Interviewed by Krystal Allweil, written and ed. by Krystal Allweil and Shellie Beeman
“For years, my voice was all I had—all I thought I had to offer. Little did I know the journey I was about to take that would prove that statement as wrong as it could be.”
A Lost Voice
“I will remember January 21, 2017 for the rest of my life. It’s the day I lost my voice, the day my entire world fell apart. I had completed a fabulous recital rehearsal the day before, only to wake up the next day without the top of my range,” Beeman recalled.
Continuing to lose notes over the next few days, Beeman called her doctor, who referred her to a laryngologist. She went to see the ENT-PA who did a basic scope, telling Beeman that she saw a bit of swelling, very minor pre-nodules, and recommended she receive voice therapy from one of their Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs). Crying, Beeman recalled thinking, “How did this happen? I haven’t done anything to warrant pre-nodules.” Yet when Beeman also started experiencing pain, she was determined to follow the recommendation for voice therapy for the next several months without questioning in the hopes of getting her voice back. The SLP could not solve her neck pain, so she sent Beeman to her chiropractor, who did some adjusting and active release techniques, which produced only temporary, mild relief.
With rest and light vocal practice that summer, Beeman saw some improvement. However, she had a feeling that whenever she used her voice, something was off. When she expressed this to her medical team, answers included, “Just keep practicing,” “It’s all in your head,” and “You’re fine; it just takes time.”
A Difficult Journey, yet a Bold
At the end of summer, as she prepared to return to work, she relapsed, losing even more of her voice. “Where I at least had a high A5 after therapy, I now couldn’t sing above a D5,” she said. “It was effortful and painful to sing and teach,” and her overall physical pain level had escalated. Beeman saw a newly hired laryngologist in September where the evaluation revealed no improvement from February. At that moment Beeman realized her situation was not a vocal overuse or nodule situation, which would have improved with therapy and rest.
Despite knowing that the root issue was not her singing technique, Beeman followed the recommendation to take voice lessons that focused on relaxation techniques. She met with her ENT again in December. This time he thought he was seeing a paresis. Once again Beeman thought, “But I haven’t done anything to cause a paresis.” At this point, Beeman’s medical team advised her to reduce how much she used her voice—speaking, teaching, and socializing. “I stopped going to church for 3 months, visiting friends, and calling family members. I canceled gigs. It was a very miserable time of my life. For the first time in my life, I was not just lonely. I was alone—lost.” Experiencing pain doing common activities such as singing, speaking, piano playing, exercise, and computer work, Beeman wondered if she would need to consider a new career outside of singing and college-level teaching. How could she teach students to use their voices when she could not?
“Here I was with three degrees in voice performance; a doctoral, secondary emphasis in Speech-Language Pathology and more. My voice was not supposed to break down. For a while I looked for people to blame, including my faith. I did not realize how much of my identity as a person was in my career of singing and teaching. As a result, and as a side-effect of grieving this loss, I lost my faith, my identity, and my confidence as an artist and teacher.”
When Beeman went to her March 2018 appointment, she told her medical team, “Something in my body is telling me I can sing. I cannot explain it to you, but I refuse to believe that this cannot be fixed.” Her ENT then referred her to his mentor in Tennessee where Beeman was invited for a two-day stay and evaluation.
A Recovered Hope
The specialist asked Beeman about her entire life and health history, going back further than the initial onset of pain in December 2016. They went to strobe Beeman’s vocal folds. Viewing the strobe from a computer screen, Beeman recalled, “I had never seen a more beautiful pair of vocal folds.” Back at the exam room, the specialist asked Beeman to sing. He then massaged Beeman’s throat and larynx, asking her to sing again. Three hours later, the specialist diagnosed Beeman not with a paresis, pre-nodules, or reflux but with stress-induced muscle tension dysphonia.
The specialist believed Beeman’s injury went back over 10 years and could be fixed with physical therapy. Beeman explained, “What actually happened wasn’t in the vocal folds. It was all the muscles in my back, shoulders, neck, and head that took over, creating trigger points and severe tension and muscle weaknesses that eventually converged on my voice, locking down my entire larynx, causing physical and vocal pain.” When Beeman graduated with her master’s degree in 2006, her journey took her from a brief performing career in Chicago to a teaching job in Wisconsin, which resulted in what the specialist believed was a traumatic turning point in Beeman’s life and overall health. From there, several poor experiences resulted in further distress. When she joined the faculty at a university in South Carolina in 2016, a higher teaching load was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Road Back
Beeman was in voice and physical therapy three times a week. When they released her in November 2018, they all agreed that she needed to start counseling to work through the emotional stress she was experiencing related to her challenges and vocal retraining. Beeman immediately contacted a trusted, local voice teacher. After talking, he quickly realized that she was now severely underusing her voice (and probably had for over a while), resulting in vocal fatigue, pain, and inability to sing or speak. In that hour, he got her up to a high D6 — a note she had not sung in over a year and a half. Since then, Beeman’s voice teacher has been crucial in helping her retrain her singing and speaking voice.
Starting to sing with her full voice, but experiencing continued pain, Amidst a third round of physical therapy the fall of 2020 which added dry needling to the regimen, Beeman’s first full recital since her injury was September 26, 2020, entitled, “Finding My Way Back Through French Song.” She is currently working at a university in Alabama, teaching and singing (a range of F3-Eb6) with limited body pain within a supportive work environment.
A Look Back — and Forward
Looking back, Beeman recalls: “The way I like to describe what happened to me, it’s like going through a grieving process. A part of me had died. Mourning and working through the loss but being thankful that I came out on the other side because I think I was meant to. There was a higher purpose for me, and I truly believe I am a better teacher, a better singer, and a better person. It has been a journey, and I still have so much more to learn. I think those of us who can relate to the chronic pain, the loss, the identity crisis—it changes you. Significantly.”
Looking forward, because her injury is stress-induced, Beeman recognizes the possibility that it may always linger in her body. Beeman’s knowledge of anatomy and physiology has continued to grow as she attends workshops, researches, and takes summer courses in her attempt to learn more about the body as it relates to the voice. She continues to study and practice in hopes that every year she will improve and better manage her condition so that she can continue to teach and perform. At the least, she hopes others will learn from her experience and know that there is hope. “I have come to learn that I am more than my career, and that often, we are entrusted with negative experiences so that we can later help others. I think of the students who have come through my studio, and how much better I can now affect their lives—vocally, physically, emotionally, artistically and spiritually.”
Shellie Beeman, soprano, serves as Associate Professor of Voice at a university in Alabama. As a voice technician and vocal health advocate, she delights in intertwining voice science, artistic musicianship, and the medical arts. While she enjoys performing, her love for singing led her to academia, where she could become the teacher behind the next generation of singing artists and teachers. Shellie and Krystal collaborated in writing Krystal’s original interview for publication with Classical Singer. Read her entire story at https://shelliebeeman.wixsite.com/classical-music