Dr. Sulica’s Reflections on Vocal Health for 2021 World Voice Day

World Voice Day is an annual celebration devoted to the voice and raising awareness about voice disorders. This year, the day will be full of new appreciations and optimism.  

After all, it has been a year since we’ve enjoyed live performances or dinner party conversations with friends and family. We’ve spent a year shouting into monitors, asking others if they can hear us. Now, Broadway theaters and performers alike are preparing to return in a limited capacity after a year away.   

Before the pandemic, many of us took our voices and hearing others’ voices for granted. As we anticipate enjoying live performances once again, we reflect on what we’ve grown to appreciate more than ever on this year’s World Voice Day.  

A “heavy, sad year” for performers and our city

Dr. Lucian Sulica is the director of the Sean Parker Institute for the Voice at Weill Cornell Medicine and the Sean Parker Professor of Laryngology. His practice specializes in treating all voice disorders, and he has a special interest in the treatment of injuries of the vocal cord (or fold) from voice use, particularly in performers.

He is highly passionate about caring for performers, believing that they are integral to New York City’s vibrancy. He has been deeply saddened by the fact that many performers have left New York City over the past year because of the sudden loss of employment opportunities. Caring for performers, according to Dr. Sulica, means caring for, “dynamic, young people who are excited about what they do. I just want our performers back in the mix again. It’s a dreary place without them. It’s been a heavy, sad year for performers.”

The pandemic has affected vocal health in both good and bad ways

Dr. Sulica and his colleagues are actively researching the many effects of the pandemic on vocal use and health. During the first months of the shutdowns, Dr. Sulica noted that many performers took advantage of the time to treat their vocal conditions and properly rest afterward. For others, their problems resolved with lessened use.

However, many other patients developed vocal conditions as a direct result of the pandemic. “It turns out that Zoom is a challenging acoustic environment,” said Dr. Sulica. “People have this natural tendency to overproduce one’s voice on Zoom. Six to eight weeks into lockdown, we saw people coming in with Zoom voice issues.“ Other patients developed stress-related vocal conditions or became concerned that their chronic sore throat was caused by the COVID-19 virus.

Now, Dr. Sulica and his colleagues are preparing research studies about performers as they begin performing again. “This is a unique opportunity,” he explained. “There is a large sample of people who have not been using their voice strenuously for us to study as they return to performing. We will never have another opportunity like this again.”

Greater recognition of the effects of stress on the voice

Over the past year, Dr. Sulica and his colleagues became highly aware of the physical effects of stress on the voice. “Everyone is under tremendous stress and that manifests in certain ways in the voice,” explained Dr. Sulica. “The larynx is an emotional organ.”

Dr. Sulica and his colleagues at the Sean Parker Institute for the Voice have adjusted their care in many ways to ensure safety for patients. “Video visits are not that useful,” he said. “We need to examine the patient’s instrument. We take a lot of extra precautions to do so. To date, I am not aware of anyone who has gotten sick at our facility.”

Know that you can take charge of your vocal health

So many of Dr. Sulica’s patients are interested in ways that they can improve and manage their vocal health in the coming months, as we prepare for safe, live performances and gatherings.

First, remember that vocal medicine is a medical specialty, guided by evidence-based research. Unfortunately, many performers and non-performers hold the misperception that vocal conditions cannot be treated medically, so they are not motivated to seek care. Dr. Sulica asserted that the opposite is true, “We’re very successful at solving voice problems.”

Many performers are signing summer contracts and preparing to return to the stage, including Broadway. Dr. Sulica recommends returning to a regular training schedule. “A lot of us, performers or not, may have gotten a little sloppy during COVID,” he said. “I recommend that people get back into their training regimen, begin preparing for a normal vocal load by checking their habits. Improve overall health by exercising, limiting alcohol and not smoking.”

Dr. Sulica also recommends practicing strong vocal hygiene: warm up and cool down the voice, humidify your living environment and drink room temperature water. In addition, Dr. Sulica recommends budgeting use of the voice. If you’re a teacher who needs to be on Zoom for set hours, limit your vocal use outside of those times. It’s also important to not push through any vocal discomfort or pain.

One of the best ways to better understand and improve your vocal health is to be evaluated by a voice specialist. “Get an appropriate evaluation, and see somebody who can solve your problem,” said Dr. Sulica. “What I mean by that is if your hoarseness doesn’t clear up promptly — within two to three weeks — after standard measures like voice rest, or allergy or reflux medications — see someone who can evaluate your vocal cords.”

Set up a vocal examination if you are concerned about your voice in any way. A vocal examination is a specialized evaluation that can help performers and non-performers understand their unique voice and vocal anatomy — as well as gain a greater sense of confidence and empowerment about their vocal health.

“A vocal examination can help you get into the right headspace,” said Dr. Sulica. “We have a great track record of helping performers and non-performers achieve their best voice.”

Visit the Sean Parker Institute for the Voice to learn about the voice and swallowing conditions we treat.