Soprano on sabbatical… What on earth does she mean?

No, I haven’t won the lottery and decided to gallivant around the planet for a year! The truth behind the meaning is one that ‘us singers’ shouldn’t really discuss.
Two years ago I was offered two roles with Opera Holland Park; one smaller part in Wolf-Ferrari’s I Gioielli Della Madonna and the second as Cio Cio San in their young artist version of Madame Butterfly.
I finally felt like I was taking the steps to where I wanted to be, but all the while something was lurking in the depths…
It's not all joy and laughter

It’s not all joy and laughter

I began my singing escapades at Sheffield University almost by chance. I’d always sung for fun, and took acting a lot more seriously, but spent my first year as a pianist until I was dragged along by a friend to an audition for a contemporary opera about Henry VIII and his six wives. ‘The odds aren’t bad for being offered a role’, I thought!
Back then, I didn’t sing above a C above middle C. Seriously. I’d already had soft nodules once *shock horror*, but they’d come back, and I had just thought it was an allergy to smoke (in those ghastly days before the ban). Every time I returned from a night out, I sounded like someone who should be working for a night-time call centre, if you catch my drift!
Speech therapy was again underway, and after time, my range increased to one of a healthy mezzo-soprano. It was great to have those notes back, but every time I sang for a decent amount of time – say, an hour’s coaching session, or a particularly strenuous rehearsal, my voice would gradually become husky and the following day I was left with no head voice. That would last for about three days, or longer if I didn’t rest my voice and hydrate myself to the point of explosion!
Somehow, I managed to keep this under wraps and my voice became my new instrument of choice. In all honesty, I didn’t know it wasn’t normal for me to lose my voice as I always had done since first losing it at football match when I was 15 years old (I always knew Crystal Palace FC would have a lot to answer for).
Fresh out of uni, I tried my luck and it turned out I had something about me which opera companies quite liked. I did a couple of tours for some small-scale companies up north and then was offered a place in the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival Chorus which were also fortunate enough to collaborate with the Bregenz Festspiel. Not bad for a 22-year-old who’d only been singing for a year and a bit.
I’d fallen in love with singing. It was a no brainer for me; act and sing at the same time, and dress up in costumes; what’s not to love?! I figured it was time to take it seriously and auditioned for some postgraduate  vocal courses in London and gained a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
All the while, though, I was still losing my voice. The same pattern: sing for a while, my voice would warm down, get husky, and bang goes that head voice for three days. How I covered it up for a decade I’ll have no idea, but it became a real worry and I sought professional advice.
Apparently I had silent reflux.
Yes, we’ve all heard of it, many of us suffered from it, and the fact it is named ‘silent’ seems somewhat ironic.
I started off on the usual Omeprazole and Gaviscon. It didn’t really help. Then I started to get these non-silent symptoms of heartburn and acid indigestion which was less fun, so back to the consultant I went for a gastroscopy. They doubled my dose of omeprazole both morning and night, suggested the usual Gaviscon as and when I needed it  (I must own shares in that bloody company by now!) and then a tiny little innocent looking drug called Domperidone. Not champagne I’m afraid, but essentially an anti-sickness drug that stopped anything from coming up and I was to take one of those every time I practiced or sang at length. By the time I was on the opera course, that was quite a lot. A flippant comment from my ENT stated that the possible long-term effects of taking that drug can lead to Parkinson’s disease, so I wasn’t overly keen on continuing with that one for longer than necessary.
Alongside all these pills was the standard advice: raise the bed head, don’t eat after 7pm (does anybody else find that difficult as a jobbing musician?!), cut out caffeine, fatty foods, fizzy drinks. Some people find citrus bad, others cucumber… It got a bit ridiculous, to be frank.
How much more can I take?!

How much more can I take?!

I did all I could, though; gluten-free diets, took supplements until they were falling out of my eyeballs, read up information on forums (joking aside, carrot juice is NOT the answer to everything!) and eventually followed a path that lead me to very nearly having a bracelet of magnets being tied around my oesophagus which would supposedly make it all stop, but I wasn’t suitable for the op. A sign from above, perhaps?
I found myself feeling miserable most of the time, never really knowing when I’d wake up with no voice and be that ‘unreliable singer’ that everyone avoids like the plague. I’d also stopped living life as a twenty something year-old should. I didn’t go out and socialise, never drunk a drop of alcohol, monitored my diet to the point of obsession and consequently lost so much weight, my Mum thought I had stopped eating altogether. I even avoided speaking on the phone. I was, however, managing to get good work after leaving college even after making the transition from mezzo to lyric soprano, but I still worried ALL the time. I had become the singer I never wanted to be; neurotic and all-consumed by my trade, but not in a good way. This was not what I signed up for.
But when you spend a decade dedicated solely to making it all happen, you can’t just give up. And to be fair, music had been my whole life since the age of four, so I felt I had no option but to crack on.
October 11th 2012, the afternoon of a Traviata performance in Inverness with Scottish Opera, I returned back to my B&B after lunch with one over-riding, consistently familiar thought: ‘my voice doesn’t feel right, my head voice won’t come out. What do I do? I’ll drink a sea of water and that will help… pop some antacids on top of my ridiculous number of prescribed meds.’ I started to feel dizzy.
*Blank*
I’d had a fit and had woken up in an ambulance. A passer-by thought I was drunk (if only!) but saw me shaking violently and, to their better judgement, called 999.
All bashed up with cuts and bruises, and two huge whacks to my chin on a wall and my head on the pavement, I regained consciousness and jolted upwards: ‘I have a show tonight. I need to get to the theatre’. I couldn’t even remember my name or age for the first few minutes, but I knew I had to get back to work. The show must go on, right?
I spent a couple of nights in hospital occasionally accompanied by the company manager. She was a star, but no substitute for my Mum! Staring at those ward walls gave for some good thinking time. They couldn’t find anything wrong as such, and asked if I was stressed. I chuckled. It was like my body was shutting down. The ultimate excuse for not being able to perform without having to admit ‘I HAVE CHRONIC REFLUX AND I CAN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT’.
It was after six weeks of learning Madame Butterfly for Opera Holland Park that I knew I no-longer had it in me. Singing, and everything associated with it, made me sad. So sad. Nights crying to my ever-supportive boyfriend knowing I just had to make that decision and pull the plug. So I did, and now I don’t sing anymore.
I miss it every day. The joy that comes from expressing yourself by letting that sound out I so often crave for. Still wanting to support my wonderful friends, I attend their performances and silently sigh inside. I don’t even listen to opera in my spare time anymore; when I hear it, I feel betrayed.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s no big deal and I do know that. People start new careers every day, but I still feel hard done by. I never really acknowledged it as being akin to a pro footballer breaking his leg and never being able to play his beloved game again but I guess it’s pretty much the same. So now I teach singing, because I’ve done it on the side for years anyway, but it doesn’t satiate my love for performing. I’m also retraining to be an interior designer because I love the creativity side of things, but it doesn’t yet quench my thirst for expressing myself in the visceral way that singing that money note did. In my own eyes, I’ll always be the one that failed; didn’t make it; fell by the wayside. I do, though –  despite my ramblings here –  have perspective on it all and am forever grateful for all the wonderful things I do have in my life, and the fact that I even got to live my dream for a relatively short while was a blessing. Change can be exciting, and I urge myself to look at this situation in a positive light. I’m grateful, too, that I didn’t get further down the road and have to face an even bigger heart break.
Learning to embrace unforeseen changes

Learning to embrace unforeseen changes

It’s taken me two years to write this down and face it in black and white. It got me thinking: ‘how many singers has this happened to?’. Not just reflux, necessarily, but other issues that have got in the way of a blossoming career. How many of those felt they couldn’t divulge and share their experience, even if it were just a temporary blip? The stress in itself that comes from holding back the truth is enough to drive anyone mad!
And it’s not just singers. It’s all musicians and entertainers. Sportsmen. Carpenters that lose a thumb (I jest not; it happened to a friend of a friend just a few months back). Anyone who is prevented from doing what they love because of an insurmountable hurdle. In a day and age where careers are so important to so many, why – in college – for example, did they not tell us how to prepare for the career not happening? What to do when your voice isn’t at its optimum. Why didn’t they encourage us to not put all our eggs in one basket, as truthfully, anything can really happen. How many of us are ever ready for that kind of curve ball?
I so often hear of successful singers having to take time out on the quiet. In fact, on my own journey, I sought hushed advice from a few very inspiring individuals who had faced their own troubles, but it’s not out there to discuss freely. The subject is always taboo – vocal health in particular – and I’d love that to change; starting right at the bottom, in colleges, to the top, at the big opera houses, where they can be accepting of the fact that we are only human and, if you excuse the expression, ’shit happens’. It doesn’t make you bad at your job. In fact, I would go so far as to say it will make you a better singer and stronger individual if you come out the other side. Talking and sharing would lessen the burden for a lot of us, and then we could all sing a little bit better. Surely that’s the point?!
If you’ve struggled through – no matter what career – please share your story, and anonymously if you prefer. It’s incredibly cathartic, and others will feel a little better about their trials if they know they’re not the only ones to have been through these experiences.
Thanks for reading.
Kathryn McAdam  – AKA ‘Soprano on sabbatical’
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56 thoughts on “Soprano on sabbatical… What on earth does she mean?

  1. beamonaco

    My goodness poor you, so sorry. What a brave post to write; sounds like everything was unfolding in a good way – and you never know what’s round the corner…. Life giveth and it taketh away – such a harsh fact to have to live, isn’t it. My own personal ‘insurmountable hurdle’ is coming to opera and singing too late in life. I’ve got the voice and done the training but although I look a bit younger than my 43 years I feel trying to enter the profession now is unrealistic. But Im blessed to have the gift of a voice, and I’m still going to keep working on my bel canto rep. Good luck with everything in your life, I”m sure there are many good things to come!: )

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Beamonaco – They do say it’s never too late, and in your case, I sincerely hope that is true. I say keep going; age is just a number, especially if you have youthful looks on your side! I sometimes feel if my voice came back, no one could stop me from doing what I love the most so just enjoy it all while you can. All the best to you.

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      1. beamonaco

        Thanks. About your problem, you sound resigned to what’s happened, but maybe it’s not the end of the road for you and singing. Maybe you need a break and everything happened too fast in the career..? Just a thought. What do you feel about your voice? And what does your teacher say, have you got a nurturing supportive one? My own singing teacher works in quite a nurturing supportive even ‘spiritual’ way, really taking into account when I’ve been ill, and we work to bring the voice back, invite it back, gently, working with the ‘whole’ of me. She is firm with me about not over singing. Sorry if this sounds like presumptuous quackery and bearing no relation to the arduous journey you’ve been on with it, and the expertise you’ve already sought; please ignore me is that’s the case – just I know that the voice isn’t just physical, it’s about where you are at. Light and love to you : )

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  2. Rebecca

    When I started reading this, I didn’t know what to expect, so when I saw you suffer with silent reflux too I was a bit suprised! I’m an actress, about to start training in musical theatre, and my voice giving up on me is one of my biggest fears. Like you, I’ve tried a variety of medications and strict diets, which seems to be helping a small amount but my drama school is aware of my condition (lots of singers do have it after all) and are also going to be supportive which I’m hopeful will help.

    I hope your reflux (and others) improves, I also wished we talked about it more openly as it affects so many of us.

    All the best x

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  3. Claire Kerley

    Katie, this is a wonderful, brave and honest blog. As an aside, I feel I have some similar vocal issues – don’t have the same stamina I used to have and often have periods of losing my head voice after singing so, inspired by your post, I’m going to get it checked out. I’m back singing much more now after babies but I too feel plagued by issues that make me “that singer”. A bit neurotic and obsessed. But most importantly, I wanted to say you have so much going for you and that your journey will always continue to have singing at its heart. Who knows if you’ll be led back one day…. Love Bess Xxxx

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Hi Bess,

      Thanks for reading and sharing this. It was difficult for me to get it down; very emotional stuff, but I’m really glad I’ve done it especially given the positive response I’ve had. It’s so clear that we need an outlet to share our career obstacles and worries, and we can find strength in each other’s stories to deal with them one piece at a time.

      Whatever you end up deciding, trust your instinct and make sure you’re making the choice that makes you the happiest you can be. You deserve no less than that.

      Who knows if I’ll return to the profession one day. I’m not thinking about that quite yet, but never say never ‘n’ all that…!

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      1. Aaron Kernis

        Dear Ms. McAdam,
        It was moving and emotional to read of your plight, and your description of what you’d been through rang a bell with my own experience that I want to share.
        Though I’m not a singer (I’m a composer, one who loved choral singing for many years – shortened by ever-present hoarseness) I have one experience to share. For many years I was diagnosed with reflux, and none of the drugs particularly helped. I often had hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, etc. and it created a lot of anxiety about eating, which other doctors saw as anxiety-related. Finally I went to a highly recommended GNT who diagnosed it as eosinophilic esophagitis – a condition that he’d seen only rarely, but had begun to show up more and more in young children as part of eating allergy issues. This condition had only be named a relatively few years ago. It’s an allergic condition of cells in the esophagus that seems to mimic reflux. It’s treated by an unusual use of swallowing doses of inhalant steroids that are typically inhaled to lessen swelling in the lungs, but in this case reduces the symptoms in the esophagus. The treatment helped me a great deal,, and the condiition (along with some dietary restrictions) has abated to a great extent. Of course I have no idea whether this information night apply to you, but I did feel that I had to write and share it with you.

        Aaron Kernis

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      2. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

        Dear Aaron,

        Your story is very interesting, and I have often wondered in my own case if the doctors had missed something. Having read about your condition, I feel it may be worth me looking into so thank you very much for sharing.

        I’m glad they have managed to give you a correct diagnosis and that you are now controlling your symptoms.

        All the best,

        Kathryn

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  4. zacharytroberts

    I’m there with you. I have a degree in classical voice, but developed this sort of spasmodic dysphonia that the doctors can’t quite diagnose. I had a good paying gig as Arturo in Lucia, but had nightmares every day about it. Had to drop out.

    That was 2011, I think. Classical singing life behind me, but I’ve transitioned into acting, directing, music directing, composing, and producing. I still get called into some singing auditions but it breaks my heart. I just can’t do it like I used to.

    It’s taken me years to come to grips with it and it’s still a sore spot. But I’m satisfied with the creative work I’m doing now.

    The thing no one tells you about is how frustrating the constant grind is when you can’t figure out what’s wrong with you.

    Anyways best wishes.

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Hi zacharytroberts,

      Thanks for sharing your story. You’ve really put yourself out there and it sounds like you’re doing great things. You are living proof that there is a light at the end of the new-career-tunnel!

      All the best for your continued success and happiness.

      Kathryn

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  5. Janet

    wow, this is so inspiring! It’s also the second article I have read today about changing paths and so-called “giving up on your dreams..” I am a soprano in my late 40s. Like you I had a promising career until I lost my brother and father and developed diabetes and crippling stage fright and panic attacks. God it sounds so dramatic! I soldiered on in high profile Opera Choruses but I never enjoyed it- just did it as it was “easy” – ironic as it was anything but, in my head! I have always earned money singing and have appreciated how lucky I am. But recently I have been miserable at what path to follow. I am now out of the loop with the big choruses and not too bothered actually…. I don’t want to be on anxiety medication now so it would be torturous…. I still have a good voice and this is the rub…I feel I should be using my gift. It’s great that people are sharing the big changes they have made. It seems so scary to throw everything in the air……. Maybe I should believe my daily mantra “leap and the bet will appear”. Good luck to you. And thank you for sharing.

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  6. baronescarpia

    Hi Katie! Lots of respect to you for being so straight-forward about your difficulties. I’m truly sorry to read this but I don’t think you should feel at all like “the one who failed”.
    We all have to deal with the hand we’re given and some will have it easier than others in all possible aspects. Sometimes it’s objective health issues, other times it’s dealing with the mental burnout that being in this business always brings. I don’t think you can say you’re the one who failed. You succeeded! You sang well and professionally to a good level! I think you can only consider failed singers those who can’t bother themselves to have the discipline it takes to learn this art, which isn’t the case at all.
    As I said to someone the other day, the best way to stay at this business and to keep trying is to realise that IT’S OKAY to say “I’ve had enough”. And that can be either because you were faced with physical illness or because your mental health just can’t take the bullsh*t in the business anymore. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a job. We become highly involved and immersed in it and it is very very close to defining who we are, but it doesn’t. It’s just a job.
    I truly respect you for being so honest about it and I forbid you to say you’ve failed! 🙂
    You’ve dealt with the hand you were given the best way you could and that deserves everyone’s respect and admiration.

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Your comments really mean a lot, and even more so to think that others don’t believe my singing career was a failure. That is something I have to coax out of my mind and accept that, as you say, I was dealt the cards and I could play with only those.

      I’m so pleased others feel they can share their story on here, too. Bringing strength and inspiration to others has really lifted me. Truth that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud.

      I hope all is well with you – perhaps I’ll see you around! x

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  7. piddleofconsciousness

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve been a keen amateur soprano since my teens. I followed the path of A level music, a degree in a different subject and continuing lessons with tutors from the local music college (RNCM). There have been times when I’ve been genuinely, definitely good. I’m a lyric with a high but meaty voice, I suppose, tending towards the spinto stuff. Singing was – nearly – everything to me. I have reflux now. Gastroscopy last year, now increased omeprazole, Gaviscon, remegel… I used to sing in a consort group for years and have had to pull out as the reflux has triggered asthma for me, and most significant breaths are now wheezy. Recently a couple of respiratory consultants were discussing me and the senior one said he’d bet my issue is bronchiectasis, permanent lung damage from inhaling stomach acid. I have an appointment to see them and discuss my CT scan results in a couple of weeks.
    All of this is to say I thought I was the only one. I never made it as far as you – I can’t imagine trying to negotiate the demands of a professional career while dealing with this – but it seems relevant enough to shock me. The intensely monitored diet is horribly familiar. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I hope we can all get better somehow.

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Argh, what an ordeal you are going through, you poor thing.

      I really hope the results form your scan will shed some light on your bronchial issues and that they can be resolved, not only for you to be able to sing, but more so for your health and happiness. My thoughts are with you.

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  8. Martin Snell

    Dear sopranoonsabbatical

    I found your blog interesting and thought-provoking reading as it would appear you are not alone, particularly given the vagaries of the international music profession, independent of personal health considerations. Each individual case must be considered separately. There is no easy fix. However, reaching the decision to end your own professional performance career cannot have been either easy or straightforward. Nonethless, it is heartening to learn that you still derive pleasure from the performances of friends and acquaintances and are active as a teacher. It is wonderful that you continue to support friends and colleagues, even when it may pique somewhat with you.

    It is possibly only coincidence but I read the following article today which made me think of you and your new life situation:

    http://www.thegloss.com/2012/06/05/career/i-gave-up-my-dream-and-id-do-it-again-731/

    Endeavour to remain positive and remember the doubtless numerous good times experienced, however short your active involvement in the professional music world may have been. It is better to have tried than to have never tried at all. There can be no suggestion of failure.

    Good wishes for the future.

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Hi Martin,

      I, too, read that article and found it very inspiring. How odd that our blogs seemed to spring up together!

      Thank you for your kind words. As mentioned in my replies above, knowing that others don’t see my career ending as a failure really helps and this only encourages me to look forward to my future and all that it will bring.

      All the best to you.

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  9. Hilary Waldron

    Kathryn….I read your post & feel so,so sorry for your problem. I’m Kitty Whately’s aunt & I have suffered this reflux problem for years,taking omeprazole & domperidone…which, I’m told I must take for the rest of my days! I have what is known as Barrett’s oesophagus. I used to sing a lot, folk music mostly, & I now find it difficult to sing without croaking! I do hope you will find a remedy & pray you return to your singing career! With much love & sympathy, Hilaryxxx

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Hilary,

      Barrett’s oesophagus is awful, and I have read much about it in my time. I’m lucky that mine has not reached that stage, but I can totally empathise with regards to the singing and croaking. It’s just so so frustrating, isn’t it.

      I have worked with Kitty on a few occasions and I’m so fond of her. You are clearly all very talented! Thank you, too, for your lovely words. I’m so overwhelmed by people’s kindness in the comments that I’ve received. All the best…

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  10. sabrina zuber

    Thanks. For your sharing, for saying it all so clearly and to the point.
    I come from Conservatory studies of piano. I turned to voice (soprano leggero) when I was already an adult woman and mother of two girls. I passed the exams, took the diploma, started as a choir member for an opera company, then got some solo bits and parts, then I founded my own company and became a producer: one who is always part of the cast too, while producing, finding the funds, planning the communication campaign etc.etc.
    I have gone through no gluten, no yeast, no-this and no-that diets, I practice yoga every morning (oh well, I went as far as to certify as a yoga instructor, for what it matters). I have silent reflux, my ENT prescribed omeprazole every day, it has been years by now. Cut caffeine, cut food excess, absolutely no smoking and almost no alcohol at all. I went for gastroscopy twice. I get that husky voice every time I train by myself, but not during vocal class, which I take regularly every week. People say about me that I pay too much for the stage freight, the tension of being a producer, the work agenda which is too stressful… I should relax, I should care less about others’ judgement, I should, I could, I…..I tense and wop, we go!
    I got soft nodules 3 years ago, which a magician-speech therapist got ridden of within 3 months of working together. Since then I am very afraid of noisy restaurants, noisy parties, noisy places…
    I am tired of struggling. Tired of always feeling inadequate. Yet, just like you, I crave for that magic: that sound coming from the depth of your body, the adrenaline, the energy coming form the audience…I love theatre and I thought to turn to that and reduce the singing stuff. But; I am a musician and where I live “labels” are important.
    I have no idea why I wrote all this, randomly, without a precise order or a plan. it heals inside when you know that you are not alone.
    Thank you.
    Sabrina- an Italian living in Singapore

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  11. Jsop

    Thank yo so much for this post. I am sitting at home a lone in tears thinking of if Inwill have to make a similar decision. I am finishing my DMA…was sing the best in my life a year and a half ago. I finally got a lead role and then bam…I was waking up every day with a sore throat and losing my range.

    I was sick a few times, so I thought the new symptoms were becaue of that, but looking back I wish I had been smarter. I pushed through what I thought was a big performance at the time trying a steroid which only made me crazy. I wish I had never taken the stuff.

    Last summer I got into a few small programs, but had to pull out of one a week before because I just couldn’t rely on my voice anymore. The administrators were not happy or understanding, but I just couldn’t let down the other singers by not being able to sing one day to the next. I was so depressed and last summer was the worst in my life!

    Now three different doctors later and months of voice therapy I have some scar tissue in one fold. I am getting better hit that scar tissue will always hinder my ability and it seems like my voice is so touchy. (I run what I might have done to injur myself in those first few months over and over in my head. I even went to the ENT Early on and they did’t catch it.)

    I tried finding support groups for singers with injuries, but hardly anyone talks about it because it is so taboo. There really aren’t any out there.

    All I can do is lament the voice I had and the career that might have been. I never had much luck with the YAP route, but now much of a career as a singer seems impossible. Which also means a teaching career at University will also be harder to obtain.

    Does it get easier? I am better in many ways now…but I still feel like it could get worse at any moment and feel angry. I am not ready to “give up on the dream,” quite yet, but maybe it is doing me more harm than good?

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  12. Holly Aisbitt

    This is really sad that you’ve experienced this and had to stop singing. Did you ever look into whether you could have a vocal function issue as well as the reflux? Helen Tiller in Australia presented some fascinating case studies of rehabilitating voices working closely with a laryngologist. Perhaps you could have an Australian trip on sabbatical?? Or she might be able to recommend someone in the UK. https://www.estillvoice.com/instructors/view/12

    Good luck!

    Holly

    PS however, I love teaching and it gives me so much more than performing ever did!

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  13. Craig Judge

    Hi Katie,

    You are so brave to post this,I was in my final year of a music degree when I was hit by crippling depression and I was unable to complete my honours year properly.I had really shut down and although constantly being told I had a good voice,it just didn’t matter.I just wanted to draw the curtains and not see anybody or anything.

    I gave up on thoughts of being a singer and just decided to live my life as an amateur muso

    I started singing lessons after 7-8 years and have slowly crept back out into the world of singing,…but that’s not my point.

    I still struggle with depression every day,I have panic attacks and moments when I feel as if the weight of the world will squash me.

    Keep going,you never know what’s round the corner…that’s a positive thought coming from a manic depressive.lol

    I truly wish you the best in all the world.

    Craig.x

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  14. Sarah

    Kathryn, you have no idea how much this reassures/scares me! I have followed a similar path to you although I have only just reached GSMD. I have been suffering with losing my speaking voice after singing for about an hour, even after a lesson where I know I have been supporting properly! Over Christmas I thought I had a cold as it went on for a few weeks and eventually I went to a specialist and was told it was silent reflux. After a couple months on a high dose of omeprazole it seemed to clear. I was alright for a while without it until this last month and I really don’t want to have to go back on the meds but I love singing! I hope we can both find a way to enjoy our singing again without being that ‘neurotic’ soprano! All the best, Sarah x

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  15. George

    Kathryn, I really cannot express how grateful I am for you being brave enough to not only admit your vocal and artistic struggles, but come forward with them. The taboo surrounding the voice and vocal health needs to be broken urgently.

    I’ve never written a comment like this, but your story was like a description of my situation, from reflux to anxiety to failing vocal health. I’ve had to start a course of anxiety meds as my worry has progressed from just losing my voice to a gripping, constant panic.

    I have been meaning to help start a mental and physical health movement with BAPAM and help for musicians, as your a right- colleges and opera houses have a duty to care for their singers (and musicians) and offer help and advice on how to cope with inevitable set-backs.

    I agree with everyone else when I say you haven’t given up on your dream, but have been brave enough to not tolerate the torment anymore. I don’t know you personally, but I can guarantee that you are more than a walking larynx, and the person you are is made up from the whole, and not one sum of your parts.

    There is a ‘new movement’ advocating mindfulness and spirituality with singing. I think no matter what we do as musicians, we owe it to ourselves to always put our wellbeing first- physically and mentally. Yes, opera and singing are Olympian. But I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read ‘once I let go of being a… It then all fell in to place.’ If Pavarotti can give up (in his early 20’s) , then so can we all.

    I wish you fulfilment and satisfaction in what you chose to do. Life is a big adventure, and sometimes it does feel like need to take a step back to realise how fortunate we actually are to be experiencing it- as cliché as it sounds!

    George

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear George,

      I’m so glad through reading my experience that you have been brave enough to ‘out’ yours, and what a troubled one is sounds. I’m so sorry to hear you’ve also been through similarly trying times.

      Interestingly, mindfullness has really helped me over the past two years. My situation has left me in a pretty low place from time to time, so gaining perspective for me was very important. For a long time, I neither admitted that I gave up for a health reason, but nor did I admit that giving up on my dream was a big deal. It was, and it still is, and if I never manage to regain my voice, I know it will always be a sadness in my life, but I believe things happen for a reason. I’ve not quite learned what that is yet, but hopefully it will become clear…

      All the best to you, and thanks again for sharing.

      Kathryn

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  16. James

    Hi! Thanks for sharing your story. I am a young tenor, and I have been through 4 years of singing ‘uni’ here in Melbourne, Australia (an opera wasteland, tbh, the teaching here is mostly garbage, save about 2 teachers). In my second year of uni, I was diagnosed with stage 2 testicular cancer. I underwent aggressive chemotherapy, and 2 surgeries. I was singing all through it. I won’t lie- I do believe both major abdominal surgeries affected my voice, and the chemotherapy changed things for me, physically and mentally. I will say that the head of voice at the university here said that ‘you shouldnt have those drugs you will wreck your voice’ and I’m still singing. She still spouts that hypochondriac nonsense, making singers scared of their own bodies and their own voices. I’m still here, singing my little tenor heart out. I also suffer from tonic-clonic epilepsy, which screws with my singing a lot.
    I think that being through all this means that for one, no hypochondriac crap can come near me, but also that I can get through anything ‘the business’ throws at me. Bring it on world.
    James

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      My goodness, what a journey you have been on, James. I have huge respect and admiration for your strength and courage. We must listen to our instincts, not what others tell us about our own bodies…!

      Thank you so much for sharing, and good for you in your attitude to what the world can throw at you next – anything, by the sounds of it.

      Kathryn

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  17. Stephanie Hahn Nolan

    Dear Soprano on Sabbatical, thank you so much for sharing! I understand completely, and have taken many time-outs… you’ll be back. Your heart won’t let you put your dream down… your format may change, but your voice can’t be jailed! It will have it’s way. At 60, I have not had the career that you have, but I have sung beautiful and difficult pieces. For many reasons – life, age, workloads, etc. – I have stepped away… but it never lasts long. Trust! You have that beautiful gift for a reason. It didn’t get called out of hiding, just to be hidden again. Keep your eyes open for the being or teacher that awakens your heart/voice again. Will post your story for others. Be hopeful!

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Thanks so much for your encouraging words. It would be lovely to return some day, to sing in one capacity or another, and I know I’ll never stop hoping that will happen.

      Kathryn

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  18. Helen Miles known as Flosdie.

    I resonate entirely with your story. After a starry career start – a few college prizes, competition wins and radio broadcasts etc, my normally reliable, beautiful, pure, lyric coloratura soprano voice started to fall apart. Devastating. My career trajectory just stopped. I was suicidal. I had a time bomb in my larynx – a congenital vocal abnormality which was not diagnosed for a few years – I had NOT caused this myself – it wasn’t nodules from poor speaking or singing technique (nowadays infinitely resolveable despite the tenacious taboos). This happened to me during the few years at the age during which solo careers are built – or not. I was eventually successfully operated on to remove the sulcus vocalis and took months learning to speak with my new voice and about a decade re-learning how to sing, undoing the tense vocally modified technique I had engineered to be able to stay in the full-time singing job with which I earned my living. It was as if my World had stopped rotating, but I always believed I’d be able to sing well, or at least well enough again and, luckily, I was right. Being operated on at 32, I was past the point where a solo career would have been possible but here is the thing : I was so grateful to be able to sing again, and to sing better every time, to conquer my stage fright – which I am still conquering at every performance – because this tremendous blow to my initial career dreams has left psychological scars, but, once I’d worked through the grieving stage for what could not be – ie the loss of even a shot at a conventional solo career, this has become less important in time, as just being able to sing is most important and enjoyable for me. I have had an interesting and varied career instead as a very successful classical session singer in London, combining extra chorus work at ENO and my main customer – the Royal Opera with my own solo concerts and recitals and singing Church music. Tomorrow night I’ll be in “La Traviata” at ROH wearing a gorgeous costume which costs around £1,500, next week I’ll be rehearsing and recording for Opera Rara, – a CD company for whom I’ve also recorded step-out solos. Next I’m doing an Opera and Musicals Evening in my local Church and an Older People’s Home. I made a CD of solo songs in 2012 which I must get around to self-publishing and I have given recitals in many venues including the Crush Room of the Royal Opera House. It is hell going through all the stages of how I got to this much more contented state and it is not for everyone. After people have gone through a vocal collapse many, understandably, wish to give up and re-train and that is fine too. If just being able to sing professionally at all is as important to you as it was for me, you will feel the same compulsion to put yourself through the further hell of mostly rejection. If you feel you’d rather not, that is alright too. Everyone’s circumstances and aspirations are different. I wish you all the best from the bottom of my heart as you are going to need much courage and support whichever path you choose. Yes, music colleges never prepare us for a change of plan but I’ve come through and just been awarded an ARAM for my almost 30 year contribution to the profession. If you would like any help at all with any of the above, do contact me. X

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear Helen,

      How inspiring your story is! Somehow who has fought tooth and nail and seen it through to great success. Thank you for sharing.

      As mentioned in some of my replies, I know stepping away from it all is what I needed to do. I am very instinctive and despite ignoring that instinct for so longer, it felt like the only option eventually. Although I miss all the joy it originally brought me, I do feel I made the right decision, but that is not to say that I won’t return one day – if my voice allows me.

      I know gaining perspective has already done a lot for me, and though I have followed many paths to regaining my voice, there are a few more I could explore and, in time, probably will. I hope others don’t think this is because I don’t want it enough. It could just be that my destiny was never to be the professional singer that I had hoped to be, though surely the experience will have taught me some valuable life lessons. It may also be that I was always to have this time away.

      Even if I never sing professionally again, I will always be a singer at heart!

      Best wishes to you,

      Kathryn

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  19. Rosalie

    I’m so sorry to hear what you’ve been through Kathryn, yet this is so heartening to read as I’m going through an almost identical experience as we speak – I’m a singer, guitarist and music teacher, have chronic acid reflux, stomach problems, throat pain and voice loss for 2 years (as well as the hoarse voice after nights out that you describe since being a teenager), speech therapy, gaviscon and Omeprazole, diets, cutting out foods etc, and have stopped socialising as it’s too hard to speak in loud places and means speaking and singing is painful for the rest of the week and I have to cancel work. I’ve considered changing careers, but like you music is such a core part of my life that I can’t imagine doing anything different. It’s so upsetting not being able to express yourself through your voice isn’t it! Please don’t give up though! A singer friend of mine went through years of vocal pain and speech therapy and actually got better, mainly because his speech therapist helped him identify issues about himself, his personality, his job etc that were making him anxious and stressed and making his vocal muscles ‘protect’ themselves by tensing up and letting other (wrong) muscles take over and support the voice. More importantly she gave him strategies for dealing with these issues. I wonder if there’s more psychology involved for you than it seems, and it might be worth finding a speech therapist who gets this? I’m certainly starting to realise that’s the case for me – when your voice is your main tool and your most prized possession there’s so much pressure on it to NOT go wrong, that it almost makes it fail you. Anyway, I’m sure you’ve already thought about all these things, but at any rate thank you so much for sharing your story, it really helps to hear that I’m not alone in this! The very best of luck to you

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear Rosalie,

      So much of what you speak of here sounds very familiar; isn’t it strange how people can have nearly identical experiences. Knowing that somehow makes it a little easier.

      I had my first speech therapist shocked at how much I had developed muscles to protect what had become damaged, that of course, it was worsening the problem. I still believe my speaking voice has a lot to answer for, but have never been able to stay with a therapist long enough to work through the issues (despite not knowing exactly what they are).

      It is something I will surely look into, but stepping away from it all felt like the right thing to do. Time is not necessarily on our side, but I know I need to withdraw from the industry for a while to find happiness away from it all. I believe being in a better headspace may increase my chances for regaining my voice and singing again in the future and will trust my instincts if that time ever comes again. I hope it does.

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I really hope it improves for you also.

      All the best.

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  20. Jen

    Kathryn,

    Reading your story was like reading my own…I am a dramatic soprano singing Wagner…I almost came to a halt myself with horrendous silent reflux and chronic burping…I even sang through a Ring Cycle, burping my way through under my breath with no one knowing….it was AWFUL..I was drinking Gaviscon like it was water…also had tried everything under the sun in large amounts and my gut just got worse as did my voice.
    I MUST tell you, I did find the holy grail of medicine and now, as long as I am on this medication I am absolutely fine. It is a Chinese Medicine, given to me by a very well known and wonderful Chinese Doctor in New York Named Dr. Quin Cai Zhang. If other singers are reading this, please take note…this medicine saved my voice.
    It is called Yunnan Baio…it has no dangerous side effects and has been used for over 1000 years in China for gut conditions and reflux. Kathryn, if you are in the UK, high grade shops in china town do sell this medicine.
    Please contact me privately for any more questions about it…I cannot express how much I understand your situation and really feel for you.. even if you decide to still not sing, this will help you live a much better quality of life, reflux free.

    Warmest Wishes,
    J. G.

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear Jen,

      I’m so delighted to see you had success with a particular remedy. I, myself, tried chinese medicine but didn’t have much luck with it. I didn’t, however, know exactly the name of the medicine that was prescribed to me, and there is a chance that it may not have been the one you have mentioned above so I will certainly look into that.

      Thank you for sharing this invaluable information; I may very well contact you for more information in time.

      Regards,

      Kathryn

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  21. David

    Hi,

    I was touched by your story and really appreciate how honest and candid you are about your process. I can’t help but feel that there is more to explore here for you. Please let me know if I am meddling in any way. It is not my intention whatsoever. I only offer what I do, to perhaps assist you in your journey.

    I am a singer myself and someone who has worked with professional singers in New York City, since about 1979. I was always fascinated with the link between the body and our psyche, and have pursued this path for about 40 years. I have tried to get to the bottom of what prevents us from doing what we love- which is to sing for audiences. I have a couple of thoughts if you will indulge me a bit here please:

    1) We are a human mammal after all and so we have instincts, and one of them has to do with relating to others. Our ability to express ourself is connected with this instinct, or call it this instinctive, innate ability. Speaking and singing (essentially the same physiological process) must be done completely relaxed with no tension in the throat whatsoever, or we know what can happen with any over involvement in the throat. A lot of singers do not ‘somatically’ understand this basis principle of ‘no throat tension’, which can cause problems down the road; inflammation, nodules, polyps, loss of voice, and maybe then leading to surgery. But the vocal folds is not where voice is produced. They only produce an ’embryonic vibration’ that is in turn picked up in the front of the mouth and nasal cavity and turned into speech and singing. which are again, the same physiological event.

    2) Fear, be it conscious or unconscious, can actually be held as tension in our bodies, called unresolved fear, or unresolved stress. These held memories often began when we were children and where never consciously recognized nor resolved (my background in somatic trauma resolution began in 1985). What it can do is inhibit the small muscles of survival, the little muscles of respiration that actually control the moving column air that feeds the vocal apparatus, preventing it from functioning in a completely relaxed, and energy efficient manner (as when we speak and are not monitoring ourselves). This ‘ unconscious holding in the body’ forces many singers to over-exert, and in turn can set up inflammation in the vocal folds which I have seen in performers for a long time, and with other undiagnosed or unresolved digestive, environmental, or psychological issues, prevent us from doing what we love to do in a completely natural manner. We are, after all, delicate organisms with limits or in other words, can only take so much- after which some compensatory mechanism will take over to attempt to manage our overload (fear/stress).

    3) I cannot help but think that there is an food allergy that is causing this issues and which most allopathic doctors cannot assist with.

    respectfully offered,

    David

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear David,

      No, not meddling at all. I fully appreciate your advice and experiences.

      I know I carry many tensions in my body and am slowing undertaking techniques to help me release them little by little. I also hold tensions in wanting to ‘control’ all that I am. My singing, my personality, etc, etc. Another issue that I’m slowly unravelling. I genuinely feel as if I’m on a long path to healing, and perhaps regaining my voice will be my prize for seeing it all through. I certainly hope so!

      Thank you, again, for you kinds words and advice.

      All the best to you.

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  22. Olive

    Hi Kathryn,

    So sorry to hear about this. I thank you for posting and for your honesty. I am a young mezzo in Australia. I have been training since 2010 and will soon begin my Masters. In my second year (three years ago), I suffered from a physical and nervous breakdown. I was left not only with anxiety issues but also terrible fatigue. I was unable to get out of bed for over a month because I was so physically unwell. The doctors said it would pass. Now, exactly three years since that happened, I am still not well and have known since January that I suffer from CFS: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It is a mild case because I still manage to study full time and enter competitions and do a few gigs. I am only just managing though. I spend sometimes more than half the time in bed and suffer from extreme exhaustion, body aches, teariness, headaches, sore throats and other symptoms.

    I am committed to continuing training and not letting my illness define my decisions. I wanted to sing Octavian in a big house when I started training and I still do. However, it’s so hard for me to hear about the busy schedules of my colleagues, to listen to our movement teacher tell us every week that we have to be busy every day and work as hard as possible. It’s hard for me to force myself to get out of bed and attend rehearsals, to find the energy to perform, to not let it show when I feel dizzy and like I can’t think properly and like I will start crying at anything that happens.

    I hate that I can’t tell people. I don’t want my colleagues to know because it might affect my chance of getting work. But at the same time, I hate pretending that everything is ok. That’s what our movement teacher said we should do if we feel sick.

    I hate that I have never met another singer who suffers from CFS. I hate that if I tell someone they often don’t understand. Like when I told my teacher and she said that maybe if I get more sleep I won’t feel so tired. And when my mother said that maybe I wasn’t sick on the weekend because I was in a different place and less stressed and not thinking about it. If I knew a way to make it go away, I would! But it is a chronic illness with no cure- nothing can be done. My doctor looks at me sympathetically when I say that the herbs he gives me don’t work, but he has nothing to say.

    I’m trying my best to keep going because I love my career path and I love opera. Sometimes I wish that I had the energy I used to have, though. It’s hard.
    Thanks for providing a space for us to share. 🙂 all the best!

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear Olive,

      Your story is so sad. Do you think it’s the career and the stresses it brings that has led you to such ill-health, or do you believe that no matter what career path you would have chosen, you would have encountered the same problems?

      I am assuming you’re age given that you are just to start your masters, but have you considered a ‘sabbatical’ yourself as you have time on yours hands? I truly believe that no career is more important than your own health. I struggled at first with admitting giving up on my hopes and dreams. The truth is, they are still there, but I am learning to realise life has much else to offer in different ways. I may well return to singing professionally, and there is nothing to say that you couldn’t also return in time, and that if your health could improve, then your chances at a career will do so as well.

      I have obviously made this decision, and though it was a very hard one, it was the right one for me. I may go back. In all honesty, my hope is to have a voice with which I can sing freely all the time, and should I so wish to eventually use that professionally again, then maybe I will.

      In the other comments, someone has posted another blog which might do you well to read:

      http://www.thegloss.com/2012/06/05/career/i-gave-up-my-dream-and-id-do-it-again-731/

      Don’t give up, but remember, there are other ways. And also, many successful colleagues of mine didn’t do ‘the masters route’. Life experience can get you a great deal further than a couple of extra years in college can.

      Love to you, and like everyone here has stated, don’t see changing the path you planned as a failure, but simply a necessary diversion.

      Kathryn

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  23. Pingback: Musical Toronto

  24. deannagtz

    That was really incredible for you to share! This may sound crazy (in fact I’m pretty sure it will because when I was first told about this stuff I sure thought it was), but have you heard of medicinal grade essential oils? My husband had severe acid reflux (was up for surgery) and also monitored his food, but now he is using a digestive blend of these oils when he needs some help, or preventatively before a meal he knows will be trouble, and it’s made a huge difference and there aren’t the side effects of all the synthetic drugs (not that they don’t have their place too when needed). I’m happy to help you with more info about this if it’s of interest to you and if you are open to natural forms of healthcare. Regardless, this was wonderful for you to write and I wish you great joy in whatever paths you take.

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear Deanna,

      Thanks for your message and kind words.

      I haven’t heard of medicinal grade essential oils, no. I have to say, I didn’t expect to hear of so many other remedies after writing this article, but it seems I have few more to explore after all!

      I’m really glad they have made such a big difference to your husband’s condition and I hope they continue to do so.

      Thanks again for sharing.

      Kathryn

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  25. Christine

    A friend of mine posted this on Facebook and I’m so glad she did. I’m sorry to hear about your struggles and I hope you find your voice in a meaningful and fulfilling way again. Perhaps this post is a step in that direction. As a singer-turned SLP specializing in voice disorders, I applaud anyone who is willing to speak openly about their struggles. Many vocalists are dealing with some degree of difficulty and it is often just blamed on “bad technique,” when sometimes this isn’t the case, which is why there is still such a stigma associated with voice problems. There is often fear of seeing a laryngologist to get real answers. Thank you for offering a place for this to be discussed. Your post has already inspired some to talk about their health and vocal difficulties. I wish you all the best in your journey.

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear Christine,

      It’s great to read your comments; thank you.

      Whilst I didn’t mention it in the article specifically, you’re absolutely right about why speaking about vocal issues is so taboo, and this is, as you say, that it is assumed bad technique is the root cause of the problem. It’s simply not always the case, and often isn’t. A singer might have the best technique, but that won’t stop them from catching a nasty chest infection thus causing the vocal folds to become swollen and aggravated.

      From the very beginning of my singing career right through to giving up, I had five vocal tutors (some I studied much longer with than others), some of which taught very different, almost opposing techniques. As mentioned, I went from being a high mezzo, to nearly an alto, and eventually a lyric soprano; that’s what differing techniques can do to a voice. Never, however, did any teacher ‘fix’ the ongoing voice loss problems, neither did the two speech therapists I worked with, as eventually there wasn’t much more to be fixed, but that the acid continued to cause vocal cord edema and redness of the larynx. That’s not to say I have a perfect technique; far from it, I’m sure. I’m certain my speaking voice could have better placement, too, but it won’t take away that fundamental issue.

      Anyway, others are encouraging me to approach the colleges in the hope the all performers can be taught to read the warning signs, and have mentors on hand to speak openly about any problems (emotional or physical). Feeling pressured into accepting certain vocally taxing roles too soon should also be avoided. It really has to be about the long game, otherwise one might not be playing the game for long.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Kind regards,

      Kathryn

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  26. fireandair

    I’m going to say something weird: Are you still on pitch when this husky business happens? There are other genres of music that are a bit more forgiving to let’s say unique vocal color. Tommy Jarrell didn’t play violin like Perlman does, but he still made an enormous mark on music expressing himself.

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    1. sopranoonsabbatical Post author

      Dear Fireandair,

      Thanks for your message.

      It’s been suggested before, but my head voice can be so temperamental at times, that occasionally there is no phonation at all.

      Also, it only seems to be singing opera that fulfills me in the way I described in the article. I started singing jazz prior to classical, and whilst that was enjoyable, it was commented that my vocal timbre was suited particularly to an operatic style.

      Perhaps in time I will experiment in other styles, though.

      All the best.

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  27. Fay Rees

    Dear Soprano,
    I heard your ‘essay’ on the radio last night & was very moved by your story. I suffer from the same problem as you. Much to my regret I don’t have a voice, so it isn’t as dramatic for me – except when the paramedics thought I was having a heart attack because the symptoms are identical in a really bad bout. My point is: each bout happens when I’m stressed or anxious. Last year, my doctor sent me to an osteopath who works on this & it’s been very, very effective. In the last year I’ve only had a few slight twinges even though I’ve been through some stressful events. I also do some 10 minutes’ Autogenic Training every day now too, & that helps too. Before learning the osteopath’s tec, I used to do the short version of Van Lysbeth’s anti-stress session, then life took over, I had no time for yoga & Hiatus Hernia took over.
    Yoga’s a great way to de-stress before performing, & after, to unwind.
    Since it develops lung capacity shouldn’t it be on the ‘to do’ list for every singer?
    With all my best wishes for your future.
    Fay Rees

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  28. Mari'an

    Deep respect here on reading your story. It made me wonder: did you ever use the lax vox technique. Of course this is primary for thw vocal chords and the throat but never the less it calmes my silent reflux.

    Liked by 1 person

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  29. Craig judge

    Hi,

    I was very moved by your story,I too have bloody reflux,which caused a tumor in my Oesophogous,which then had to be cut off.My diet is restricted from what it was,but I’m fitter and healthier than ever at 40,so its been a mixed blessing.Im a semi-pro singer and even though things are going well in that regard,the tremendous pressure to always be on form is extremely tough.I wish you the very best and hope you can regain your vocal strength after a long rest or find a new path which gives you the same feeling of expression and release.

    All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

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  30. Chris Gosling

    Heard this story for the first time on radio 3 this evening, sat in the car until it finished, enjoyed hearing the story……sometimes our vision of our life and what we aim for is sometimes just a mechanism to lead us on to things far greater….and with life and music sometimes the obvious is the easy bit, It’s all that is hidden and the time alone where the real battlefield lies

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