Sounds of Silence – Diary of a Wayward Singer

November 17, 2012 | 0

Elke Hautala

My throat feels tight and scratchy, every word is a strain and I have a crowd of forty people looking at me. Their eyes gaze sympathetically. I muster strength and give one final attempt but only a strained breathy squeaking comes out. What? Can that really be my voice? I sang at the MET gift shop as a child, belted out “Memories” from our vacation house balcony and went to sleep to the strains of “La Traviata,” took countless voice lessons, sang in choirs and on dinner theater stages. My worst fear had been realized – I’d lost my beautiful voice.

This might sound melodramatic or self-centered for the uninitiated but when you’ve spent 20 years as a performer it can be a panic-worthy moment on par with “Night of the Living Dead.” No really, I sounded pretty close to a zombie. I had fallen from the precarious heights of a three-octave range with a lyric soprano to a guttural croak.

I used to practice opera – French art songs, minor arias and before that I cultivated a belt voice worthy of Bette Midler: country, classic rock covers and musical theater. Even after I stopped training consistently, I still practiced to keep up with my vocal range. Then it all went horribly wrong.

About a year ago when I was busking, recording an album and giving 90-minute tours with no amplification device five days a week, I began to have almost constant vocal problems. My voice tired so quickly I knew something must be wrong. I’d rest as much as my schedule allowed and then push on through. Hoarseness, vocal exhaustion, strain and almost a complete loss of my head voice became a constant companion. It was the elephant in the room that I tried to ignore. So I decided to see an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist).

The first ENT briefly looked and brusquely diagnosed acid reflux. No discussion of how I used my voice, just that I should make “lifestyle changes.” I felt like Ozzy Osbourne at a church social. I do drink alcohol and often eat late in the evening, but that’s one of the perils/rewards of the performer’s life. I only played two or three gigs a month as a singer-songwriter and with a band, but I wasn’t always in bed by 10pm.

I assumed (hoped) by working and gigging less the problem would correct itself. With the advent of spring however, it came roaring back to life as I picked up more tour shifts. This led to the infamous D-Day of almost completely losing my voice. D, as in D above middle C was about the only range that I could vocalize in. I couldn’t gig because I lost my head voice and even five to ten minutes of practice was a strain. I couldn’t do more than one 90-minute tour.

My primary care physician was the next stop. He looked at the reflux diagnosis and prescribed Ranitidine (Zantac) and nasal spray. This seemed to help for a while but the steroids in the nasal spray scared me. Since I didn’t have any reflux symptoms I couldn’t tell if the other drug was working.

Another couple of months passed with no singing and I took a leave of absence from my tour guide job. My voice improved but I still had no head voice. My tour guide supervisor recommended a specialist at a local hospital. After an epic back and forth between insurance and the hospital, I gained approval. I wanted an “Aha” moment that would solve all my problems but I dreaded the diagnosis. My heart sank as they showed me the tell-tale signs that were most likely nodes.

I tried out a naturopath and tested for a potential food allergy. Since the doctor that gave me the nodes diagnosis was out of network, they recommended a vocal therapist at my hospital, who helped me investigate the use of my voice by keeping a vocal diary. She recommended a dreaded week of silence.

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