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  Columnist: Jeff Price

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The hoarse whisperer

Posted on Wednesday, 11 September, 2013 | 0 comments
Columnist: Jeff Price

My singing voice is not what it used to be, but then, according to logic, medical fact, and my own Laryngologist, I shouldn't be singing at all. It began in the fall of 2000, when a disk ruptured in my neck, and the vertebra collapsed onto the nerves that went to my hands, causing my left hand to go instantly numb, and contorting my right hand into a useless claw. Without Cervical Spinal Fusion surgery, and soon, there was a high probability that the condition would become permanent and I would never play guitar again.

The surgery was performed in January 2001, and was successful in restoring proper function to my hands. Unfortunately, it was also successful in severing the nerves to my right vocal chords - destroying my voice.

I was referred to a speech pathologist, Dr. James Mangan, who taught me how to speak, literally, from the gut, but when it came to singing any notes, on any scale, at any pitch, in any key, the best I could manage was a painfully hoarse, monotone, breathless whisper. The problem was, with the paralyzed cord stuck in the open position, the working cord had nothing to make contact with, and it was impossible to regulate or control any airflow to vibrate the vocal folds. Dr. Mangan then tried to teach me how to use my "false cords", which is a single cord technique commonly known as 'falsetto' singing. This, too, was fruitless - which did not surprise me. As I explained to Dr. Mangan: ever since I was a kid, I've seen the notes in the back of my head - a mind's eye kind of thing that served as a guide when I was performing or recording. They were always there, just little black dots on a scale that, while singing, told me that the notes were within my range. I didn't see anything back there anymore - and hadn't since the surgery.

Four years passed. And in that time, I fluctuated between varying levels of rage, despair, and hope, but never acceptance. Not that I was being stubborn, or was in denial, and it certainly had nothing to do with "faith", but I just didn't believe it was over, that I would never sing again. Not yet.

Then in early 2005, I heard about a Dr. James Thomas, a world-renowned Laryngologist who specialized in voice disorders in general, and singing problems in particular - including, to my surprise, vocal cord paralysis. I brought along a CD to my first appointment, just so he would have something to go by in determining whether there was any hope, and after running the scope down my throat and examining my ruined larynx, he said, "I'd only give a 10% chance of you singing like that again," he said, referring to what he heard on the CD, "because you're older, and because after four years of paralysis, the right side of your larynx is completely atrophied. But I guarantee you will sing again."

He then explained that the procedure would involve attaching a Teflon plate to the back of the paralyzed cord, then suturing the cord to center. The surgery was performed in mid-February, 2005 - and when I woke up in post-op, Dr. Thomas appeared at my bedside and told me that the surgery went very well. I was discharged from the hospital with instructions to return to his office in six weeks for a post-op examination.

But after five weeks, there was absolutely no difference in my voice. I called Dr. Thomas, but was assured that there was nothing to worry about, that there was probably still a lot of swelling, and that he'd see me the following week for my post-op exam.

During that exam, however, with the scope down my throat and Dr. Thomas viewing my larynx on a TV monitor, I noticed he was being very quiet - silent, actually. Then he reached for the video tape of my pre-surgery exam, brought that up on screen, and kept switching between the two views, comparing how things looked before the surgery, and how they looked now. At last he turned on his stool, pulled the scope out of my throat, then stood and left the room - still without a word. Five minutes later he appeared in the doorway. Looking down at the floor, and clearly upset about something, he finally spoke. "This has never happened before, but not only did the surgery not work, it actually made things worse. I'm sorry. You're just going to have to accept that you will never sing again."

For the moment, I felt worse for him than I did for myself, because he really did take it hard, but on the long drive home it finally sank in that my life in music was over. What I had been doing professionally since I was sixteen years old, was over. And I had no idea what I was going to do now.

When I got back home I made a few calls to friends and family to give them the news, hoping for some well-deserved sympathy, but I couldn't get a single "poor me" out of anyone - which really irked the hell out of me. What is wrong with you people? I thought. A better sob story you're not likely to hear, and not one of you can give me a lousy, "Aww, that's terrible, I feel so sorry for you!"?

I decided that the only thing left to do was go to bed, and stay there - which I did, for three days. Then one night I woke up at 2am with the strangest thought in my head: "The only thing separating you from God, or Life, or Spirit, or Wholeness, or Healing, or whatever you want to call it, is your belief in the separation."

Great. On top of all my other problems, I now have a metaphysical, self-help guru in my head telling me that I'm somehow the problem. Thanks for the pep-talk.

Wide awake now, I got up and went into the studio, sat down, and closed my eyes - and when I did, I saw, in my mind, a cinder-block wall that I knew represented my "belief" about my voice. But the longer I stared at that thick and solid wall, the more fluid and translucent it seemed to become. Just for kicks, I imagined passing my hand through it to the other side, and when I saw that this was quite simple to do, I imagined my entire self passing through this barrier to the other side - and from over there, when I turned around, I saw that the barrier was gone altogether.

I opened my eyes. Hhm. That was interesting, I thought.

Then I noticed that those little black dots, those musical notes that I used to see in the back of my mind, were back. I reached for a guitar. And sang. For hours.

Then one week later - on my birthday of all things - I performed in public for the first time in four and a half years. And I've been singing ever since. Perhaps I don't have the power or range I once had, but all in all my voice sounds truer to me than it did before, more authentic, more connected to God, or Life, or Spirit, or Wholeness, or Healing, or whatever you want to call it.

And to keep it that way, I've tacked a rather large, hand-made and boldly-printed sign on the wall of my studio, right behind the vocal booth where I cannot help but see it when I'm singing. Like those little black notes in the back of my head, it not only tells me what is within my range, but serves as a handy reminder whenever I hit a wall in the recording process, or with my creativity, or with living. It says, simply: "The only thing that separates you from any of life's gifts, is your belief in the separation."

Or, to put it another way: Sometimes it takes a Hoarse Whisperer to discover your true voice.

Article Copyright© Jeff Price - reproduced with permission.

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