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I Sound Like Elmo

For more than a month now, I have sounded like Elmo from Sesame Street. Sometimes, instead, I sound like a twelve year old boy whose voice is changing. I’ve always felt like there was a hand around my throat, but I’ve never sounded like it before. It’s like there’s a damper pedal muting at least half of my vocal chords and I have no way of making it let up. I can hit a handful of notes in the upper part of my range, and sometimes a low note will drop in and then disappear again. That’s it.

“Did you say something?”

I did have a cold three months ago, for about a week. And my voice was hoarse, which meant that my voice was actually lower than usual and it was the upper notes that were muted. But when the cold resolved my voice went back to normal. I assumed that this current vocal constriction was a sign of a cold coming on again, but the cold never showed up.

So I went to my primary care doctor. She stuck a tongue depressor in my mouth and said that my throat “could be” red. She wrote out a prescription for antibiotics, and a referral to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist, to use only if the antibiotics made no difference. I hate antibiotics, they wipe me out and never seem to actually kill off any of the bad stuff, only the good stuff. And they didn’t do anything for me this time either.

I went to the ENT next, and the first thing he did was to spray something evil into my nose, to numb my throat. It tasted bitter, and the spraying device was sharp, and when I responded like a normal human by pulling away, the doctor said I was going to hurt myself, as if I were the one holding the metal skewer and he had nothing to do with it.

After the spray started to numb my throat, he took a garden-hose-like device (only a slight exaggeration) and started to feed it into my right nostril, telling me to sniff, swallow, and sing at different points, until I was afraid I would swallow the garden hose entirely. And then he did the same thing down my left nostril.

Once he was done he said that that my sinuses were “pristine,” and there were no nodules, or polyps, or cancer, and there wasn’t even mucus on my vocal chords. He said that my nervous system was messing with me.

When we got home, Mom googled and found out that vocal constriction is yet another weird symptom that’s been associated with MS – Multiple Sclerosis – which all of the tests say I do not have. If I go back to the neurologist with this new symptom, he’ll just tell me it’s Fibromyalgia, or a psychogenic disorder, and he’ll ask me if something is going on in my life that I’m converting into a physical symptom. And I will have to kill him. So I’m not calling.

The dogs don’t seem to have noticed the change in my voice, which bothers me. I’ve always thought that the girls found my voice soothing, but when I talk to them in my cartoon character screech, I get the same reactions as before.

“I didn’t notice anything. Did you?”

My vocal weirdness hasn’t kept me quiet. I still speak up at Friday Night discussions at synagogue and talk to neighbors and friends. But I am nervous about meeting new people with this voice, and having them think that this is who I really am. People who already know me can ignore it, but new people will use my voice as one of the ways to get to know me, and they will make assumptions and get impressions of me that can’t be right.

What would happen if Butterfly, whose voice is very low and resonant, suddenly shrieked in a high soprano? Would it change who I think she is? Or even change how she thinks of herself? Her rumbling bass represents something essential about her personality, just like Cricket’s high trill gives you a clue to her emotional life. Who would Cricket even be without her shriek?

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Butterfly

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Cricket

No one has actually commented on my voice. Sometimes I’ll mention it, but mostly I let it speak for itself, and no one asks what’s wrong. Either people are very polite, or they assume I have laryngitis.

Almost everything I say in my high pitched voice sounds funnier than usual, and I don’t mind that. I like that I can make Mom laugh without even trying. But when I’m trying to talk about something serious, or just ask if the dogs have gone out for a walk, I still sound like I’m trying to be funny and it’s hard even for me to take myself seriously.

Sometimes during the day now, my voice is closer to normal. And last night at Friday night services, I was able to sing most of the regular notes – though I did have to shift octaves a few too many times. But, inevitably, by the end of the night, my voice was up in Elmo territory again, and the older people have trouble hearing anything pitched that high, so I had to repeat myself a lot.

Losing my voice, no matter how temporary the loss may be, seems symbolic, and ominous. I keep accumulating these odd, non-specific, undiagnosable symptoms that make doctors shrug and treat me like I have no voice at all. Luckily, the dogs understand me even when I can’t talk. They always think I have something important to say, whether it’s about chicken treats, or walks, or naps, or how much I love them.

The doctor said that my voice would probably go back to normal on its own, but he prescribed speech therapy just in case it doesn’t. And Cricket is chomping at the bit to be my vocal coach. We’ll start with growling exercises, to warm up my low notes, and then move into barking, to build vocal strength, and then, maybe someday, I’ll be to the full up and down, loop to loop, of arguing for a piece of chicken that is not yet mine. Though, and I think Cricket would agree with me, that would be quite advanced.

"Grrr. Now you try."

“Grrr. Now you try.”

“You can do it, Mommy!”

My Voice

My Voice

When I was little, I used to sing stories to myself. I would walk to the library, make up a story, and revise it over and over, all to some endless tune in my head. My mother loved that I would sing around the house, and she wanted me to sing more. It was her idea to find me a voice teacher when I was in eighth grade. She wanted me to know that my voice was worth taking seriously.

I was always singing, or shouting, it's hard to tell.

I was always singing, or shouting, it’s hard to tell.

My first voice teacher had an opera background, but she spent most of my lessons on vocal exercises and breathing exercises, teaching me how to breathe from my diaphragm, and stand up straight, and relax my shoulders. I’d never much liked practicing scales on the piano, but vocal exercises made more sense to me. She taught me to sing through the mask of my face, like a raccoon, and to change the shape of my mouth to make the consonants clear and the vowels more open.

My father insisted that we sing songs together after Friday night dinner, as a family. But, he didn’t believe in normal limitations, like that a baritone might struggle to hit a glass-shattering high note. He refused to choose a key that everyone, including him, would be comfortable with, and he didn’t care about the quality of the note when he was done with it. He could rip it and strangle it, and drown the note in coughing, but if he hit that note, even for a second, he’d won.

And he did not like competition. He didn’t want me to practice singing between voice lessons. He would complain that I was “caterwauling,” even if I practiced in my room with the door closed. He’d complain about the money Mom was spending on my lessons. And eventually, he made it clear that he believed in the ban on kol isha – the voice of a woman – that we’d learned at school. I could sing at home, but it would be unacceptable to allow my voice to be heard by men outside of the family. He believed that singing, for a woman, is a salacious, sexually provocative act, and if I do it, I am a whore.

Unfortunately, around the same time as I was getting used to my voice lessons, we had a guest speaker at my orthodox Jewish school. Only the girls were invited to the gym to listen to her. She performed for us first, doing her own version of beat boxing, using her mouth like a drum and her hands as tambourines. The things she could do, the sounds she could create with no musical instruments to back her up, were incredible. There was something like bird song about her voice, as if she was born with these songs in her body and she just had to release them. She wasn’t just hitting notes, she was putting spin on them, like a tennis player, top spin and back spin, hollow sounds and full sounds, cold and warm, shivery and strident, all from one voice. I wanted her to be my teacher.

After her performance, she told us that she’d been a voice student at a prestigious conservatory, training for a professional music career, when she started to visit Chabad (a Chasidic Jewish outreach group) on the weekends. She gradually became more and more religious, until it became clear that as a religious Jewish woman she could never sing in front of men. She’d pieced together a career as a speaker, and sold her music to strictly female audiences. Her message was clear: being religious comes first, before anything else you might want, or love, or need in life.

Her visit haunted me. I didn’t stop singing altogether, but I felt her hand tightening around my throat.

My black lab mix, Dina, came along when I was sixteen years old, and she was a singer too. You had to hit a certain note, something in the howl-range, and that would set her off. Her pitch was pretty good and she could sing a nice clear note or series of notes, but she didn’t seem to enjoy it. She seemed like a button had been pressed in her brain and she had to sing, and had no control over it, and no choice. She seemed relieved when the singing stopped, as if it had taken so much out of her and now she could rest in silence.

Dina as a puppy.

Dina as a puppy.

I took a few years off from trying to sing, until my last semester of college, when I had two credits to kill. I’d been feeling like a robot, detached from myself and my voice, and I hoped voice lessons would help unlock something. I didn’t have to perform in public; my lessons would be in a safe, partially soundproof room. I still couldn’t practice at home, though, so I’d sing in the car on the way to and from school.

This was my first male voice teacher, and he was closer to my age, and friendly, and an opera singer. Whenever he actually sang something I sort of cringed, though. I’m not an opera fan. The vocal quality they strive for is bombastic and brassy and kind of hurts my ears, but he was very nice. He had me singing from an opera workbook, in Italian. There was something freeing about singing in a language I didn’t understand.

I sang to Dina at home, but not too loud, and never in full voice, and gradually, the hand around my throat grew tighter and tighter, telling me to stop singing, and I did.

Dina had a lot to think about.

Dina was a very good listener.

When I think back to that girl singer, though, telling us that she had to give up her dreams in order to be a good girl, I wonder if I ignored something important. With her words, yes, she told us to hide ourselves from the world, but her body carried a different message. Her voice seemed to be saying that, if you have a bird trapped in your chest, flapping its wings and trying to sing its song, you have to let it sing, or it will die.

birdie