This time three years ago, most of us were teaching exclusively online, Zoom was suddenly the most important tool in everybody's toolbox, and we were all mentally and physically exhausted from staying home, of all things. It is not always a fun time to think about, though I do think occasionally reflecting back on all that we learned, adapted to, and overcame is really helpful. We did a LOT to keep our profession, our students, and our own businesses afloat, and that should be celebrated!
I also remember about this time a new term started to float around the Web-i-spere: "Zoom fatigue." We started talking about how tiring teaching online was, which I think surprised a lot of us. Or at least I was surprised. How in the world could working from a screen be so darn exhausting? And why was my voice more tired than when I was in-person? Our new realities came with a new set of problems, or twists on the old ones, that we also needed to adapt to.
A recent article in the Journal of Voice looked at incidences of dysphonia (basically "voice-troubles") and vocal tract discomfort among folks who were newly working from home during the Covid stay-at-home orders. While this survey-based study didn't focus primarily on voice teachers, I think there are some important lessons for us to learn here, and to continue to work with as many of us still teach online.
The researcher recruited 1, 575 participants (be still my research heart! That's soooo many!!!) to answer questions about if they were experiencing dysphonia or vocal tract discomfort, when it started, and its severity. I was not shocked to read that a pretty high percentage of people reported having voice troubles that started after they moved their work home. And for those that reported vocal tract discomfort, dry throat was the number one complaint. But why did all these people start to experience voice troubles at home, when their jobs presumably also used their voices when they were in-person? This is where I skip to my favorite part of a research paper, the Discussion Section.
The researcher speculated a few things that I think are very perceptive about the cause of the onset of new voice troubles. Many people had to move their work home very quickly, and so may not have had a great set up for their bodies to work in a way that didn't cause fatigue and muscle tension. When folks are hunched over for hours on end working on a laptop on the couch, the muscles of the neck are squished around the larynx. Kitchen chairs aren't meant for hours and hours of sitting, and kitchen tables aren't exactly desks. For singing teachers, where we put the computer can have an impact on how we align our bodies, too. I'm admitting my own guilt here, in that I still put my laptop on top of my upright piano and sit at the piano bench. Since I generally don't sit there for hours at a stretch, I haven't noticed a ton of effects on my body, but I also could be deluding myself. Office furniture can be expensive, and sometimes costs associated with fixing these types of ergonomic issues can be prohibitive, so we do the best we can. I get it.
I think one of the most telling findings in the research is that participants cited an increase in stress associated with the onset of their voice troubles. Again, no shock there. Our voices can often be among the first signs that something is going wrong with our emotional or mental health. When things changed so quickly and drastically three years ago, of course we were stressed about it! And of course our voices might suffer as a result. Totally makes sense.
Now, three years later, what can we do with this information? Many voice teachers, like me, work from home a majority of the time. And running our own businesses can be stressful. Managing these things can help us keep our voices in good shape as we continue to work in the post-Covid era. The lessons we learned during that time can help us to be healthier and happier in our current working lives, too. While we may not collectively go through a pandemic-type mass stress event like we did three years ago (pretty please, no, no, never again), we will all go through seasons that are stressful and hard on our bodies and voices. If you are still experiencing fatigue from working online, research is verifying that it's real and you're not alone. What remains is how to address it.
Also, if you have clients that are working from home, you might spend some lesson time talking about their set up and how it might be affecting their voices. If we are able to help them operate optimally, their singing just might get a little easier, too! Win-win!
If you'd like to read the whole paper for yourself, you can find the PDF here. It's worth it, I think, to acknowledge the very real challenges we have as voice teachers working online from our homes, and find ways to help. Let me know your thoughts!