Whew. This weekend I got served up with a big old lesson, no kid gloves in sight. And you’d think I might have learned this one by now.
In the big, broad scope of things, the lesson I seem to have to learn over and over (and over and over and over and over) again, is that not only is it perfectly OK to put myself first sometimes, it is often the best way to be of service to the people you feel responsible to.
You want the finer details? Last weekend I subbed in with a band, because their singer had been in a serious car accident – she was OK, but would take some time to recover. Originally it was just for one night, but the guy that was supposed to sub in on the Saturday night (ding ding ding) wasn’t feeling well, so I ended up playing both nights. Their singer still wasn’t back to ones this weekend, so I got the call again.
Except Friday I woke up with a voice that was even more gravelly than my usual I-sound-like-I-smoke-a-pack-a-day-even-though-I-quit-years-ago-and-I’ve-actually-sounded-like-this-since-I-was-three-which-was-obviously-long-before-I-started-smoking-anyway voice. I dosed myself with massive amounts of vitamin C, took Elderberry Syrup, Oil of Oregano, and all the other things that I usually keep in my arsenal.
But I could hear the writing on the wall as the day progressed. So I even took myself to the walk-in clinic seeking a prescription for prednisone. Now, it should be noted that prednisone is not something I take lightly. But I have, in my career, been prescribed prednisone maybe 3 or 4 times when I have had a gig coming up and I’ve been battling with laryngitis. Every singer I know has gone through this routine. It’s NOT a fix that should be taken lightly…but when you get paid to use your voice, there are times when you need more help than vitamin C will provide.
And for the first time in my life, I had a doctor deny me the prescription. The conversation went a little something like this:
Doctor: “I’m not going to prescribe you prednisone for a sore throat.”
Me: “I don’t want prednisone for a sore throat. I want it for voice loss. I’ve taken it before, and every singer I know has taken it at some point.”
Doctor: “Well it’s a very powerful drug.”
Me: “Yes, I realize that.”
Doctor: “I have never prescribed it for that use in 35 years of practice.”
Doctor: “You should be going home and spending the night in bed.”
Me: “Yes, but I have to sing tonight.”
Doctor: “Well, I’m not going to give it to you. I don’t think it’s right to take prednisone for a sore throat.”
Me: “Like I said, I don’t want it for a sore throat.”
You can see how far I got. We just sort of talked in circles from there until I finally gave up. But as I gave up, I was quite stunned, really.
I was stunned that a doctor was refusing what is, in fact, a common treatment for people who earn their livings with their voices. Nope, I certainly wouldn’t give this to my kid so she could sing in the choir, because it is a powerful drug, and there are serious ramifications (it takes your body a long time to recover from a dose of steroids…there’s a lot of not coolness about it.) But I’m an informed adult, and my ability to earn money was being compromised because a doctor was not up to date on current treatment menthods.
But I was out of time. I had to go to the gig. Couldn’t try and find another doc who knew the protocol.
So I went to the gig. And I sang 4 sets. I promised myself that I would sing lightly, I wouldn’t push, and I would be nice to my voice.
The first two sets were OK. Much better than I expected, in fact.
But then it all went south.
The third set really started to hurt. Like, I mean, physically hurt. I had to say flat out no to a few songs. And by the fourth set, the only things I could sing were so low, it was laughable. I mean, I have a very low voice for a girl to begin with. I tend to sing all my leads in male keys, because that’s where my voice sits.
But by the end of the 4th set, I had maybe 5 notes I could sing. That’s it. A 5 note range. I normally have a three octave range. And when I talked, not only was it physically painful, but there were giant holes in my voice, or it sounded like three different pitches were coming out. And you could barely hear me.
I called my brother. Touring as much as he does, he has to deal with voice loss sometimes. He had a remedy for me that he uses. I drove for an hour at midnight to go and get it so that I could start it that night, hoping to give it as much time as possible to work. He was having a party at his house, but he gathered it together for me anyway. (It was the quickest entry/exit I have ever made at a party!)
I got ahold of a singer friend of mine who had a course of prednisone. I went and picked that up, to start it that night as well. And then I took myself home, took everything, and went to sleep. For a very long time.
And woke up Saturday morning with no voice. Took another round of everything. Went back to sleep.
Woke up with a little bit of a voice. If I talked high and light (just like I tell all my students to do if they are trying to communicate with laryngitis!) I could make a bit of sound.
Got up and did hair and makeup for my kids who had dance competition that day. Bailed on actually going to the competition (which was not an awesome thing for me to do. Kid #1 had her solo, and Kid #1 & #3 had their lyrical number). Went back to bed for more sleep.
My thinking was that the more time I had to let the prednisone and remedies work in my system, and the more sleep I could cram into my body, the better my chances would be of having a voice that night.
And when I got up at 5 to start getting ready for my gig, I still had no voice.
No. Fucking. Voice.
And I started getting ready anyway. Got in the shower. Started getting dressed. Started phonating – and shit was so wrong. Tried humming…couldn’t really. Tried bubbling….that I could sort of do, just not very high. Tried singing oohs…and still there were either giant holes in my sound, or I was making three notes when I tried to sing one.
And still I continued to get dressed.
What the fuck was I thinking? This folks, is where the lesson comes in.
You see, even when everything is just NOT WORKING, I cannot begin to think about letting people down, the people to whom I feel responsible. This is somewhat of a character flaw, I suppose. It rears its ugly head from time to time. I am getting better about it in some areas of my life…but clearly not where music or gigs are concerned.
At this point, I did decide that, even though I could really use the money, even though I did feel really responsible, even though, even though, even though…I needed to try and find a sub. I texted my guitar player Alex to see if he could sub in for me, but he was already working.
I called my regular band-mate Saffron, and as soon as she said hello, I burst into tears. And when I told her what was going on, she immediately started to problem solve with me, in the gentlest, most loving way. (This is one of the hundreds of reasons why I love Saf so much.) She couldn’t sub for me or she would have, but she already had stuff going on. So she started naming singers we know whom I should try.
And then I started making phone calls. Very quiet phone calls.
And I will say, one of the benefits of being part of an industry full of amazing women really shows itself at a time like this. I have to take this moment to point out that my experience in the Vancouver music scene, among female singers, is one of incredible support. I know it is an industry that can see a lot of competitiveness, and with that can come some pretty icky behaviours. But that has never once, in all my time in music, been my experience. And I am so incredibly grateful for that. (Next week, I will be writing a post including of as many of the amazing female singers in Vancouver as I can, all of whom are so beautifully supportive of each other, should you be interested in checking it out.)
Even women who I don’t know personally, but we both know who the other is through the singer grapevine, were immediately incredibly helpful. Every single one of my singer friends (and new singer acquaintances, as of today!) was so sympathetic to my plight, because as singers, we’ve all been there at one time or another. And almost every single one said, “No, I can’t do it, but you should try…” and proceeded to give me names and phone numbers.
And within 20 minutes, I had found a sub.
Thank everything holy. It was a singer I don’t know personally, but two of my singer friends recommended. And it turns out that she knows the bass player in the band, and they had asked her about subbing before I ever got the call a couple of weeks ago! I was so thrilled. Everything worked out smoothly. Well, as smoothly as could be.
Crisis averted. Now I was just left to deal with my broken sense of responsibility.
So about this lesson. Yet. Again.
Saturday, I was fairly sure that if I had tried to sing, I would have sustained permanent vocal damage. And no money is worth that.
I am a voice teacher. I constantly tell my students not to try to sing through the kind of voice loss I was experiencing. I know better. I understand all the technical components of why singing would have been a 500% terrible idea.
And yet I really had to struggle with the decision to bail on the gig.
I have never before actually bailed on a gig because of voice loss. I have always either had prednisone in my system far enough ahead of time (to be fair, 18 hours really probably was nowhere near enough time for it to kick in…it needs more like 48 hours), I have managed my voice, I have had other singers in the band who could take up the slack, or a combination of the elements. But I’ve never had to outright bail.
Making the decision on Saturday night to put my health first made me cry. I am 40 years old, and I was crying to my friend on the phone because I felt like I was letting people down by putting my health first. (Kinda screwed up, right?)
My voice is so much of who I am, in so many ways. I am a singer. I am a voice teacher. I am a communicator. I am a parent. I am a friend. I am a daughter. And that all comes through my voice. I simply do not have the freedom to damage my voice. It would be stupid and irresponsible. And given how much I know about the voice from a technical standpoint…it just would be incredibly uncool.
I was texting that night with my brother, explaining how horrified I was about the whole thing, about how incredibly difficult it was for me to put myself first when it felt like I letting down the other people I felt responsible to. And he had an amazingly good point:
“Yeah but you let them down more if you show up and can’t do your job. And you let down the audience members too.”
That was the best thing anyone could have said to me about any of it. And THAT RIGHT THERE is the lesson I seem to have to learn again and again.
Here are three ways of saying the same damn thing:
When you don’t take care of yourself first, you let yourself and everyone around you down. (Tweet it!)
When you don’t take care of yourself first, you can’t do anyone around you any good. (Tweet it!)
You have to take are of yourself first if you want to have anything to give anyone else. (Tweet it!)
So ultimately, my sense of responsibility to other people is actually somewhat inflated, when it comes right down to it. Well, maybe not inflated so much as a bit tangled. Because my responsibility to other people isn’t just to be there and do everything for others (mothers feel this way a lot!)
My responsibility is actually to be the best version of myself that I can, to contribute to the whole, alongside others. (Tweet it!)
Being the best version of myself requires taking care of myself first. It requires a beautiful kind of selfishness that ultimately serves both me, and everyone around me. And even moreso, when I refuse to be beautifully selfish and take care of myself first, I actually detract from those around me, and let down my end of the unspoken bargain.
Just think about it for a moment.
What if we all actually agreed to show up with the best version of ourselves? Always?
What if we all actually agreed to take care of ourselves first when we recognized that we were not showing up with the best parts of ourselves? Always?
What if we agreed not to resent people for their beautiful selfishness when they took care of them selves, but instead supported and loved them for doing what they needed to do to serve themselves, and ultimately all of us, better?
What if we knew that people would not resent us for our beautiful selfishness in taking care of ourselves first, knowing that it would mean that we would bring our very best to serve everyone thereafter? Always?
What if we could trust that process for ourselves, and for others? What if we could take the fucking guilt out of taking care of ourselves?
The guilt associated with taking care of ourselves is generally a much more female trait than male one. (That is a sweeping generalization, and by no means without exception.) I think that if we can support each other in finding the keys to unlock the doors of self-care, to unlock the doors of understanding that it really serves everyone best if we take care of ourselves first, we would be a much happier people. And I think sometimes we need to find those keys in our male peeps who get it so much better than we do, and are willing to share their secrets and shine a light on our need to take care of ourselves first.
Because a light bulb really went off for me when my brother said texted me on Saturday night. So much so, that I think it bears repeating.
“Yeah but you let them down more if you show up and can’t do your job. And you let down the audience members too.”
What lessons seem to pop up in your life over and over? What wise words have your peeps shared with you to help guide you through? Tell me in the comments below!