For Heather: Surgery and your voice

Recently, Heather asked:

Hi Lindsay, I hope you still check this website. I am a vocal teacher and was a vocal performance major. It’s safe to say music is my life. I teach over 80 students a week, and sing constantly : ) I am having double jaw surgery this July and I am extremely nervous about moving my jaws and still being able to sing. I am hoping that the surgery will take the tension that I feel 24/7 and help me to open my jaws with ease… and also help open up my airways. I am curious what your experience with your voice was after the surgery? Did you find your voice changed? for the worse or better? Any information you want to share would be helpful! Thank you!! Heather

First of all, I’d just like to say that it is nice to know someone other than spambots is finding my blog and commenting. Thanks, Heather! You made my day. 🙂

Now to your question. I chose to dedicate a whole blog post to it because I feel like the answer is a little complicated. I’m trusting that, because you’re a vocalist too, you’ll understand what I mean by the end.

The short answer is yes, surgery did change my voice. Not necessarily the timbre or anything like that, but because surgery drastically altered the physical construction of my instrument, things changed. It’s kind of like replacing the engine in your car. I used to drive an engine with 200k miles on it, and while it got me where I needed to go, it was a bit clunky and not very dependable. I replaced the engine, which fundamentally changed things. Some things are better. I can count on this engine not to crap out on me in the middle of a dessert. But I have to learn how to use it. If I just gun it, it can cause some problems for the rest of my car because the car is the same, it’s just the engine that changed. I have to learn how to use it while keeping the rest of the car in mind.

That may be a bad metaphor. Let’s be honest, I know nothing about cars. But do you get the idea? The voice I had before surgery was the voice I had for 26 years. It was familiar, and I’d learned to use it despite my constant pain. Jaw surgery changed the physicality of my singing, so it changed my voice in a lot of ways, too. Ways that only I notice, maybe. Like resonance. I feel like my resonance has changed. Granted, I haven’t really had a voice lesson in years, but I knew where to aim my sound to get that full-bodied sound before surgery. I had to relearn that post-surgery. It didn’t go away by any means, and now I am able to open my mouth wider and embody that sound more fully when I do find it. It was just a process.

My new voice, like my new face, is something that’s still growing on me. For the most part, I love it. But I have had to face the fact that I’d developed a lot of “bad” habits over the years just to cope with the pain. Now I have to relearn things, and I have to remember to be patient and gentle with my jaw. It’s been 15 months since surgery, but I’m not fully recovered. To my doctors I am, for sure. But I still feel facial fatigue if I eat something extra chewy, or talk a LOT, or sing too much without taking a break.

It sounds like singing is not only your passion, it’s your living. My advice to you, especially since you’re getting double-jaw surgery, is to really take it easy. Seriously. Talk to your doctors about physical therapy options to help you get back in the swing of things, and maybe even consider voice lessons after 6 or 8 months. (I tried taking them again just 3 months after surgery, and it was way too soon.) And I highly recommend doing the exercises your doctors give you after surgery. They kind of suck, but they’ll help build your stamina and strength again. I’ve also found regular massage to be incredibly helpful. Even now, I get massage about twice a month, and my therapist, whom I have been seeing since before surgery, really understands my jaw and face and pain. It’s still painful, actually, to have the area massaged, but I have to remember that surgery REALLY put a lot of stress on my muscles. They’re still trying to sort themselves out.

One thing to consider: numbness. I am still mostly numb in my lower lip, chin and gums. I probably always will be. I’ve gotten used to it, but it does change things. When I’m tired, I slur, and I still have trouble with food and drink sometimes. (Translation: I still drool now and then.) I’ve learned to manage it so it isn’t as bad as it may sound. Also, I have learned to laugh about it. I’m the type who usually points it out to people when I’ve just dribbled a bunch of water down my front because I couldn’t feel the glass. But that’s just me.

Numbness from double jaw surgery may really impact your singing. And if my resonance changed after one-jaw surgery, yours is bound to after double-jaw. It sounds like surgery is something you’ve given a lot of thought to and are committed to. Just keep all of the reasons you have for wanting surgery in mind when you are in the long recovery process. There will be differences. Maybe not big ones for you, and that would be the best case scenario. Just be emotionally prepared to face the possible negative changes, too. It’s a risk, and only you can decide if it’s a risk worth taking.

But for me, it was worth it. Lately, I have really missed singing, and have been practicing a lot more. I hope to do a concert or something some time, or maybe make a recording, just for fun. It’s a huge part of my life and heart, and I understand the fear of risking your voice for the sake of a pain-free life. It’s a tough choice, and I hope you find peace and confidence in whatever choice you make.

Maybe this song will be encouraging to you. The lyrics really apply to the pain and fear and struggle of jaw pain. Consider this my gift to you!

Good luck, Heather! And I really hope you’ll drop me a note after your surgery and let me know how you’re doing. I’ll be thinking of you!


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