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People Have Always Had Trouble Hearing Me. It Took a Pandemic to Help Me Find My Voice

After a few months of lessons, my voice became clearer and more resonant, and I could vocalize with less strain.
A photo of the author and her dog on a swirling, pastel background

People have always had a hard time hearing me. For as long as I could remember, my voice has been soft and whispery, with a limited range. If I was particularly tired or stressed, someone who was standing two feet away had to cup their ears in order to hear me. It was frustrating. Sometimes I could project my voice, but at other times, my voice would fail me, and I couldn’t understand why.

Then in early 2020, the whole world turned upside down. I managed to get through the first months of the pandemic without getting sick, but each day felt like a slog. Life was grey. A friend suggested I try singing to lift my spirits. It’s well known that singing helps with mood: “[Singing] sees the release of endorphins, the brain’s ‘feel good’ chemicals,” says Baishali Mukherjee, the Southeast Asia regional liaison for the World Federation of Music Therapy.

I had studied piano when I was younger, and the prospect of learning to sing intrigued me. I found a local voice teacher in Nanaimo named Lindsay Suddaby and arranged for lessons via Zoom. I told Lindsay that I was trying this new activity for fun. I also let her know about the problems with my voice. If the lessons could help, it would be a nice bonus.

Fortunately, I chose the right teacher. Lindsay, a music graduate in voice from the University of Victoria, knew a great deal about body and movement when it came to singing. She could spot the physical issues behind problems in projecting and range. In my first lessons, Lindsay had me do simple vocal exercises. She studied my face as I sang, and told me that my soft-spokenness was likely due to tension in my jaw and tongue. My muscles were so tight that my voice was being constricted.

I was shocked. It never occurred to me that tension was behind my voice issues. Over the years, I had come to view my voice as an impediment. There were co-workers who didn’t take me seriously because I spoke in a thin, sing-songy voice. Sometimes I wondered if it was just an indication of my character, that I was chronically unassertive.

According to Lindsay, muscle tension is a common problem when singing. “The voice is an internal instrument,” she says. “The voice will be less flexible and able to perform different tasks the more tense it is.”

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I’ve probably always held tension in my face, which was likely reinforced by dental surgeries when I was younger and bad habits like grinding my teeth at night. With Lindsay’s help, I began to release my facial muscles and undo years of strain. (For the jaw muscles, I put my knuckles on my jaw right next to my ear, then I pulled my knuckle down along my jaw, letting my mouth and jaw relax and open. For my tongue, I swirled it in large circles inside my closed mouth, 8 times clockwise, 8 counterclockwise, then 4 and 4, and 2 and 2.)

I also began to sing.

After a few months of lessons, my voice became clearer and more resonant, and I could vocalize with less strain. What’s more, I realized that everyday activities were open to me in a way they weren’t before: I could take part in Christmas caroling and sing the high notes in “Happy Birthday.” I didn’t have to be self-conscious. As I was shopping at the supermarket one day, I called out to the clerk down the aisle. To my surprise, he heard me. And he answered.

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have discovered this ability. It felt like a gift. As the world went into lockdown and our lives grew smaller, my personal world unexpectedly grew.

Lindsay helped me learn songs that I’d always wanted to sing. I learned classics by George Gershwin and Cole Porter. I went through a gamut of pop songs and ballads (Jann Arden’s “Insensitive” was a favourite.) Sometimes I could sing them well, sometimes not; but with each song, I worked on vocalizing without tension.

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Since the pandemic began, I’ve hosted a Zoom gathering of old high-school friends on my birthday. After two years of lessons, I decided to put on a mini recital. After all, no one had heard me sing except my voice teacher and my dog.

I chose some favourites including the jazz standard “These Foolish Things.” I loved the Rod Stewart version. On the night of, I gathered my courage and made my singing debut. I used karaoke tracks from YouTube as background music. It was the first time I ever sang solo in front of an audience and it felt entirely natural. My friends are kind so I knew that they would be receptive. But when I was done, my friend Robin told me she actually preferred my voice to Rod’s.

I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift.

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