An Old Flame

I pull on my floor-length black robe and fasten a dozen buttons up to my neck. I throw the worn, white stole over my head as gracefully as possible. I tell myself I’m going to take the robe home and wash it this week. I will probably forget. I hastily grab my hymnal and get in line for the procession. My mouth tastes like stale coffee. That’s right, this isn’t a story about a former romantic partner– it’s about my church gig. 

Many classical musicians hold a church position which can be a little bizarre and off-putting to explain to the general population. People seem uncomfortable with the idea that we receive money to attend church, but so do your worship leaders and other clergy members. Some religious institutions hire musicians only for special occasions like Christmas or Easter; others have paid choir directors, organists, and section leaders in the choir. For many musicians, a steady church position is our most stable income from singing. We rehearse with the choir on Wednesday nights, wake up early on Sundays for the service, and sing as soloists at concerts and special events. Our voices are meant to enhance the choir’s sound and accelerate the process of learning music correctly.

I exaggerated a little last week. My laryngologist and speech-language pathologist (now known as SLP; I’m tired of typing the whole thing out) told me to keep singing at my church job but not above a specific note where my polyp starts to interfere. I am still singing; my use is just severely limited. 

Allow me to give you a little vocal anatomy lesson. The vocal folds are super cool. Both vocal folds come together and vibrate to produce sound.

Normal vocal folds in action. Again, these are VOCAL FOLDS!!

 We generally speak in a lower register (except when you yell or scream), and the vocal folds don’t stretch much to produce this sound. In contrast, when we sing in what is more commonly known as our “head voice,” the folds begin to stretch.

Here, you can see a difference in vocal fold length as the singer ascends in pitch. The lower pitch is around a B3 (just below middle C), and the upper pitch is circa C#5, which is still within my safe singing range.

While my polyp can remain relatively uninvolved with light singing and speaking, it runs up against my other fold pretty aggressively when I get above a particular note. My inability to fully adduct is why the top part of my register has become unreliable. The damaged folds cannot vibrate appropriately because the pesky polyp and the resulting inflammation on the other fold get in the way. It’s also why I have no choice but to sing super aggressively when I’m singing high– I have to slam the folds together to get any phonation. This action is unsuitable for healthy folds and is not advice I would give to any of my students, so I’m not sure why I kept trying to barrel through edema. Proper adduction is key to vocal production, but this was not it. I could not get cord closure because of my inflammation, and attempting to sing through the developing injury made me much worse.

My polyp chills out if I sing with light adduction and stop at an E5. Singers know this note is not particularly high, especially for sopranos. Still, it is consistently where my normal operatic adduction begins to fall apart. 

I take my church job for granted. It’s not opera, it’s a choir, but it’s a steady paycheck. I would notice myself feeling this way and dismiss the emotion as usual for church musicians. Not anymore. Now the only time I sing the whole week is at church. I didn’t dread church choir or anything, I’m proud of my position with the choir, but now I genuinely and wholeheartedly look forward to it. My denial got the best of me again last week; I do miss singing, and I miss it profoundly; I feel like a part of me is missing, but I want singing to feel good again. So I’m ok not singing operatically, for now. I want it to feel easy, satisfying, warm, invigorating, and incredible again. Singing in church right now doesn’t feel like that, but it’s also all I have. “Thanks for doing what you can,” my choir director says carefully after the service. Just the feedback every professional singer wants to hear.

I feel pretty embarrassed because I cannot fully do my job. It’s super kind of my director to allow me to keep my position while I recover slowly and methodically and not all choir directors would have been so accommodating. I may not be allowed to sing an aria, but I’m allowed to sing the hymns at communion, the psalm, and the anthem, save for those higher notes. I understand why singing is so important to people in worship and how it differs from listening to a sermon or reciting a prayer. People get a rush of happy chemicals in their brains when they sing. I’m not a scientist, so I’m not going to even try and explain the logistics behind this reaction, but it’s true– singing releases endorphins. I have an addiction to singing, so reading through a hymn with a congregation usually doesn’t give me the dosage I require. After even a couple of weeks in withdrawal, however, the connectedness of singing in tandem with an entire room full of people is more satisfying than I ever knew it could be. I feel supported and less critical of my sound. That warm, satisfying feeling that rushes over me when I sing fully is still burning deep within me, even though the flame is tiny and barely palpable. 

A blurry note from a kind director who cast me in my first real role in 2014. I doubt he knows how often these encouraging words kept me from quitting singing.

Every time I say I’m going to quit singing for good, I notice the little fire burning inside me has not gone out. I can’t do it; I can’t stop. The bonfire inside me burns bright when I step onstage for a role, perform a concert, or sing a successful audition. I am a great singer! I am doing it!! But a lot of the time, it’s an enormous effort to keep that flame burning. I’m always throwing logs on my inner fire. But even when it rains, and I think that this is it, there are little embers still glowing. As long as I’ve been singing, I’ve never known this old flame to go out. I’ll never take my church position for granted again. It’s currently my little boost of serotonin, my little fan to the fire, without irritating my little polyp. Through it all, my persistent flame burns bright.


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