The Sound that Defeats Death

It is audition season. Living surrounded by musicians of all the possible performing and conducting and recording and just-because-I-can’t-help-it permutations, I am aware of the slight change in barometric pressure that in turn sets hearts and metronomes aflutter at this time of year. It’s connected to the academic calendar, to the symphonic season, and undoubtedly at this point in history, to the fiscal cycles that wax ever more weakly with every palpitation of the stock market and downgrade of company pension plans. The undercurrent of electric excitement and the frissons of impending artistic adventure so intertwined with the notion that one is about to embark on a new, or renewed, relationship–or is about to gird oneself in black bombazine and the hair-shirt vestments of the rejected–is giddying and tooth-chatteringly awful all at once.

How apropos that I find myself interviewing for new employment at this very time. I feel every bit the whispery, under-powered and imperfectly skilled performer when singled out for that one-on-one moment with the deities of HR. I want to open my mouth and hear sparkling coloratura, but am glad and relieved enough at being able to merely cough out a modestly coherent thought without accidentally spitting on the interviewer, falling off of my chair, or (the most likely misadventure in my repertoire) having my voice seize up on me and stop dead mid-word. I have Spasmodic Dysphonia. The term sounds both ominous and ridiculous, and in my life, the experience is both. Many people with SD have a far worse time than I do; I’m one of the lucky ones. SD is a subset of Focal Dystonia, as I understand it, and both names group together sets of symptoms and physical oddities that present differently in each patient, depending upon the collective group of expressions that person has combined in his or her experience. I use the word patient advisedly, knowing as I do that what is most needed in dealing with the condition, either as one’s own or as it affects another person, is patience. Not really something I was born with an abundance of, but there you have it.

To oversimplify, possibly at the risk of misstating, Focal Dystonia is a broad generic term for when a localized group of nerves stops talking to the muscles for which they’re responsible, or sends them incomplete or inappropriate messages, and the muscles respond by failing to do what the brain was signaling the nerves to tell the muscles to do. Playground chaos ensues. The fingers that used to so nimbly traverse the keyboard curl up into an angry stump and refuse to admit to ever having met this Mr Shostakovich person. [Know the amazing story of Leon Fleisher? Visit The arm that flexed in a perfect imitation of Diana-the-Huntress’s draw goes from sinewy and smoothly controlled elegance to a clenched and twisted limb that would rather drop the bow and go for a nice bit of hydrotherapy, thank you.

Spasmodic Dysphonia, as you’d guess from its title, is the version of neuro-recalcitrance in which the vocal cords or folds don’t get their nerve-transmitted memos correctly and so go off on their own merry tangents, usually by vibrating excessively. The outcome is an uncontrolled voice, a weakened voice, or, literally, no outcome. While many with SD have no apparent causative markers in the neurological system, obvious lesions on the brain, tell-tale medical historical events, or the like, most, like me, do find that certain elements can exacerbate ‘attacks’. My good luck is that my case is fairly mild and I can go for rather long stretches between my times of being worst affected. But like most of the other SD patients I know, any situation that puts stress on my voice increases both the likelihood and the severity of episodes; the longer the stresses last, the more effect they have. So being in a loud reception where I have to raise my voice to be heard for a couple of hours is a pretty good trigger; being in a loud classroom (whether it’s caused by the HVAC blowers or being near a busy airport or just having over-exuberant students) five days a week is definitely a tougher influence to resist.

Being depressed, being ill, going through any of the textbook-irritant life changes you can name: those are all potential villains in effecting recurrence or regression or whatever you like to call it. Since I’m generally a very happy and healthy person and most of the life stressors extant are surmountable with a little help from my circle of superhuman supporters, I’m more susceptible to common noise-environmental twinges than to emotional ones these days.

But sitting in an unfamiliar office in the Interviewee chair is a quick reminder that I have to activate my “manual controls” and not just talk on autopilot when the tension stakes are raised a little bit. If and when SD gets particularly persnickety I will lope back over to my kindly specialist and have Botox injected into my vocal cords. It sounds hideous, doesn’t it. It’s not exactly something I’d do for sheer fun, but it’s not the most gruesome or painful treatment imaginable and it beats the daylights out of having my voice stop unceremoniously on me three times in a single sentence. People that don’t know me very likely notice nothing wrong at all and just assume that I, like William Shatner, have developed my own distinctive style of delivery for artistic or dramatic purposes, but since the frustration of literally not being able to ‘spit it out’ until I regroup, retune and/or start over entirely is accompanied by a feeling of being gripped around the throat by a mugger, I’ll get in there and sit up and beg for the shots like a good little patient until some nice mad scientist discovers an actual cure for SD.

In the meantime, I am all the more cognizant of the plight of all those voice-dependent folk putting their hearts on the line as they stand up to the test these days. Dysphonics, wherever you are and whatever you do, I wrap you in my arms in an embrace of solidarity and hope. Teachers, returning to the classroom after a luxurious (if short and jam-packed with non-academic duties) respite from lecturing and verbally leading daily sessions: I salute you. Preachers faced with a re-filled nave after the relative quiet of the summer season: I will light a candle for you. Public speakers back on the circuit for the height of the season after the relatively fallow holidays of vacation time: I applaud you. And singers, you who transport us to different worlds with every flexion and inflection, to you most of all do I genuinely genuflect. It is the sonic wave of music on which I am borne to higher and deeper planes, transported to places of joy and despair, moved by otherwise indescribable anguish and awe and beauty. I may not sing along, but I am listening.

theatre lights and leaded glass and text

. . . and the echoes fade without ever ceasing . . .

3 thoughts on “The Sound that Defeats Death

  1. What an inspirational post (and title) for people out there who are living and battling with these similar obstacles!

    Thank you for sharing!!

  2. My dear friend, as you’ll see from today’s post, I don’t experience it as a battle so much as an adventure (albeit sometimes an irritating one!)–but to be honest, that’s after having learned to cope with it in my own way. So for most others, it probably *is* still a battle. I’m just the lucky one. Thanks as always for reading!

  3. Pingback: Into Tomorrow, Endlessly Singing | kiwsparks

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