The days leading up to the surgery were not filled with anxiety but peace. I was well aware that the procedure could induce results that might end my career as a worship leader; however, I was at peace. I knew the recovery was going to be long, but I was at peace. Coming out of the drug induced sleep of surgery I was told that it had been a success, the peace continued.

The after surgery silence seemed to go faster than previous prescribed silence. The scheduled follow up appointment to the voice clinic seemed to come quicker than fourteen days. I will admit that there was apprehension when the speech therapist asked me to speak for the first time post surgery. Would my voice sound the same? Would there be a voice? Those questions were followed with ‘what would the doctors see on the post-operative video?’

The answers came quick: my voice did sound the same, the pictures and video showed a red spot where the small growth had been on the vocal folds, but no bump, nodule or polyp. The road to recovery was continuing…yes continuing…the therapy before surgery is where it got started now it was time to finish.

I continued making regular visits to the voice clinic, at first monthly, then every other month and then every three months. I religiously followed the doctors and therapists instructions and each visit to the clinic the pictures of my vocal folds improved.

I would have never thought that it was possible, at age 50, to gain notes on the upper end of my vocal register, but it has happened. I would have never thought that I could get through two Sunday services and Sunday night rehearsals without losing my voice, but it happens every week.

Vocal warm-ups and other simple exercises learned from Dr. Tom Cleveland have become a part of my daily routine. I do not have a degree in voice, I’m just someone who sings. Now every day I spend intentional time exercising my voice, even if the time is in the car with the radio off. I can easily warm-up my voice for the day in a ten minute ride to the office. I am afraid I am probably in the minority of worship leaders who warm-up their vocal instrument every day. Pre-vocal crisis I rarely did vocal exercises or worse, led my choirs and vocal teams to warm-up before practice or ministry; not so anymore. Our voices are a gift from God and we are called to be good stewards of His gifts.

The vocal crisis, prescribed surgery and silence has allowed me to evaluate and guard how I use the instrument God has given me. It has also challenged me to protect the instruments of those I lead in choirs and other vocal teams. I must be careful not to ask something of singers that could call for un-efficient or harmful vocal production. God made the human voice to function without a great deal of energy spent. It is us, imperfect humans, who to try to make it do things it can’t and in ways it shouldn’t.

On my last visit to the Vanderbilt Voice Center (this link is a great video tour of the Voice Clinic) the technician had to ask me which side of my vocal folds the surgery was done…no spots, no inflammation, and no redness. Vocal crisis resolved. Vocal protection and exercise continues.

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This article first appeared in the LifeWay Worship publication "Let's Worship."