Full Voice

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Full Voice

by Elena Greco

Wagnerian opera singer and pianist cartoon
Typical reading time: 3 minutes

August 13, 2017

As I prepare for the first two interviews tomorrow in the EGMP Interviews Part 2—struggling with some last-minute technical issues to work out with the recording (WHY does my selfie stick NOT fit into the tripod? must I resort to tape?)—I recall the filming of the four interviews of Part 1. It was on the day I lost my voice. I remember this with a mixture of regret, horror, sadness, gratitude and hope.

It was February 2. I’d been suffering from a bad case of the flu (and also had pneumonia, but didn’t know that yet), and it was the first day I didn’t have fever, so I thought it would be all right to do the interviews.
Because I had used up my sick days at work, I felt compelled to go to work that night. The extreme dryness and fragrance in the air caused uncontrolled bouts of wracking cough of the sort that you just can’t stop. When I woke up the next morning, I could not speak. I assumed it was laryngitis brought on by the virus. I waited for my voice to return. It didn’t.

After a week went by with no voice in sight, I made an appointment with a laryngologist.  (Not easy, without being able to speak!  I had to find one who had an email address—something you would think someone who specializes in vocal cords would offer). I saw the doctor for a laryngoscopy twelve days after I lost my voice. The verdict was grim. I had ulcerative laryngitis, a condition in which the vocal cords are covered with blisters resulting from coughing. The doctor told me the malady was fairly unusual, and he had no prognosis as to whether I would ever sing again.  I was unable to speak or make a sound for five weeks. I was frightened.

Gradually, the voice began returning, first on just a few pitches of the speaking voice, and gradually, over the last six months, through almost the entire range. Until a few weeks ago, I had problems with delayed onset of sound (cords not closing fast enough), but that has almost disappeared now. I am starting to work to regain the flexibility, dynamics and, most of all, the thing I was most known for before this happened, which was ease of navigating registers and coloring the voice to suit the music, both essentials of singing musical theater and popular music. And I’m still working on regaining the use of what I call “small head voice,” which is a way I approach mix, particularly in the 30s and 40s jazz standards I like to sing, as well as some musical theater. While I am primarily an opera singer, I have always sung musical theater and jazz, in addition to specializing in Spanish art song, so these things are important to me.

The road back to singing has taken hard work and a lot of faith on my part. Singing is my only reason for being, the only true pleasure I have in life, so it was hard to wait and wonder. Keeping my mood up was a problem when I wasn’t certain of being able to sing again, so I strengthened my ability to stay focused on the positive and on the job at hand in order to resolve that.

Now that I’m in the home stretch and expect to be singing professionally again in another couple of months, I can look back on that difficult time. One thing that stands out is how few people understood what the potential loss of my voice meant to me and my future (or, perhaps, cared). The other thing—the important thing!—is how those few people who did understand supported me in their various ways. For this I will always be grateful beyond words; words seems so small compared to what I am feeling. My best friend from high school offered emotional support and checked in on me at intervals (in spite of my occasional grumpiness), and my coach/accompanist was there for me every step of the way, allowing me to attempt to sing with an unwell instrument without judgment, something that was essential to my well-being, as well as to my vocal recovery. And a couple of singers and my cousin (the only family member who has to this day asked me how my voice is doing) inquired about my recovery. Every word or action of support was enormously appreciated and lifted my spirits.

And now I have a new voice teacher who is helping me to get the voice functional once again, as well as opening me to new possibilities for my singing. I have one of those voices everyone has an opinion about—she’s this; no, she’s that!—and in my younger days went through many fachs and techniques which were not right for me. Dramatic, spinto, coloratura, soprano, mezzo—I’ve done it all! Sigh. I remember the original feeling of singing with my whole instrument in full voice and have longed to have that experience again, and I think I might be returning to that, thanks to my current teacher. So, who knows? I might in the end sing better than I did before the injury!

I am fortunate in that I have never had any issues with the vocal cords. I’ve sung three shows in a day (younger days, to be sure), sung through a cold, sung with no sleep, sung the wrong rep—but my voice never complained or even got hoarse. It seems that many singers have such issues these days, so I guess I’ve been lucky. Or maybe I instinctively never did anything that felt it could be harmful. So this is my first ever problem with my instrument. The result of this long, painful experience is that I SO appreciate my voice for the miracle it is. Those tiny cords (and the cavities they inhabit) are capable of generating sound that moves people, that creates beauty, that reflects the creative expressions of great composers and my own soul. I will never, ever take them for granted again.

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