Vocal Woes

Back at the start of November, things were just really starting to click. I was on sabbatical from work, had just joined the Seattle Bach Choir, and had taken a few lessons from a new voice teacher I was really excited to work with. I was really starting to feel good improvement in my tone and excited to keep working at it.

And then one Thursday morning I woke up and found I could no longer sing much above a D4 (pretty much the sweet spot for a tenor). When I tried to sing anything higher, what came out was a strained D. If I was lucky.

It was the strangest feeling: my muscle memory knew exactly how to produce the tones and yet my body would not cooperate. Where I previously could vocalize a full octave higher, I would now top out in embarrassing fashion just getting to the heart of my normal tessitura.

On the plus side, there was no pain at all, just a complete inability to make my voice go any higher. What was going on?

The first question was obvious: had I overdone it? A couple of days previously on Tuesday I had had a double whammy of a voice lesson followed by an intense rehearsal blasting out forte high As in a Bruckner motet.

But that explanation didn’t really make sense. I had worked hard but felt pretty good at the end of it all. The day immediately following (Wednesday) I had mostly rested, but I did sing a little and hadn’t noticed anything wrong.

I tried not to panic at first, figuring things would just sort themselves out, but after a few days of no change, I decided to get an appointment with an ENT doctor to see if something more serious was going on.

The result? Nothing obviously wrong. They used a laryngoscope through the nose (don’t think about it too hard) to view my vocal cords and saw no evidence of nodules or other issues apart from some asymmetry in the vocal folds and some light inflammation due to GERD (which I am always fighting to some degree).

The asymmetry, they said, could be related or it could have always been there. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any previous examinations to compare against. Plus it seemed unlikely for something like that to spontaneously occur.

So I was prescribed vocal rest, a steroid taper, and a PPI. None of which made even the slightest bit of difference.

Meanwhile my first concerts with the Seattle Bach Choir were looming, and so I went on a crash course of learning the bass/baritone parts for most of the works we were performing. I may not have much volume below B2 or so but it beats squeaking out obvious clunkers up top!

At the same time, I scheduled appointments with two other local ENTs who were both voice specialists, in the hopes that they would be able to find something new. In both cases I was examined with a strobing laryngoscope while I sang (even got some cool videos), but neither found anything to really explain my issues.

One theory was offered: partial paralysis of the superior laryngeal nerve, which is one of the two nerves controlling the vocal cords, and more specifically the one that elongates the vocal folds to allow the production of “head voice” or falsetto.

That theory actually kind of jibed with what I was feeling. When I thought about it more carefully, it actually did appear that my problem was fundamentally an inability to produce head voice.

Unfortunately, to test whether it was truly due to a damaged nerve would require testing the muscles by sticking needles in my neck, which sounded unpleasant (and apparently carries a small degree of risk). And even if it were diagnosed as true, there’s really no treatment that can fix it, so I opted not to go that far.

The main argument against the paralyzed nerve theory is that it is usually caused by trauma to the neck (which I’m fairly certain I didn’t sustain). Sometimes it can also be caused by a virus, although there was no evidence that was I sick at the time. So while possible, the explanation still seems a bit iffy.

By the time I had visited both doctors, my November concerts were over and we were heading into the Christmas season, including concerts with the Sacred Music Chorale and all the fun Christmas music at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church.

I was given the OK to sing as long as I didn’t push myself beyond my limits, so I once again opted to sing bass/baritone for pieces that were too high for me, and managed to get through the season without missing anything too major (apart from a duet with my wife which I was sad to cancel).

Cut to today (February) and it’s been over 3 months since the onset of my troubles, and still no improvement. When warmed up I am able to sometimes get up to E4 or F4, but it is clearly just the result of training my chest voice to get there and not due to any change in my fundamental problem.

The next step, after a follow-up with my voice specialists, is to visit a vocal coach who has experience with damaged voices, to see if there are things I can do to improve within my limits.

The long-term result will likely be one of two possibilities: either the problem will right itself after a few months (nerve-related issues can take months to years to heal), or I will have to adjust to the new realities and limitations of my voice.

In the meantime, I am still singing mostly bass/baritone (except at St. Margaret’s where we need tenors more desperately and I just do my best). On the bright side, my octave leaps are getting much better and I am building up more presence in my lower range.

When I first encountered this problem, I did a bunch of searching on the internet to see if I could find similar stories, but came up pretty empty. So even though I don’t have a solution yet, I felt it was important to share my experience in case others have something similar happen.

And if anything changes I’ll definitely follow up with an update! Thanks for reading.