Voiceless

I recently lost my voice to laryngitis for six weeks. During that time, the sounds I could make ranged from a whisper to a croak to a flimsy peep. I couldn’t speak or sing. When I opened my mouth, I never knew what sound would emerge. What I did know was that whatever noise I made didn’t feel at all familiar.

I’ve had my share of upper respiratory illnesses, but I’ve never had laryngitis. Even with a cold, I could always find some part of my voice that worked. As a voice coach and singer, I’ve learned how to access a wide variety of sounds in my voice. If one part was afflicted, there were many other choices to access.

Until it was gone, I had no idea how many functions my voice plays in my life. Not only is it the primary way I earn my living, I use it to celebrate and grieve, to express and digest the mysteries of my life. Singing is how I pray. Talking with beloved friends fuels my connection with them. Sharing stories and questions is a primary social and vocational activity. And singing harmony with others feeds my sense of community like nothing else. More than anything, my voice is intimately linked with my identity. Without it, I don’t recognize myself.

Whenever I felt sorry for myself – which I’m humbled to report was daily – I did the Buddhist practice of sending compassion to people in the world who were suffering in the same way I was. I sent blessings to people had lost their voices to an illness or physical condition – and to people who used to love to sing who couldn’t do so any longer. I remembered people whose history of trauma makes it difficult for them to express themselves – not just for a few weeks but for years or a lifetime.

A recent client told me she stopped singing completely at the age of twenty after an abusive boyfriend raped her. Twenty years later she opened her mouth to sing a simple song in my teaching studio and out came a stunning voice. I thought of the uncountable songs she missed singing in those two decades –and all of those people who knew her as “the quiet one,” not as “the woman with the lovely voice.”

I considered the many people across the globe – especially women, minorities, children, and people who are poor – who have no say about fundamental aspects of their day-to-day lives. Millions can’t vote, become educated, choose their spouses, speak their minds, do meaningful work, or make basic decisions I take for granted. Their voicelessness puts mine into perspective in a sobering way.

My voice returned just in time to lead a daylong voice workshop and a community song circle. It is a joyful reunion. Nonetheless, I am re-entering my voice more slowly than I thought I would. It’s taking time to recover virtuosity and ease, to rebuild trust that my sounds will be there when I try to access them. Now that it is back, I am recommitting to use the precious gift of expression and freedom to support others in finding their own voices.

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About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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2 Responses to Voiceless

  1. jamie says:

    Right on my friend… Great message here for all to note. Love you, j

  2. Thanks for including “people who used to love to sing who couldn’t do so any longer”, like my mom in her Alzheimer’s unit. Yesterday we listened to an old tape of her opera singing – it really lifted her spirits to sing along, croaky voice and all. Thank you for this work you do, Barbara.

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