Last Week I wrote My Sister Wants Me To Go On The Voice and this week, as if a bizarre message has been delivered from ‘The Universe’, I have NO Voice.
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In over twenty years as a professional singer I am proud and lucky enough to be able to say that I have never cancelled a concert or session because of my voice. There was that one time when I forgot my passport and was deported on the Eurostar by a policeman armed with a machine-gun. This Saturday, my winning streak was over. I’ve had the odd croak at the end of a cold, sometimes due to coughing, but I’ve never completely lost my voice.
It started with a funny feeling on Tuesday – all you singers out there know about the fear that accompanies that ominous feeling or taste in the back of your throat. It went on to develop into an uncomfortable pain when I swallowed with a tenderness on the sides of my neck. On Thursday I went to school to teach singing – I don’t have a particularly onerous workload and usually one or two of the little darlings don’t show up and this was what happened that day. Unusually, I felt a bit vocally tired by the end of the day and gladly went home for a cup of tea. Then the doorbell rang and there was a new pupil with her Dad, which in my concern about my voice, I had completely forgotten about. EEK!
I quickly set up the piano and started by demonstrating a really simple three note exercise on an ooh vowel. I literally couldn’t get my chords to come together. What the poor girl must have thought I don’t know? – here she was having a consultation as to whether she should have lessons with a woman who couldn’t even sing two consecutive notes. I struggled on but was so very grateful when the lesson was over. By the time my partner arrived home I couldn’t make a sound.
I was very scared.
As is usual in the life of a freelance singer, apart from teaching, I hadn’t had any singing work for a couple of weeks. Saturday would be the first recording session I had done for a while and I was looking forward to it immensely. It was for the CD of the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, which I had been lucky enough to sing in a concert at the BBC Proms with The John Wilson Orchestra.
dirty make-up for CarmenI’d missed last year’s recording of the MGM musicals because I was dirtied-up as a gypsy in Luxemberg. I was taking part in a revival of Carmen which the Monteverdi Choir had originally done at the Opera Comique in Paris. Christopher Dee the Director of the Maida Vale Singers had very kindly asked me to do the Prom in 2011 and following on from that booked me for this upcoming recording.
The day later on the Sunday, I had a six hour rehearsal with The Monteverdi Choir in preparation for two concerts on Thursday, which would be recorded live and patched the next day. The music was J S Bach’s Ascension Cantatas. The last in the series of their epic Cantata Pilgrimage.
I hoped that I would wake up on Friday and my voice would be recovered but looking at my throat in the mirror the next morning, it was clear that I was not going to be able to sing for some time – let alone talk. It was a livid red colour.
I rang my doctor’s surgery and croakily persuaded the receptionist that I HAD to see the doctor. Maybe there would be some miracle injection that he could give me? A shot in the dark I knew, but I was desperate. She took pity on me and squeezed me in at 3.30pm. The doctor examined me and I croakily explained that I had some important things coming up – He said that there was nothing he could do. It wasn’t an infection, so antibiotics wouldn’t help. It was viral laryngitis and rest was the only thing I could do – maybe my voice would come back by the middle of next week.
AAARRRGGGHHH (shouted silently and internally, obviously)
In an attempt to lessen the last-minute inconvenience, I rang a talented colleague to check if she was working on Saturday and then armed with a willing replacement’s phone number, I called Chris and left a brief croaky message, briefly explaining and asking him to call me asap. Chris is a busy singer himself, and called me back in between sessions, later that evening. He was very understanding and had actually had a call that week from another alto who had originally been asked, but had been busy. Her concert had been cancelled and she had called Chris on the off-chance that a place would come free.
You see, everybody wanted to do this job – it was the bog-standard pay rate for a session, but there’s something about John Wilson and his fabulous orchestra that all the musicians love. The enthusiasm and understanding he has for the music, always mean that it’s a job I always feel both privileged and excited to be a part of.
I was relieved that Chris could fill my spot so easily as I know, with the very little vocal fixing I’ve done, what a difficult and time consuming job it is. Believe me, the last thing you want is a call from a singer at the eleventh hour.
It’s always very sobering though, to see how dispensable we are as singers.
Coincidentally, I recently read Ruth Elleson’s excellent blog called Croce e Delizia al Cor, where she comments on opera singers who cancel shows because of troubles with la Voce. Ruth was prompted to write, after she saw that the comedienne Sarah Millican (@SarahMillican75) had announced apologetically on Twitter that she was ill and was having to cancel a gig. The next day Sarah hilariously tweeted again: “Oh and to those saying ‘man up’, can I just say this is the first tour show I’ve cancelled due to ill health in over 220 shows. So f*ck off.”
Ruth describes her blog as “the ramblings of an opera addict” and the article is entitled Perspective. It eloquently explains why most Opera Singers never cancel unless they absolutely can’t possibly sing. The two main reasons that I worry about are that as a self employed person, if you don’t sing, you don’t get paid and also, you can piss off the people that hire you. I’ve written on many occasions about the precarious nature of my profession and how easy it is to inadvertently do just that and to find you’ve dropped off a fixer’s list.
I’m praying that by cancelling the first time in over twenty years, I won’t have done irreparable damage.
Of course I looked up my condition online and found this sobering advice:
“If you are a performer such as a singer, it can be a difficult decision as to when to start singing again. Singing too early, when symptoms are easing, may prolong the hoarse voice longer than if you rest it fully until symptoms have completely gone. There is no easy answer as to the earliest it is safe to sing without doing any more harm. A professional singer may wish to consult a speech therapist if a crucial decision is to be made about an important singing engagement.”
On Sunday I had no choice, I gritted my teeth and armed with a thermal cup and lots of lemon and ginger teabags and a pot of Manuka Honey (hey – it might be no good for viral infections but it tastes delicious and is reassuringly expensive!), I headed off to the Warehouse.
There was no escape as Sir John himself (not generally known for his patience with illness) was standing by the entrance door and greeted me with a big smile and demanded “how are you?” I croaked that I would sit at the back of the room so as not to pass on the lurgy to the other singers and certainly not sing, but would make notes and listen to the rehearsal and hope to recover by the concerts.
Boy – that was hard. The first choir only rehearsal of any project is the time when he places us all under the microscope and takes the music and our singing apart in minute detail. It’s always grueling but also exhilarating. Once the orchestra arrives, we are much further away from the conductor, so these choir rehearsals are vital and personally, my favourite part of any new MCO project.
In the break, my colleagues came up and asked me why I wasn’t singing and (trying not to talk too much) I explained. A tenor and a male alto both scared me by saying they had previously had the same thing and it had taken a long time to recover. Both had eventually gone to an ENT specialist as they were convinced they couldn’t sing any more. Both had been told there was nothing wrong and had miraculously recovered their voices the next day. This reminded me of my final year at the Guildhall. I had sung through a sore throat in the week of my final recital and various competitions. Once I recovered, I had developed a funny clicking sensation when I swallowed. When a voice specialist looked at my chords he declared there was nothing wrong apart from slightly inflamed tonsil roots, which he could burn off with dry ice if I liked. He also said that when he offered that treatment his patients usually got better. The next day I woke up and the clicking had gone.
We’re a delicate lot, us singers, with rather vivid imaginations. I’ve always thought of myself as having a robust voice and good health. I’m trying very hard to believe that this is a small blip in the history of my otherwise healthy singing career.
I thought I was much better today but a good friend just telephoned and when I picked up and said “Hello?” she answered “Sorry, I must have the wrong number”.
Positive thoughts and sssshhhhhhhh!
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