Elisabeth Cherland

When I was teaching 7-12 vocal music in Custer, South Dakota something strange and unsettling started happening. At some point during each school year, I would lose my voice for 3-5 days. It would start with a mild cold, but instead of just landing in my sinuses and giving me a sore throat, it was like someone had turned a switch in my voice to “OFF.” I would breathe and intend to phonate, but nothing would happen. I relied on my voice so much every day that during those voiceless periods I had to completely shift how I taught. The students were surprisingly helpful, and frankly, they enjoyed it. They would shush others so they could listen intently to my whispers, and act like my clumsy miming was a fun game of charades. We always got through those voiceless days, but it was hard and disturbing.

Looking back, I can see that there were some contributing factors to losing my voice. I was overusing and straining my voice daily at school, so any cold had an easy time attacking my vocal cords. Teaching was also stressful, and my body was clearly asking for a rest. Since then, I’ve incorporated the use of microphones and speakers to relieve some of the vocal strain. I try to better manage my stress. While I haven’t lost my voice in such a literal way since then, I have had other experiences of being unable to find my voice.

One year, I was working with a choir and my friend Pete was observing. I had been struggling to connect with the ensemble that semester. I felt tentative and I secretly believed they preferred my colleague to me. What normally felt natural to teach now felt forced and fake. I came home every evening frustrated. After that particular rehearsal I made a comment to Pete that I didn’t feel like the group was on “Team Cherland.” Pete stopped and gently asked, “Elisabeth, are you on Team Cherland?”

Pete was right. I wasn’t on “Team Cherland.” I had lost my center, my teaching voice, my sense of vocation. It’s no coincidence that vocation and voice have the same Latin root: the word vocare, which means “to call.” My vocare, my voice, my vocation seemed to be lost.

We all have these moments, don’t we? Moments where we feel untethered, out of touch, and unable to affect change. Moments where we’ve lost our confidence and question our vocation. Many of us experienced this during the pandemic as we struggled to teach in new ways and make an impact while so distanced (literally) from our singers. And we don’t always easily bounce back, do we? Maybe you’re still struggling to find that teaching voice, that connection with your students and singers, that belief that you make a difference. Friends, you are not alone.

Here’s a reminder: your job is to help your singers find their vocare. Yet here’s the mystery:

you do this best when you find and tend to your own vocare.

How do we find and tend to our vocare? Here’s a non-exhaustive list.

Find and maintain your physical voice:

  • Care for your voice. Try not to strain or talk over the ensemble. It’s easier said than done, but pay attention – are you vocally exhausted at the end of the day? If so, change something! Talk to your administrator, your church council, your union rep, anyone and everyone, and purchase some sort of amplification system. (Even a tiny speaker that you wear around your neck and a headband microphone are voice-saving and they can be as inexpensive as $60).
  • Practice singing. Yes, aloud, even though your students or colleagues may hear you. Warm up in the car or in the shower, in a practice room or your rehearsal space. Model practicing and making time to work at and improve our voices.
  • Know all the vocal lines in your repertoire, but beyond that, know how it feels to sing the passages your students are singing and use this to inform your teaching. Do you have trouble negotiating that leap in the tenor part? They may too. Do you need to modify that vowel in the soprano line in order to sing it well? They probably will too.
  • Remember that our voices are different and what works for you may not be a one-size-fits-all. Talk about sensation and technique with your singers and ask them about their own sensation and technique.
  • Sing because it feels good and because you love to do it.

Find and sustain your vocation:

  • Believe and remember that your teaching matters. Your students benefit from their interactions with you, the content you share, and the artistry you inspire. This is what my friend Pete reminded me of that day after rehearsal. It’s what you need to be reminded of on hard days.
  • Care for your whole being. Draw boundaries around your personal and work lives and keep them.
  • Find the beacons of light. Who are the individuals in the group who nod their heads when you give a directive, who hang on your word, who give you life to teach? In your tough and out of touch moments, look to them and let them give you energy and confidence. It’s all too easy to get pre-occupied with the disengaged, off-task, and unaffected singers, and feel like a failure if 100% of the group is not with you. Yet the focus and commitment of inspired individuals can be infectious, so feed them.
  • Be honest and vulnerable. If you’re struggling to reach your singers, talk to them about it. It’s never easy, but I’m always amazed at how a little vulnerability on my part changes how singers relate to me and it’s always for the better.
  • Prioritize attending conferences and meaningful continuing education. Hearing great choirs, discovering new literature and tools for teaching, and connecting with colleagues should not be the privilege of a few. Tending to our professional growth is essential. To find and maintain our vocare we must touch base with others who do the same or similar work. We share our stories, struggles, and tools that help us keep going.

Life is full of moments when we lose our voice. Physically, emotionally, or spiritually. And, while it can be awful, it can provide an opportunity. Remember how much my students enjoyed my voiceless days? I have a friend who has “Silent Fridays” where he runs rehearsals with no words once a week. Being knocked off balance can give us a chance to try something new, and maybe we can learn something from the challenge.

Here’s one final thought. Once you’ve lost either your physical voice or your sense of vocation, sometimes the only thing that helps is rest. A good vocologist will prescribe vocal rest. A good coach/mentor/advisor will advise vacation and time away. Once you’ve reached a point, working harder does more harm than help, so take the time needed to rest.

The work of helping our singers to find their vocare – both their physical voice and their passions and creative outlets – must start with finding and caring for our own. Best wishes, friends, as you whisper and mime your way through the voiceless times. You will find your voice and center again.