Yes. I set my actual hair on fire, actual fire — twice.
Hair Fire, the first.
When I was a kid, my mom worked a lot and as a result, my brother and I were alone a lot. As it turned out we were pretty self-sufficient kids and never got into too much trouble. Still, one fateful afternoon I got it into my mind to make something to eat. I don’t even remember what I was planning to cook but I KNEW how to cook. I had been in charge of cooking all sorts of things and could come up with a balanced dinner when required.
Well, I prepared the pot and set it on the back burner (why, oh why, I’ll never know) and leaning in to look at it (again, why), I turned the knob and ignited the front burner of the gas stove. This is where I mention for those of you who have never seen a picture of me that I have had very long hair for most of my life. It is, in its natural state, a mass of curls the likes of which expands like a headdress around me. That front burner took no time at all finding an errant curl and igniting it. The seconds that followed are a blur. Running to the sink, turning on the water, noticing my brother run in (likely because of my screaming), and then running to the bathroom mirror to see. Very luckily, I was fast and only a small section of hair was damaged significantly. I cut myself some side bangs and hoped my mother wouldn’t notice (no such luck). That is the day I learned not to take for granted what I think I know.
Hair Fire, the second
Fast forward thirty years or so and now I have a child of my own. A child with long, gorgeous hair. A child who started school during one of the worst lice outbreaks in the school’s history. Of course, she got them. We did all the things, carefully combing out nits, discovering we missed one and then doing it all again. It was during the return of the lice that I started to feel the itching. Did I actually ever have lice? Who knows. But I was convinced. So I used the strongest lice shampoo I could find (the one I deemed too nasty to use on my child). Even then, I was certain (given my hair’s texture) that this would not be enough. I had read that the application of high heat would kill the nits. I had not read the entire insert that came with the lice shampoo. This will all become relevant in a moment.
I began to blow dry my hair when I simultaneously heard a pop and smelled burning. The seconds that followed are a blur. I banged out the actual flames on my head with my hands, threw down the dryer and ran for the bathroom, cursing the whole way. After running my head under the shower I assessed the damage. The rest of the day involved carting everyone to lice professionals and getting to my hairdresser for an emergency consult. Happily, the entire section of burned hair could be trimmed and hidden in the back of the aforementioned mass of curls. This is when I learned that I am capable of escalating a situation with destructive results all on my own.
So what does any of this have to do with the voice?
Hair fire one could have been prevented with a little caution and a little humility about my breadth of knowledge. I see people every day who are certain they know everything they need to know about the voice. Yet, I see them exhibiting vocal behaviors that could lead to disaster. Here are just a few from this week:
- Public speaking while sick, without warmup or mitigation tactics for swelling.
- Muscling through speaking in a large room without a microphone.
- Not taking a vocal break even though they are already hoarse because there are more calls to be made.
- Ignoring a persistent vocal issue for months.
Hair fire two could have been prevented if I had consulted someone with actual knowledge, for example, the aforementioned lice professionals (who were awesome, thanks, Lice Aunties). It could have also been prevented by reading the entire insert (that stuff is HIGHLY flammable) and/or not panicking about the lice in the first place.
People try to coach themselves all the time in many areas. Voice is no exception. There are even people willing to help through youtube videos, which can provide information (some of it good) but not coaching. I’ve also had students come in for a session or two and then declare that they’ve got it and disappear. I am fairly sure I am not gifted enough to condense all you need to know about your voice into two sessions and more certain that even if I could, the brain couldn’t process it all in that time. My only hope is that those people return to training down the line and get to the end of the insert at very least. Lastly, many of us are setting fires in our lives because we are panicking. Panic never helps the voice. Even if there is something wrong, a call to someone with actual knowledge such as a laryngologist, an SLP, or a qualified voice coach (for non-medical issues) is better than setting your hair on fire. Trust me on this one.
Most importantly, even if you blow it and end up having to stamp out some flames, it will likely work out okay. Burnt hair eventually grows back.
I hope you enjoyed the post. As always, please feel free to comment on this post or the voice matters in general in the comments or by reaching out to me directly.
Gina Razón is the principal voice specialist at GROW Voice LLC, a full-service voice and speech studio in Boston’s Back Bay. She has over 16 years of experience both as a teacher of voice and speech, and a voraciously curious voice user. Gina has worked professionally as a classical singer for over a decade and more recently as a professional public speaker. For more information on the studio or to book Gina visit www.growvoice.com