• Anna Leigh

Vocal problems of professional singer! Oliver's Story!


Vocal problems of professional singer! Oliver's Story!

Interview for ALVC from Oliver Speck-Smith, lead vocalist from The Wolcott Band.

When did your trouble with your voice start?

It was the end of October 2016 and got gradually worse over the next few months.

What did you notice happening?

I lost my falsetto/ head voice and had to either miss lines or jump in to a harmony line that I could manage easier on stage. I assumed I was just vocally tired as I'd done a lot of gigs but gradually it got worse. Eventually my chest voice was a struggle too. I had no pain at all but singing anything became a challenge. The final straw came at a gig at the Stadium Of Light in Sunderland at the end of November. I pretty much croaked my way through the full set and walked off stage knowing it was time to get help.

what do you think caused this?

A lack of knowledge and care for my voice. I was brought up in a musical and acting background but by this point I'd worked as a professional singer for about 18 years with no vocal training at all. I didn't do vocal warm ups before a show. My preparation off stage was non existent. I guess my acting background hindered me too - I was brought up on the theory that I had to hit the back of the room with my voice and I carried this mentality in to my singing career, despite having a microphone to do that job for me.

How long till you got the doctors help and what was the medical help you received?

After the Stadium Of Light show I went to my local gp the next morning. By chance of fate, the doctor I saw was a young guy who was there as a cover for a staff shortage and moving to Saudi the next day. He couldn't have been better with me and booked me an emergency consultation at Sunderland E.N.T. where I was seen within a couple of days.

At hospital I was scoped, a camera up my nose and in to my throat to try and diagnose the problem. The diagnosis left me broken. The specialist said he could see an inflammation but was unsure what it was... maybe nodules... maybe cancer. I was instructed to stop singing immediately. I explained I was self employed and had big contracts to fulfil with the band but he replied quite sternly that if I continued trying to sing I would be causing irreversable damage and could lose my voice completely and permanently. This was Tuesday afternoon and I was instructed to return for surgery on Friday knowing i would be put to sleep, but not knowing what for.

Not meaning to sound crude or brush off the devastating affects of cancer - I've lost friends and family to the horrible disease - but to me the thought of never singing again was just as bad. I live for music and performing is in my blood.

What was the op?

The operation was a micro laryngoscopy. I was put to sleep by general anaesthetic and woke several hours later to the news they found two cists on my vocal chords. They burned one of them off with a laser, but couldn't do the other as they would seal my vocal chords together when they healed, leaving me unable to speak. So a second operation was booked for the 30th December, three weeks after the first one.

What was the recovery like after the op?

Harder than I expected. I wasn't in any pain but had to complete vocal rest for two weeks after each op, so couldn't even whisper for 4 out of 6 weeks over Christmas. Other than missing the band and performing, I was fine with it at first but the world is a different place when you can't speak...

* When people realise you can't talk, they assume you are hard of hearing and start... Speaking... Very.... Slowly.... And.... D-i-s-t-i-n-c-t-l-y....

* Telling someone I had a nail in my tyre in the middle of Central Station wasn't a great idea. Go on. Try it. Put the nail in the hole using your hands!

* McDonalds drive-thrus become a thing of the past

After the second week of the first operation, I could start to talk again but gently and I was very weak vocally. I sounded different and it broke my heart. As the week went on it got stronger though and just as I was able to speak almost normally, it was time for the second operation and the silence began again.

How did you feel about having the problem?

Gutted. I realised I wasn't invincible, that my voice is indeed just a muscle which needs rest and care. I still didn't know if I'd ever sing again at this point and that was the hardest thing for me. The support I received from the people around me was incredible though, like nothing I ever imagined. With their support, a determined mind and some help from Anna, I returned to the stage at the beginning of March!

What has your recovery process been in terms of changing your way of singing?

As I had never previously had any vocal coaching, Anna had the task of undoing years of bad habits and "vowel spreading". She made me realise that microphone I've been singing in to means I don't have to hit the back of a huge venue with my voice... sounds obvious maybe but the technique she showed me was a relief to my vocal chords. I still slip in to old habits occasionally but I become aware of it so can correct it. I'm also grateful for the confidence she gave me that the game wasn't over and I could still do what I love.

How is your voice now?

Great. I've just finished a summer tour with the band where we performed 52 gigs in 60 days, covering over 1700 miles a week, performing in front of over 2500 people a night. I'm not entirely sure how I got through it, but I did.

It gets tired, the same as any voice. I sometimes get paranoid if I'm struggling doing pre show warm ups, or I lose my head voice. In the early days I'd ring Anna at all hours of the day in a panic, but I realise that I need to rest it as much as looking after it. Steaming regularly helps but if I don't rest properly I feel it in my voice. Getting quality rest on that tour wasn't easy and I was feeling the strain a little by the end of it, but a week off and it felt great again.

Have you had any further ENT scopes from the hospital?

I had a follow up scope before I went back to work after the operations, just to check everything had healed properly. I had another one the following year, just for peace of mind as losing my voice with a cold had me a paranoid mess.

What would you say to anyone having voice trouble?

Believe. You WILL get through it. You also have amazing support around you. However, you need to deal with the situation quickly and effectively. I'm not the kind of person you'll see regularly at a doctors but was told by the surgeon that if I'd ignored the problem they would have become nodules, and their positioning would have almost certainly ended my career.

Other than seeking medical advice, talk to your vocal coach about your situation - maybe there's something you are doing to cause the problem that they can help you with, even if you aren't aware of it. Steam regularly - you can get personal steamers online for a reasonable price. Rest as much as you can, vocally and physically. Oh and if you are advised to voice rest, avoiding getting a nail in your tyre!


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