I came across one of the miracles of the British National Health Service yesterday. Something I would have missed if I had listened to the well-meaning advice of my local doctor.
I wrote in a previous blog how I had my vocal chords examined by a voice consultant some time ago and how he discovered that my brain haemorrhage has caused a partial paralysis of my right vocal chord. He said he was going to send me to a singing coach who, he thinks, can sort it out for me. If not I will have to have surgery but he thinks that is unlikely.
Regular readers of these blogs will know by now that singing has been a particular joy for me in my life even if my attempts have been less joyful for others. It was genuinely distressing then to find that I just couldn’t do what I used to do, that whole areas of my voice sounded bad and other notes just simply weren’t there any more. Tough, I thought. Maybe that is just one of those things you will have to face up to. It happened to Julie Andrews so why not me too! At least you are still alive and not paralysed in any more serious way.
This is also, I suspect, what my GP thought when he raised a pitying eyebrow at my insistence on at least finding out what had gone wrong. He said there was almost certainly nothing that could be done but he would refer me to a consultant if I insisted.
This leaves the patient in a vulnerable position. Are you making a fuss about nothing? Are you just not intelligent enough to understand your doctor’s wisdom based on years of experience? Are you just being petulant and behaving like a spoiled child? All I knew was that my voice, singing and speaking, sounded different and I wanted to know why. So I stayed sitting there until with a sigh, my very nice doctor (he is a perfectly nice guy, believe me) wrote a note and the referral process had begun.
A month later, the consultant put that camera down my throat and revealed that I did indeed have a problem and one that was important enough to be taken seriously and which could, in his opinion be solved. He said that I was at risk of choking at any time and that my speaking voice showed obvious signs of a breathiness which was almost certainly caused by vocal chord paraysis, the result of my brain haemorrhage. So, no i was not making a fuss about nothing and yes, it was worth seeing a consultant.
Well, all this medical talk failed to prepare me for yesterday’s consultation with a singing teacher at her home in Brighton – not what you imagine getting on an NHS prescription. I didn’t know what to expect when she showed me into a large room empty apart from a grand piano and a pile of music. No syringes, no operating table, no smell of antiseptic, just music. Wow!
It was like going back to my days as a singing student at the Royal Academy of Music in London and, unlike most visits to the doctor, I was suddenly really having fun.
I told her my medical and musical history and how I had thought that my singing days were over but that I had enjoyed experimenting singing with a wrecked voice when I performed last summer at my kungfu club’s summer camp – Blue Moon, I am An Urban Spaceman, I Like Bananas, that kind of thing. I also told her that my first singing teacher had told me that I was “born” to sing the German composer Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) song cycle
“Dichterliebe” but I would do it so much better if I could stop being “so damned English” about it. I needed to unbutton, she said. I told my new teacher that I had never quite unbuttoned enough until this year when I had to pick myself up after that near death experience.
She asked me what I wanted to achieve and I told her that it was just that – to unbutton vocally so that if I ever did get to meet my late singing teacher in the land where singers go, in that perpetual heavenly choir no doubt, then I would be able to tell her that, yep, I did unbutton and this is what I really sound like.
Amazingly, this is just what my new teacher picked up on. We did a whole range of vocal exercises, with rubbery lips, tongue hanging out, contorted facial expressions, sily stuff which had an extraordinarily liberating effect on my voice and then a performance of Ivor Novello’s “We’ll Gather Lilacs In The Spring” sung as if I was a ventriloquist trying to keep my lips together. We”ll Gather lilacs was the hit song from Novello’s musical comedy Perchance To Dream (1945) and, even if it has become a period piece, it defies mockery or even my mutilated sounds because it has, as they say, “heart.” It, just as those spring flowering lilacs, is all about hope and it struck a chord right there and then in that Brighton room.
All this was meant first of all to get my vocal chords back into training but it was also showing up so many technical faults in my singing. She said, and I loved her from then onwards, of course, that she could tell from those strangulated noises, the real quality of my voice and that, in her opinion, by the time we have finished a course of lessons, I will be singing better than I ever did before. If not, I know I will be having the time of my life.
She said that she thought that I have always been singing with a voice that I imagined that I wanted or with a voice that other people wanted to hear. What she is going to do is to try and let me sing with my own voice.
Now that is a lesson for us all. It is what I have been trying to do all year – the unbuttoning continues. I see her again next week. Yay!
If you are unfamiliar with the works of Mr. Ivor Novello, here is a vintage performance of We’ll Gather Lilacs In The Spring Again – you will have to listen beyond those clipped English accents and put your sneering aside for a moment: