I'm going to come clean. I've been in denial. Today I did something about it.
A few years ago, I was engaged to give a solo (voice) recital for an arts society in Tucson. As it happens, a week before the concert I came down with a cold. Fortunately, it subsided enough to allow me to sing the program, but during the recital I experienced a very strange sensation. I didn't recognize some of the sounds that I was making, and it scared me poopless.
Now I realized that my voice wasn't back to 100% after the cold, but after many years of performing, I knew when I was able to sing and when I should cancel. The run-throughs a couple of days prior to the concert had gone well, and after all I had sung over the dregs of a cold before with no problem. But during this particular concert, something was different.
I am a lyric tenor...in fact, a tenorino of sorts, "stuck" between tenor and countertenor. The bulk of my work as a singer came about as a result of my uniquely high voice combined with a specialization in historical vocal performance practice and early vocal repertoire. Agility and relative comfort in the passaggio (the tricky area between one's chest range and head voice) are key to the technique of singing historical repertoire for the tenor voice, and it had always been a strength of mine.
During the Tucson recital, I felt something happen to my voice as I performed. It is hard to describe, but the closest analogy I can use is that of hydroplaning. Anyone who has had the misfortune of experiencing what it feels like to lose control of your vehicle on very wet road might understand. It was as if someone took command of my vocal mechanism. I could steer a little, but basically I just had to go with it and hope for the best. I got through the recital unscathed, but shaken.
During the following months, I could sense something was wrong with my voice. Practice was frustrating and sessions with my voice teacher left me disappointed. I wondered if I had sung when I shouldn't and done something dreadful to my vocal folds. Or worse, was there an underlying pathology that lay undiagnosed?
Here's where a mix of avoidance and denial set in. I discussed the issue with my teacher, a fine teacher and vocal pedagogue. His thought was that, because I was involved in doctoral studies in conducting and doing comparatively little singing, I was simply getting out of shape. Cautiously, I accepted his word and thought that this, combined with a more challenging approach to vocal technique we had undertaken, might be taking my voice in an unexpected direction and I should wait it out for a bit.
Finally, after a few more months, my teacher and I both agreed that something didn't seem quite right. A speech pathologist friend of mine referred me to a good otolaryngologist in Tucson, and a stroboscope was done. After ruling out reflux disease as the culprit, I was given an allergy test, to which I reacted off the chart. I was promptly prescribed some antihistamine spray and told to see how it went. Then I moved to Australia. I hoped a different set of allergens would make things better.
Now, nearly three years later, there's really no improvement. This is where the denial comes in. I suppose it's been easy enough to neglect the issue, because I decided upon moving here to focus my efforts solely on conducting, rather than singing. I felt that marketing myself as a singer would "brand" me in a way that would make it difficult for people to accept me as someone equally as competent on the other side of the podium.
As anyone who has ever read The Banal Chew knows, it's been difficult. There has been woefully little conducting work for me in Sydney. I have had a couple of gigs, but nothing substantial or permanent. After the first year or two, upon realizing the situation here was not going to improve, I began to consider working as a singer again. At least it would be something in my field.
It was hard enough in the first place to shed my primary identity as a singer, forged after many years of performing, and assume that of conductor. When I decided to take my skills as a singer and incorporate them in a leadership role by getting advanced degrees in choral conducting, I knew that it would mean a big change. But I wanted to continue singing, and I thought the option would always be there for me. Now, however, with a voice disorder, even that seemed unlikely.
So I fell into a deep state of denial, trying my best to silence the nagging voices and immersing myself in the business of settling into life as a migrant to a new country, raising Zane, taking part in a maturing relationship as Mark's partner, and getting to know a completely new set of family and friends. It was easy enough to avoid the issue.
Now, however, as I have realized that my identity as a creative artist is in a frightening state of decay, the need to stop denying the fact that there is something wrong with my voice has become apparent. And I have done something about it.
I saw a well-respected otolaryngologist in Sydney today. He performed a nasal endoscopy and gave me the happy information that my larynx is fine. There are no lesions on my vocal folds. Oh my God, the relief. I haven't felt any like that in, well, ever. If you're a singer, you probably know what I mean.
It wasn't all good news, however. There are some potential issues with my nose. I have a very deviated septum and bony spur protruding into my left nasal passage, probably caused by a broken nose when I was a kid, he said. (I do seem to remember something about a golf club hitting me in the face when I was very, very young.) Not only that, but there are a few other physiological anomalies as well. I have just returned from a nasal CT scan to rule out any nasal pathology. I go back to the doctor next week for the results. As my friend, Deano, would say, "Oh burrr."
Somewhat more troubling, the ENT also diagnosed me with a very wide mandibular swing, which means my jaw moves substantially to the right as it opens. According to him, this is usually caused by joint dysfunction associated with bruxism. In lay terms, that means I grind my teeth. Apparently, bruxism can lead to hyperactivity of certain muscles that can, in turn, result in a secondary voice disorder. A mandibular swing...who knew? I have been instructed to see my dentist for a dental splint to wear at night. Joy.
So it's been a day of good news and not-so-good news. Appendages crossed that the CT scan rules out any underlying disease process in my nose. And I hope my new dental splint, for which I am getting fitted early next week, turns out to be helpful. Heck, maybe I'll even sleep better. That would be nice. Not as much as being able to sing my favorite Bach arias again, but still nice.