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My Journey to Voice Therapist

Updated: May 13, 2022

Lori Sonnenberg Singing Voice Specialist, Speech Therapist

How my love of music, singing, and vocal health came together

How did I get here? It’s a story I’d like to share since lots of people ask me about my career choice and journey. I am a voice therapist, singing voice specialist, and professional voice teacher. That means I’m a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who has specialized training and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of voice disorders. It also means that I blend my skills in the music and medical fields to help people with voice, speech, communication, and singing. I have the distinct honor each day of helping people make their voices better; making them stronger, clearer, healthier, and more capable. And sending them back out into the world with that voice to make a difference. To feel more confident and empowered. I want people to know that help is out there. That they don't have to accept that their voice is gone or that they can't express themselves or sing the way they want. Voice therapy and voice rehabilitation are impactful and life-changing.

I receive DMs and emails weekly from other speech pathologist and singing teachers who want to know more about my career path. They say things like,

  • "How did you become a voice therapist and singing specialist?”

  • “I want to do what you do!”

  • “Oh my gosh, you have my dream job!”

  • “What should I do to become a voice therapist?”

  • "How can I get more experience working with the voice?"

My Musical Roots

Lori Sonnenberg Singing at Centenary College Opera
Lori, as Gretel, in Centenary College Opera Workshop

I sang from a very early age with my first public solo at age 4. It was pretty obvious to anyone who knew me that I would be a musician. I played piano and sang, and spent most of my time and energy training, practicing and performing both. I sang at church, in choirs and took private voice lessons. It was my first voice teacher who discovered that my voice well suited to classical singing. I sang in my first NATS auditions at the age of 14 and won the high-school division my first time competing. I was hooked! It was there that a college professor approached my parents and offered to train me for the remainder of high school years. My passion for voice and singing and success led me to major in music and classical voice performance for my Bachelor’s degree. During my sophomore year I took my first Vocal Pedagogy course. This was the first time I had ever heard about vocal health or vocal injury and anatomy of the voice. It was also during that course I got to teach my first voice lessons. I was very young by teaching standards, but I was a natural and loved every minute of it. I was good at it. The seeds of interest in the field of medical voice were planted then and grew quickly over time.

A New Path

I spent the next 4 years in academia enhancing my skills as a performer and a voice teacher. I was a strong performer, had a good instrument and enjoyed being on stage, but my heart was in the teaching studio. My professors were supportive of my interests in the vocal health field and encouraged me to learn more about it, but no one really talked with us as students about injury or vocal health. I knew a few friends who had vocal nodules but news like this was kept very quiet. I didn't understand that. Why weren't we talking about it? I envisioned a job where I could teach singers who had vocal fold injury to heal and use their voices in a healthier way. I also became very interested in teaching vocal health to music educators and choir directors and advocating for them. I eventually came across the title of something called a Singing Voice Specialist (SVS). There was no clear path for this field and it was relatively new at that time.

After completing my Bachelor's and first Master's degree in Voice and Pedagogy, I was definitely feeling the pull towards something different. But I had always wanted to have my DMA in voice, too, and this seemed to be the next logical step. More personally, I was struggling with taking my singing to the next level. My teacher wanted me to make changes in my sound that I wasn't connecting with. And the pressure of the DMA program from an academic standpoint was difficult. The classes in theory, history, and period music started to feel not relevant to my interests and my strengths as a teacher. I realized, too, that as a singer, I had always been much more mechanical and technical in my approach to the whole experience. Creating the best possible sound and figuring out how to make that happen was my strength for myself and others.

I made the difficult decision to leave the DMA program and transition into the Master’s program at the same university in Speech Language Pathology. It was overwhelming to think of going to school for another 3 years. And doing internships and fellowships. But after speaking with other people who had this skill set, I decided that having these credentials was important if I wanted to reach my goals. It was a long road and hard, too. I was older than my peers and working and teaching music full-time while I went to school. The university department was eager to recruit second career students who were blending skills from other fields into speech pathology. There were 5 of us in this part of the program, all from different but relevant fields like music, music therapy, education, and literacy. This type of transition actually allowed me to test out of some of the IPA and linguistics courses because of my language and phonetics training as a singer. I always say that I walked through that degree with blinders on. I was laser focused on my goal of becoming a voice specialist. I also began getting singing referrals from local ENTs so I was honing my listening and diagnostic skills in the singing studio at the same time. I advocated for myself and aligned myself with professional voice clinics who had esteemed laryngologists and speech pathologists that I could learn from. I was on fire for voice the entire time and never even considered other areas of the field.

Dreams Do Come True

A chance email in my spam mailbox (that almost got deleted) during my final semester led to meeting a man by the name of Dr. Robert Bastian who had just opened a private practice in Chicago. He took a chance on me and offered me my dream job right out of grad school. A full-time Voice SLP position working with singers. It was a beautiful and wonderful place. I felt ready, but it was scary because I didn't really have an on-site CFY (Fellowship) supervisor. I was basically running a full-time speech pathology voice practice on my own much of the time so I used every resource I could to better my abilities. As a musician, I had been piecing my employment together with so many different jobs over the years, that I couldn't believe I was doing everything I wanted in one place. I relied heavily on my skills as a singing teacher to get results with patients and felt so fortunate. I learned more than I ever thought possible in my time there. Had experiences and mentoring that shaped the way I listen and treat voices. This gave me the opportunity to hone and develop my skills during the early years of my career. I am forever grateful for that opportunity.

Years later, I had a very sudden onset of health issues that required me to step down from that job. Working motherhood was hard, and the stress of maintaining my career while being a new parent took it's toll. I lost my career seemingly overnight, and the few years following were difficult. It was unimaginable to look ahead without the career I had worked so hard to have. But, I had my faith, and wonderful family and friends who supported me. I continued to teach music and singing but it took time to heal and recover physically so that I could return to the voice clinic.

The Best of All Worlds

Lori Sonnenberg Voice, Vocal Therapy

In 2017, after a dedicated period of healing and regrowth personally and professionally, I decided to open my own voice business. A comprehensive voice care practice where I could do voice and speech therapy, teach singing, develop voice education, and support singers in the ways I envisioned all those years ago. I took the first step and never imagined that it would be a thriving business in just a few short years. I’m thrilled to be right where I am supposed to be. Being a business owner isn't easy and the days are full. I still have my dream job but now I’m the boss. I feel a true, deep sense of calling to do this work. And the best part is my patients and students. They are brave and vulnerable and they show up and do the hard work. They take risks and trust me to guide them. We have fun. And make weird noises. And find what works for them. They are AMAZING! And their successes and progress bring me so much joy.

My advice to those considering a career in the field of speech pathology with a voice specialization is this -

  • Advocate for yourself in your degree plan, internships and CFY

  • Align yourself with other voice specialists in professors, laryngologists and speech pathologists who are invested in YOUR career

  • Take and/or teach singing lessons to gain more personal voice experience

  • Be open to all areas of the field - speech pathology is broad - you'll need all of that training down the road even if you specialize in voice

Let Me Hear From You

If you're still reading, then you now know a whole lot about me. I've been practicing for a long time and am really excited about offering my experience and skills in a different way through this blog. I'm expanding and my practice is growing! I’d love to hear from you. If you have questions about the field or just want to share something about your own experience as a voice professional or student, please comment and tell me something about your story.

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