Over the holidays I got sick with a head cold (not unusual). I sang at the holiday concert I mentioned a while ago, with 90% voice, the Handel piece, “Let The Bright Seraphim” with trumpet and organ, as well as two other songs (one a capella). Although it was not one of my best performances (understandment), I received very complementary feedback from several people, so I think it was a decent, professional job in spite of my vocal problems. After that, I thought I was over the hump, on my way back to health, when I received surprising bad news and found myself instead with a developing chest cold. Not good. The coughing is very bad for my vocal folds. I can manage a head cold but it doesn’t take much coughing to give me laryngitis. So… I take cough syrup which suppresses the coughing well enough but makes me sleepy. I drink caffeinated tea to stay away, and this makes for a balancing act, and not a good one at that. After three days, just one day before I took my holiday break from teaching, at the end of the day, I had a really bad coughing attack and I went from functional to completely hoarse in about 5 minutes.
I knew immediately that my voice was “blown out” and that I was in trouble, as this has happened to me twice before, when I had bronchitis, and once before, when I was recovering from a normal cold. I thought I had either broken a blood vessel on one fold or that I had severe swelling. I cancelled teaching the next day and went to my throat specialist. He looked at my folds with a strange expression and it made me nervous. He has been my doctor for 20 years so I know his reactions.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He said, “I think you have a dislocated arytenoid.” I was stunned.
For those of you reading this who do not know what that means, let me explain. The arytenoids are the moveable cartileges to which the vocal folds are attached and which assist in moving them apart so we can breath and together so we can make vocal sound. If one of them gets dislocated, the folds don’t move properly and the sound can be very bad (as mine was). This is about as serious an injury as one could have. I could see for myself, on the video monitor, that one fold wasn’t moving and that when the folds came together one fold seemed to be slipping under the other, rather than meeting together in the same plane. There is no remedy for this situation. Either Mother Nature moves the arytenoid back to its correct place or not. Sometimes surgery is done to help get better closure, but you can imagine that this doesn’t work in terms of producing the kind of quality necessary for a professional singer.
In truth, I saw my life flashing before me. I thought, “Well, wouldn’t this be an ignominius end to my life as a teacher of singing! I coughed myself out of a job and a life!” I ran through possible other things that I could do…..type (I go at about 100 words per minute), cook, clean, dance…..not a lot of options. My doctor suggested that I go to Dr. Peak Woo for a second opinion. As fate would have it, I was on my way there anyway, to deliver my holiday gifts to his family, as they are personal friends. In the cab I prayed. “OK, Lord, I don’t think I am supposed to have this karma, losing my voice. If there is anything you could do to fix me up, I would be very grateful.” I had been given a shot of prednesone, a steriod to reduce swelling. My doctor said that sometimes that allows the artyenoid to go back on its own. I kept my fingers crossed.
I arrived at Mt. Sinai about 20 minutes later in my Santa hat (which I had been wearing all week) and the receptionist looked at me very dubiously when I croaked to her that I was a personal friend of Dr. Woo’s. Fortunately, he greet me warmly and welcomed me into his office where I scratchily said that I had just been given a diagnosis of a dislocated arytenoid. “What?” he said. “Let me see.”
He palpated my throat in several places, asking as he did, “Does this hurt?”
“No.” “No.” “Uh-uh.”
“Sit down and wait,” he stated, so I did. Two hours later he examined me and I could again see for myself on the video monitor that both arytenoids were moving uniformly and that my vocal folds were swollen. I was quite surprised.
“You just have bad laryngitis. You have hot dog vocal folds. Go home, take the prednesone and be quiet.”
I was never so grateful to have a diagnosis of laryngitis in my entire life.
This was four days before Christmas. I couldn’t possibly be quiet over the holidays, I knew, as I can never keep my mouth shut under any circumstances, but I was very very careful. My voice came back slowly and by Christmas day I sounded almost normal, although I still felt weak and didn’t try to speak loudly. I absolutely could not sing.
I attempted to sing for the first time the day before New Year’s Eve. I knew it wouldn’t be pretty, but I had to try. This is where words don’t do any good. My voice was just awful. Sustained tones were impossible. The sound stuttered like an old car with a bad carburator. I had no volume, no vibrato, little control and a hole at both the break and the top. The middle was stuck. Even my husband said “Gee, sweetheart, your voice sounds bad.” He didn’t mean it as a criticism, but as a sign concern, that it was so far away from normal.
I wish I could tell you then I just did a few warm-ups and then all was fine. Fortunately for me, I have not only taken myself through this sorry situation three times, but I have walked countless others through it over the years. It is a very scary experience and I think that I would have been hysterical had it not been for my previous experiences. The first time it happened, I had to return to teaching while in rather bad shape, and teaching slowly coaxed my throat into its normal function. I couldn’t pay too much attention to my own troubles (just as well) and the constant quiet examples I sang throughout the day allowed my poor folds to heal themselves until I began to sound normal. It took more than three weeks for me to feel that I could sing vigorously, but I learned a lot in the process.
It was four days before I could do any kind of crescendo. In the meantime, every scale and exercise was “sticky”. The pitches were unstable, the top was a squeak, when it came out at all, the middle was not a middle but a hole, and everything made a lot of noise. I couldn’t practice for more than 15 minutes at a time, but I pushed through, as not to do so was not an option.
At some point my husband suggested that I write about this on this blog.
My husband asked, “How could anyone go through this alone? Wouldn’t they be frightened and worried? How would they know that this was a normal phase? Even the doctors might not know.”
I thought he was right. It is important to know that my voice came back. I can sing now with little problem, although I have lost all the “being in great shape” that I had before I got sick. I will get it back again as I start teaching next week, and then practicing full out, but I might not have been able to make that statement if I had let the way I sounded the first few times I tried to sing have a more significant impact than it did. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what happened to Julie Andrews that caused her to think she couldn’t sing after her surgery. Too quick a judgement caused by lack of experience. I will never know.
The point is, I am 57 years old. I am no spring chicken whose vocal folds just pop back into shape because they have nothing else better to do. They get there because I have a lifetime’s worth of keeping them healthy and because I understood how to guide myself back into a good place. Perhaps this knowledge isn’t so unique. Maybe other singers understand this, too. I don’t know. Perhaps the doctors like Peak Woo can tell them that the return of the singing voice takes time.
I just wanted all of you who read these pages to know that something as unspectacular as a cough could be the “end of everything” if not handled wisely, and that normal singing can and does lag behind the return of normal speech even in a veteran.
I am still grateful that things are OK now. I absolutely did have moments when I was practicing in those first few attempts, where I was worried that perhaps this time, it wouldn’t be OK. That’s the way the mind works, I suppose, trying to find the worst case scenario. I hope this event in my life might be a roadmap for you and for your students. If ever you find yourself or your students in a similar situation, be patient, “wait for the bus”, do the work, and trust that the results will show up. In the meantime, appreciate your voice when it is healthy, as really, we never know what could happen, do we?