Learning to Laugh Again 

Written by: Alison Theis/Photo by: Emma Baldwin

Here on the OKWU campus, the award for most famous laugh would surely go to Dr. Jonathan Stewart. Up until last semester, one could hear his boisterous laugh echoing in the chapel halls. Dr. Stewart is a man of many talents. As Director of Ensembles, he is always running around. On a day-to-day basis, he could be running jazz rehearsals, giving voice lessons, teaching music history, giving a conducting class, or directing a chorale rehearsal. What you may not know, however, is his amazing story.

When asked about his biggest challenge this academic school year, Dr. Stewart replied, “It would probably have to finding out that I had an issue with my vocal cords.” I had the privilege to sit down with Dr. Stewart and dig a little deeper into his story.

Dr. Stewart uses his voice all day every day. It is a big part of what he does. As a result, Dr. Stewart has naturally built up a large vocal stamina over the years. Last year during singing Valentines, he had been out singing all day in the colder weather. Prior to this event, he’d had a cold and was almost rid of it. “After Singing Valentines, my voice was just never the same after that. I always seemed to be having some sort of issue with my voice,” Stewart commented.

Still having normal use of his voice, Dr.  Stewart continued to lead the singing at church and conduct music rehearsals in the same way as usual.  He finally had his vocal cords looked at last semester. Not only was he teaching, but he’d also decided to participate in the Living Christmas Tree, and was a singer in the Bartlesville Chorale Society. “I think that I was just using my voice way more. It was sort of the middle of last semester that I realized that my voice was not getting better. I remember thinking, ‘There’s an issue here.’ So, I talked with my wife about it. She took me very seriously, and, being the wonderful woman that she is, she did some research and found the only doctor that had the proper equipment to video my throat while I was singing,” Dr. Stewart recalls. This doctor was specifically an ear, nose, and throat physician who specialized with vocalists.

Dr. Stewart sang for the doctor and after looking at the film, he could see that there was a blister-looking bump in the middle of the left vocal cord. They discovered this bump was a polyp, having developed after the one-time trauma to the vocal cords from singing Valentines. This was a relief for Dr. Stewart. If it had been due to a long-term issue, he would have been much worried. Mrs. Stewart was happy that it was not cancerous, and Dr. Stewart was happy that it wasn’t indicative of bad vocal technique.

Immediately placed on vocal rest starting mid-October, Dr. Stewart acquired a portable microphone that he could wear. So, for the next month and a half, he walked around with a headset and a speaker hooked onto his belt. It was difficult, but it laid the groundwork for the surgery to be successful. The vocal rest gave him the best results possible in order to have the surgery.

Dr. Stewart’s surgery took place on December 5, the same week as class finals. The surgery was followed by three days of silence. “During this time, I was conducting an orchestra piece for the Living Christmas Tree. It was odd to be able to conduct sound, but not be able to produce it with my voice. Since then, I have still been taking it easy, and I just last week sung my first solo.”

Around Christmas Eve at a follow-up appointment, Dr. Stewart was blessed with amazing news: “If I hadn’t performed the surgery myself, I’d never even know that you’d had a procedure.” The surgeon’s comment raised Dr. Stewart’s spirits. After those first three days, he was told that he could only speak, no singing allowed. He was instructed to do vocal exercises with speaking. Like doing things with the letter m. ‘Many mumbling mice, for example.’”

As a vocalist, the goal is to place the sound forward and create a sort of resonance. Being the well-versed vocalist that he is, Dr. Stewart found the exercises to come naturally. Within another two weeks, he began to sing very gently in the lower register, gradually building back up. “I assume therapy is for those who have abused their voice long-term,” Dr. Stewart says. After his first session, it became clear that he knew all the tips and tricks.

The good news is that Dr.  Stewart’s voice is almost to performance capacity. “I am still taking it easy though,” Dr. Stewart says. “In my upper register I can hit a decent high G and high A-flat…. [or] a fifth and sixth above middle C. But I’ve not been in a hurry to give that one a try. I am keeping in mind that I want to gradually use [my voice], not abuse it in any way. It’s nice to be able to sing a line, and those kinds of things.”

Everyone who walks through the music department knows Dr. Stewart by his laugh. “How does it feel to be able to sing again? To laugh?” I had asked him. With a glistening twinkle in his eye, he replied, “I’m trying to dial it down with the loudness of my laughter. But it is so nice to hear something funny, or to see something funny, and to just laugh without worrying about my voice. It was something that I really did miss.”

During the many months of vocal rest, you could see the sadness in the eyes of Dr. Stewart’s students as they cautioned him against singing along with ensemble rehearsals. Now that he’s back to his old self, his students join him in his merriment and laughter, knowing that he is no longer in distress.

Dr. Stewart mentioned Revelation 3:7-8 as we spoke. The verse reads, “What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (NIV). “I think that God calls us to strive for greatness,” Stewart says. “But when all is said and done, we are not personally responsible for all that we accomplish in life. God is the only one who can open the doors.”

If you can’t catch Dr. Stewart in the Music Department, it’s because he probably attending the Bartlesville Symphony or spending time with his wife and family. Originally from Missouri, Dr. Stewart has a Doctorate in Vocal Performance from Indiana University, along with a Masters in Choral Conducting from Southern University. He has an amazing wife and three great kids. Dr. Stewart has been teaching for almost twenty years, having started his career in August 1999. Before his music career, he was involved in ministry for fifteen years.