Spoiler Alert! This story has an extremely happy ending!
Once upon a time, when I taught voice at AMDA NY, I met a new student named Paige. Within seconds of hearing her sing, I knew there was something wrong with her voice. But I wasn’t too worried… at first. However, after trying several different vocal exercises, all designed to produce a better, clearer, healthier tone quality, and none of them worked, I became more concerned. I asked her if she smoked, because frankly she sounded like she smoked 6 packs a day! I begged her to tell me the truth, since from experience I knew that students who smoke don’t like to confess this damaging habit to their new voice teacher. She swore she didn’t smoke and never had. She also volunteered that she had been a first soprano in high school, but in the last few years she had lost her high notes and developed an extreme huskiness and numerous other vocal flaws.
After a few more pointed questions, I had to break it to her, as gently as possible, that there was something SERIOUSLY WRONG with her voice and she needed to see an ENT A.S.A.P! I quickly added that anything it might be (allergies, reflux, nodes, polyps, etc…) could certainly be solved but we HAD to know what was going on medically in order to move forward. I sent her to my brilliant ENT, Dr. Rosemary Desloge, and Paige was diagnosed with the worst case of acid reflux that the doctor had ever seen!
- How did I know something was so very wrong? Besides the fact that she had a very small range and her tone throughout was extremely unclear (a prominent “hiss” in the sound), and broke regularly, the biggest warning sign was that every exercise I tried, designed specifically to start the process of solving these issues, failed to work even the tiniest bit. If it had simply been a lack of head voice participation or mixed registration, one if not all of the vocalizes would have had a positive effect. But nothing did. This is almost always a sign that there is something pathological (medical) going on with the vocal mechanism, not merely faulty technique.
What can acid reflux do to your voice? It can wreak havoc, that’s what.
(I know, because I have personally suffered with it off and on for years.)
- It can make the entire mechanism stop functioning because of the swelling and redness.
- It can make the head voice disappear altogether, and certainly makes it very difficult if not impossible to combine the registers in any satisfying or useful way.
- It can cause excess phlegm and hoarseness and can restrict your range, especially at the top.
- And worst case scenario, it can lead to polyps or nodules.
Once we knew the extent of the problem, I recommended she take a leave of absence from AMDA in order to solve the reflux issue without having to sing on such a demanding schedule, but she was insistent that she stay in school. Paige and I entered into a pact to work through this problem together, come what may.
And so began a multi-year regimen of medicine, regular visits to the ENT, and weekly voice lessons to slowly and carefully put things back together again. It was a very painstaking process: sometimes tedious (there’s only so many vocalizes on “oooh” that one can stand) and sometimes frustrating since neither medical nor vocal progress is linear. But Paige always showed up with a commendably positive attitude. After she graduated, we continued our work together in my private studio. Slowly but surely the reflux retreated, her throat started to heal, and her voice began to blossom into a viable instrument.
Fast forward to today, and Paige just released another new single in her singer-songwriter career! I was inspired to tell her story after listening to it, swelling with happiness and pride at how fantastic she now sounds, free of all the previous vocal pains and problems she was burdened with all those many years ago. Paige is a shining example of what determination, steady hard work, and a positive attitude can help you achieve! (Oh, and excellent medical help and vocal training.)