Friday, 28 July 2017

A Lump in the Throat

In the last couple of months, something very strange and upsetting has happened to me. It might sound as if I’m being melodramatic when I say it was this: I lost my voice. I don’t mean ‘lost’ in the sense of a post-viral huskiness, or tired and shagged out after a long squawk, like a Norwegian Blue.

I mean, it broke (not in the adolescent sense) it was shagged (ditto) packed up and gone for good. At least that’s how it felt. One day it was fine, I was singing throughout my full range; the next day, I tried to do something and realised I could only use my chest voice. I could still speak, but could only sing in the comparative range of my speaking voice. We’re talking – and only just – from a low D to an octave above.
My highest note a few weeks ago!
These days I don’t do much work as a professional singer, yet my voice is essential in all the things I do. From spoken-word performance, presenting or hosting events, to interviewing people, having discussions or meetings, without my voice I feel like a rudderless ship. The Biblical analogy (if the tongue is a metaphor for the voice) is true: it is a small piece of gear, but has power to steer us through life... or (to mix in another metaphor) de-rail us.

For singers, however, the voice is something far more. It is our identity, our instrument, our raison d’être. Losing my voice always feels as if I’ve got a missing limb. So for me to find my voice not just temporarily gone but seriously ill was a shock. Even more distressing was that nobody seemed to know what had happened. I was worried that this sudden ailment was an indicator that there was something more serious wrong with me, and went to the Doctor.

Not an actual Singer

After several blood tests, a chest x-ray, breathing diagnoses, various medical discussions and a camera shoved up my nose and down my throat, no conclusion was reached other than I must have strained my voice, overworked it, or it had simply given up on account of stress and fatigue. I’d had a lot of work on, and my long hours often ended at dawn.

I wasn’t exactly giving my body a chance to recover... I’m not sure I was as honest as I could have been when my G.P. asked about my alcohol intake. Were I not a singer, I wouldn’t have noticed anything. But being classically trained, I was convinced there would be a medical reason. The Doctor at the ENT clinic assured me that my vocal chords were in fine fettle; my technique was impeccable, and there were no lurgies down there causing any problems.

The implication was that my voice would eventually get back into action. After some rest it was suggested I should start exercising again, slowly building up on my higher notes. Next thing, almost as suddenly as it went away, I began to gain some range; a few more notes, then more – as high as a middle C – but still a major fifth short of my full range. (My low notes rumbled away, but they have limited use in choral repertoire.)
Not an actual choir!
I’ve started singing again, just for a few services, but I know that things still aren’t right, and I am at a loss to know why. And yet, it has been an interesting – if testing – experience. If I may use another metaphor... as a writer I have been made to think about my ‘voice.’ If I can no longer perform, my writing will be the only voice I have.

Given my recent propensity to churn out doggerel and entertaining ditties for the stage, I have been given an incentive to re-hone my style. Also, to think carefully about my claim that all my writing is fiction. During my vocal sabbatical, I used a real episode from my life to write a story called ‘The Singer and The Soprano.’ It is the closest I’ve come to pure autobiography. Several of my musical friends will know exactly who it’s about.

Examining the reason for my decision to write this piece, apart from the loss of my actual voice, is not too difficult. In the past, many people have tried to silence me. Either because they can’t cope with parts of my personal history, or are afraid that what I have to say is true (albeit shrouded in fiction.) Perhaps out of malicious judgement or envy, people may continue to attempt to take my voice away from me. They will fail.

In the days of Stalin, when the henchmen of Art, hiding behind the façade of state-endorsed terror, continually threatened Shostakovich, he didn’t give up. “Even if they cut off my hands I will continue to compose,” he famously said. Hopefully I will get back my singing voice, and be able to perform to my full capability soon. My voice as a writer has never been stronger.
He who has ears...