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“Can I Sing Yet?”

A firsthand account of what it's like to be a singer with Covid-19

During a global pandemic, most artist’s first instinct is to create—create something that lifts the spirits of their audience, create to help them deal with the emotional toll it’s taking on them, create to maintain a sense of normalcy or just to get off the couch. We’ve seen how beautiful and inspiring these creations are as thousands of artists around the world fill up our social media with their work. Over the past five weeks, I have been yearning to be one of those contributing artists. Instead, I find myself caught in the frustrating (and at times defeating) position of being a singer who cannot sing—well, at least not without becoming extremely exhausted, short of breath, and dizzy.  

It turns out that feeling defeated and or dizzy and exhausted is no fun so I am writing this article in lieu of singing as a way to create something and, hopefully help people. I share my experience in hope that it will help someone better understand their symptoms. Maybe it will help a voice teacher who suspects their student has the virus. By chance someone will read this and realize we need to take social distancing seriously— that it affects young, healthy people and that it takes a long, long time to recover. Maybe it will simply provide comfort to people who are longing for a human experience and not just a news report.  

I have some points before I dive into my story 

1. People need to take social distancing seriously. Our family was very proactive—I was hyperaware of my proximity to others, CONSTANTLY hand washing (like scrubbing for 20 sec every single time kind of washing), not touching my face, moved my vocal studio online, and didn’t go anywhere except the grocery store. I mean, my husband and I are professional musicians— we are not messing with our lungs. This was all before the state mandate. I still got it. That’s how contagious this is. 

2. Testing must improve. We have to have accurate, affordable (dare I say free), and accessible testing before we can begin to think about easing up on social distancing. I, personally, want to be able to say: “I’m cleared. I have antibodies. Take them!” 

3. It is scary and emotionally taxing to have this virus. It’s scary and emotionally taxing not to have the virus.  Assuming you’ll be okay because you’re young and healthy but coming to the realization that you can’t breathe normally and that it may get worse is scary. I know what we have gone through emotionally. I can’t imagine what it’s like for families with people that have had to go into the ICU or have lost a loved one. I can’t imagine what it is like for front-line workers and first responders. The emotional and psychological toll this is taking will be rearing its ugly head long after the virus is gone.  

Okay, story time. 

Five weeks ago, I was clinically diagnosed with Covid-19. Despite my doctor being “99.9% sure that I had it” and sending me to the hospital for a test and breathing treatment, I was not able to be tested. At that time CA was only testing first responders; I did not meet the criteria. This is still happening to people, and it is unacceptable (see above comment about improving testing).  Here’s how my symptoms started and the progression of the illness:

Days 1&2: runny nose

Days 3&4: + dry cough/ headache/ feeling off 
Day 5&6: + body aches/very tired/chest tight 
Day 7: + shortness of breath/extreme fatigue/dizzy (called my Dr.) 
Day 8: + fever/ loss of taste and smell/ worsening shortness of breath (televisited with my Dr. & was sent to ER). ER told me they couldn’t treat anyone unless they were admitted. To be admitted you have to have a fever of 103 for 18 consecutive hours and to come back if I meet that criteria or couldn’t breathe—otherwise ride it out at home. Normal Molly:  compassionate and understanding of how new this is to the doctors and that protocol is changing every minute, etc. Pandemic Molly: what the hell!?! You want me to do what? This is terrifying! Side note: seeing everyone around me in sci-fi-esque PPE was super surreal. I felt just like the big orange and yellow guy from Monster’s Inc. with the sock on his back. “Code-2319!”

Days 9-12: fluctuating temp & other symptoms persist. Exerting any effort—I mean, like walking to the bathroom—totally wipes me out. Forget singing! 

Day 13: symptoms continue. Had another virtual check in with my Dr. who prescribed me a rescue inhaler. I was warned that the “low point in many is actually around day 14.” 

Day 14: chest congestion is a little worse but not too scary. Mostly very tired and achy. Glad I have the inhaler. 

Days 15-19: My breathing issues, low grade fever, and other symptoms continued, and it was unclear if it was tapering or could still get worse. I’m still fatigued and have some symptoms but they are mild and my O2 levels have been good for days. I think I’m feeling better and begin to do small things again.  

Day 20-25ish: Oops. Bad choice.  Breathing is worse, O2 levels go below normal and I’m totally wiped out after doing anything (insert sassy clapping hands into the word “anything”). If you are sick and think or know you have the virus, please be careful, even if you think you are feeling better. This does not behave like a normal virus: it takes a long time to recover, especially if it is lower in your lungs. It can knock you down again pretty fast. When you think you feel better… just stay in bed!! 

I am now in my 5th week and am still exhausted. I have daily flare-ups of chest congestion, coughing, and shortness of breath when I try and do anything (clapping hands) beyond walking to the next room. My O2 levels fluctuate and still chart lower than average about once a day, but I am OKAY! My family, my little girl, stayed healthy. I have an incredible support system and as scary and stressful as my situation was, it surely does not compare to the experience of those who ended up in the ICU or lost a loved one.  

Okay, now through the lens of a vocalist:

It is important for singers to know that this feels and behaves very differently from other respiratory infections. Working with a singer (or any performer that fuels their instrument with air) who has this virus is going to be complicated. It is not going to be as simple as saying “go on vocal rest” and singers may be having these symptoms without even realizing they’re sick. They may start to feel “normal” again and try to resume normal activity (including singing) but still not be getting enough air or are unable to use their air and end up hurting their voices and fueling the virus. 

I could tell something was off when I was singing right before I was diagnosed and a couple times (very briefly) after I thought I was feeling better. It was weird and, frankly, scary. The foreign sensation in my lungs and the weakness felt in my whole body was striking. It came on fast after trying to sing even a few measures. At first, I felt good to go: I got a decent breath, my support was there, but then 10-20 seconds later I realized I was exhausted, out of breath, and my support was gone—like my muscles were not getting oxygen. My lungs felt raw for hours, as if I had just run a mile (that’s a lot for me— I need to pick up running, but I digress). My shortness of breath returned even when sitting and chest congestion was more prominent. It is also important to note that despite having relatively minimal coughing (compared to other upper-respiratory infections) throughout this illness, I become notably inflamed after any singing. This kind of inflammation is also novel to me. It’s unlike any swelling I have felt before: it doesn’t really affect my vocal cords, nor do I feel scratchy or raspy, yet the feeling extends down my trachea and into my chest. I just feel exhausted, like my whole respiratory system just got hit by a truck— it’s hard to explain. Teachers and singers beware: it could be very easy to assume a student is simply under supporting, especially if they are not good at articulating sensations or lack an understanding of their instrument. This article from LiveScience helped me understand why my O2 levels are below average even when I feel “normal” or like I’m getting a good breath.

Over the past few days, I have been working with Dr. Veera Khare Asher. In addition to being a fellow vocalist, Dr. Asher wears many hats (seriously, her work is awesome and she probably needs to have a metaphorical walk-in hat closet). I have started to experiment with her Bubble Breathing technique, which focuses on brain, body, and voice connection. I’m optimistic and intrigued to say the least. My immediate response to the exercise was that I felt more in control of my breathing and my resonance was notably better. I was exhausted but in a healthy way (especially compared to when I was trying to sing). I’m excited to see how this will help me, and I will definitely be tracking my experience as I continue to explore this method. If you have a science-based treatment that does not require ingesting, injecting, or invading, why not look into it? This deserves further attention. In the last week, a striking number of people have googled “injecting disinfectants”… Hopefully there are far more that will look up science-based techniques such as this one.   

Final thoughts

Over the next few weeks and months, we will see people trying to find ways to justify premature ends to shelter-in-place orders. They will continue to argue misinformed theories as everyone grows more and more tired of staying at home. The bottom line is this thing does not mess around, and you have no idea how your body will react to it. Please do not assume that you are healthy enough to battle this virus. Do not assume that you are young enough to avoid this virus. Do not assume that you will catch this virus and magically not infect someone else. Please, listen to the scientists. Listen to the Doctors.  Hell, listen to Brad Pitt impersonating Dr. Fauci—just stay home. We have to continue to stick this out. It’s not easy, but it is comforting to know that we are all (ironically) united as we isolate together.   

And… cue consistent internal monologue: “Can I sing yet?”  

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