Dr. Evan Leontis and I discuss how we have both experienced profound changes in our lives, our voices and in our teaching as the result of practicing yoga for a number of years. It always comes up in our conversations and so we’ve decided to share what we’ve learned with you.Read More
Potomac Vocal Institute (PVI) Workshop ‘When Life Intrudes’
The United Church, Washington D.C.
It was an honor and a joy for me to lead a morning ‘Yoga for Singers’ workshop for the Potomac Vocal Institute’s workshop ‘When Life Intrudes’ on Saturday November 18, 2017. I suffered a minor vocal injury in 2011 (in the middle of graduate school) and found yoga around the same time. Since then, yoga has become a companion practice to my singing and I’m thrilled to integrate both disciplines with my students today.
During the afternoon portion of the seminar we discussed vocal injury and illness; how it happens, why it happens, and what to do when it happens – in an effort to de-stigmatize it. During the afternoon, Heather Johnson (mezzo soprano), Arianna Zuckermann (soprano) and I shared our stories with the workshop participants. Heather led a wonderful discussion with the workshop participants about vocal injury and prevention and both Arianna and Heather talked about family life amidst a singing career. I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to share my story of vocal injury with these incredible women and with the rest of the workshop participants. I learned so much just by being there!
Here is an edited transcription of the interview; enjoy!
Heather Johnson: You had a vocal injury. What injury did you have?
I had vocal nodules back in 2011. I was halfway through my D.M.A. program at UMD and … at the time my brother had cancer, my sister was battling a life-threatening illness, I went through a break-up and I was a full time TA… I had a lot going on! Although I was getting paid to TA, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills…and so I needed to find work outside of being a graduate assistant…so in the midst of all of that I took on every job, every little chorus opportunity that came along, I said yes to every student and I also had very bad reflux at the time. Mid-semester, I came to the realization that my high register was not as easily accessible as it usually was and I found that I had greater difficulty transitioning in between registers; particularly from middle range to my high range. My voice felt fuzzy and bottom-heavy and I was starting to freak out.
Heather Johnson: Was this shift all of a sudden or did it happen gradually?
It happened gradually. I think there were some technical things that I hadn’t ironed out by that point in graduate school (I was 27 at the time) and with stress, pressure, reflux and overuse, these issues were magnified to the point where they snowballed. One day, I was at a rehearsal over at National Presbyterian with the Washington Chorus singing soprano 1 and I felt my voice crack as I shifted registers and I thought ‘oh sh##$!’. If the vocal cords can’t come all the way together, you overcompensate; you use force to push them together, which makes them worse, so you get into this cycle which explains why my singing got progressively worse.
I cancelled the rest of my classes for that week and I went to the ENT and got scoped. My ENT is Dr. David Bianchi in Silver Spring --- he has a very kind manner and he told me that ‘just like ballerinas get callouses on their feet, it’s common for singers to get callouses on their vocal folds’. Again I thought ‘Oh s#%^!’ At the time I felt this huge pressure of being a doctoral student where there’s the expectation that you are at your highest level singing-wise, but you’re also showing other people how to sing and I just felt like a fake. In my head, the chatter went something like this: “I’m a fake teacher, I’m a fake singer, I don’t know what I’m doing…and in 2 years my scholarship runs out so I’ve gotta finish this thing or quit.” So I took myself out to dinner and I thought ‘Am I gonna quit singing and quit my degree program?’ I wanted to quit singing so badly because the thought of not being able to sing well and teach with integrity felt like a burden that was too much to bear.
I thought maybe I could jump ship from vocal performance and instead make a career teaching piano lessons and writing about art song (I love doing my own translations and analyzing & interpreting songs). I went home for a long weekend to visit my parents and decompress from the stress after my diagnosis. When I returned on a Monday morning, I taught my 2 sections of class voice for non-majors as well as my voice minor students. Although I was going through so much internal turmoil, I realized that none of them had any idea what was going on with my voice; nor did they care; they just trusted me to teach them. They were so fresh-faced and eager to learn and they asked excellent questions, so I felt like I couldn’t let them down. I made the decision to suck it up and finish the degree. During the same time period, I started practicing yoga, which helped me to deal with my stress load. I found that after I practiced yoga I would go into the practice room and all of a sudden my singing started to sound better and better.
At my initial diagnostic ENT appointment, I received a cortisone shot for the swelling. After that, I was advised to take a week off of singing and talking. After three weeks I was given a thumbs up to start singing again. The swelling of the vocal folds had gone down, the redness from the reflux had lessened and I was taking steps to change my diet / lifestyle to deal with my acid reflux. The nodules themselves were so small; in an of themselves it wasn’t that big of a deal. The real problem for me was that over the course of months that they formed, I had developed what felt like a knot of tension and bad physical patterning (i.e. technical issues that needed to be addressed). I needed to re-train myself to sing more efficiently. I made myself go into the practice room every day and started to rebuild my technique from the ground up. It was a real blessing because it gave me the opportunity to apply a great deal of the information I learned in my vocal pedagogy classes over the years.
Heather Johnson: When you discovered you had an injury, did you tell your teachers? What was their reaction?
Disbelief. My teacher at the time couldn’t hear anything wrong with my voice. Even after I showed her the picture of my vocal folds, she couldn’t believe it. Maybe my singing didn’t sound awful, but it definitely felt awful; like there was a knot in my throat. I decided to change teachers.
My new teacher was willing and able to work with me to gradually rehabilitate my voice but she encouraged me not to tell anyone what was going on. I was very aware of the stigma (I feared getting vocal nodules ever since I knew what they were!) and I was terrified of being cast aside for future opportunities. I PROMISED MY SELF that if I was ever able to sing again professionally, I would tell my story in order to help remove the stigma that exists in the vocal performance world surrounding injuries. I want to tell my story and just let other people know that it happens to a lot more people than you might realize. It is possible to get through it and it is possible to learn from it. When I shared my story with a fellow voice teacher; she said ‘Thank God you had this injury when you were 27 and in school and not when you’re older with gigs lined up.’ Now, moving forward I feel like I have a much better sense of my body awareness, breath awareness and other tools that I can use for myself and also share with my students.
Heather Johnson: If you could go back and tell yourself anything pre-injury, having the knowledge you have now (post-injury), what would it be? What are the most important things you would tell yourself?
You can say no. You don’t have to take every singing / teaching opportunity, although sometimes we (singers and performers) are made to feel as though we have to. Say no. Also: There’s no rush. I just remember from the time I knew what opera was, I promised myself as soon as I got my first role, that I would have an opera lined up on the calendar, one after the other for the rest of my life! That’s crazy! Also, I would tell my past self (and others!) to take time and really get to know your technique before you sign up for everything and say yes to everything!
For about a year or two after my diagnosis, I felt very alone. My new teacher was very safe. She gave me exercises that were healthy and I am eternally grateful to her for her infinite patience. Shortly after I was diagnosed, I went to a speech pathologist for one visit and she gave me a couple of exercises, but I just got to this place where I realized that no teacher was going to fix this; I have to fix this. I have to go in there and re-train myself how to sing. I just remember going into the practice room and so many days of crying, so many voice lessons of crying. I remember the first time I sang through a folk song ‘The Salley Gardens’ without my throat grabbing and squeezing…I had a very big mental shift from wanting to sing for the purpose of becoming an amazing opera star; a person who is a stage animal, to someone who is just content with singing. . .
Heather Johnson: ‘You feel the joy in it again!’
Yes! I’m at a place now where I’d like to start performing more, but if for some reason that would never happen, I would be completely 100% OK with it because I get joy just from the act of singing and from teaching. Period.
After a particularly fitful rendition of the Ashtanga invocation, I was compelled to apologize to my students. "Sorry, I'm a terrible chanter," I said to the group. Years of "not sounding like the other boys" came to the surface in the form of apology and admittance.
Dr. Madeline Miskie a teacher of voice, came to me that day and offered assistance in the form of singing lessons. I refused, until it all happened again. That time, I said yes.
For the first few months, it took everything I had not to flip over her keyboard and bawl and apologize. I felt so exposed, and yet the exercises were all so simple. I remember crying when the tension in my jaw released, and not having any clear understanding of why. This didn't phase my teacher: She held space for the unfurling of sound, emotion, and trust.
I'll never forget the first time a stranger joined in and smiled as I biked down the street singing "Friends in Low Places"-- this was a very different response than I had ever had before.
Along the way, my pranayam practice shifted. My bravery buttressed between resolve and Reality, no longer tethered to the past. At 32, I'd become a singer.
I won't bore you with the yarns relating to the power of beginning to feel, hear, and visualize wave forms. It deepened my appreciation of the practice's method in minor and major ways. Who wants to hear about manipulating wave forms as they dance from the pelvic floor to the soft palate, anyway?
I can only say you're not too old, too broken, too queer, or to shy. If you want to learn, you can. It is an integral, immutable part of my Ashtanga practice now-- there is no series in the system quite like it that I've come across (I've got a few more to go ;)).
~Michael Joel Hall (Founder & Director, DC Ashtanga dcashtanga.com)
Level 2 Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Instructor
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute Mysore, India (2015)
I started music school when I was 18 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY with hell-bent determination for success on the opera stage. My mind was set on making it to the Metropolitan Opera and you better believe that I was going to get there or die trying. I knew I could sing, and sing well. I was hungry to learn all that I could about singing, opera, stagecraft----you name it; anything that had to do with music, I was all in, and I mean ALL IN. I also had a chip on my shoulder about trying to ‘prove’ to everyone that I could be successful without having a ‘back-up plan’. The words ‘something to fall back on’ made me queasy. In my mind, there were no other options---and even if there were, I couldn’t see them because I was so hyper-focused on my goal!
I was also impatient. I wanted to do everything right away ---- sing all the big arias, play all the big roles and maybe even land a summer festival contract ----as a college freshman! I was a little frustrated that my voice teacher, Rita Shane, gave me relatively simplistic songs in English and Italian on the first day of lessons. Instead of ramping up the level of musical difficulty, Rita wanted to focus on developing consistent technique in simpler repertoire (a VERY smart choice on her part). After freshman year was over and I asked her what was her recommendation for how much practice time would be appropriate over the summer and she responded with a gleaming smile saying ‘Take a break! Don’t sing at all!’, I was confused and a little disappointed. [**It is important to give Ms. Shane proper credit for being a class-act. She was an internationally renowned singer whose professionalism and dedication to her students was admirable---she also gave out honey drop candies and her studio smelled like Chanel.] When I finally was cast in a very small role in an opera my junior year, I was determined to fill my calendar for the rest of my LIFE with singing engagements. Do I sound crazy yet?
During my undergraduate, some of my colleagues would talk about taking a yoga class here and there at the YMCA. I remember feeling slightly annoyed with my smiling classmates as they described how relaxed it made them feel after they had stretched and calmed their breath down. Although I was a member at the Y and regularly got my cardio and circuit training in, I never attended a yoga class there. Yoga seemed too slow for me---I wanted to feel like I was ‘working hard’ and stretching seemed like a waste of time (obviously I was taking life as a ‘serious’ music student pretty damn SERIOUSLY!). I decided to take the path of ignorance and did NOT investigate yoga, tai-chi, or anything else that would have most certainly calmed me down (although I did ramp up my intake of caffeine during that 4-year period!).
Grad school wasn’t much better. What I really needed to do was to CHILL OUT, but in a masters degree program that put on 7 operas in 2 years, there wasn’t much time for that (or I didn’t make the time for it)---so it was easy for me to keep spinning my wheels. The bright spot during that time was movement class; twice a week. Our teacher, Alcine Wiltz was a dancer who used Laban, Yoga and Pilates to heal himself from some injuries in his mid-thirties. Now a seasoned Professor Emeritus, his main focus was to help all of us opera singers cultivate a movement practice that stemmed from efficiency [ i.e. What are you doing that you can let go of? Are you muscling your way through this sequence or are you a limp, wet noodle? Can we
find the balance between effort and ease? Etc.]. I noticed that if I would sing immediately after his class, my voice FELT better and my mood was better. As I delved further and further into the anatomy and physiology involved with singing efficiently in my course-work, I discovered in the practice room that WOW, was I ever tense! I sensed that I had a LOT of work to do to unlock tension in my voice and in my body. This curiosity led to an independent study with Prof. Wiltz during the first year of my doctoral studies. While under his guidance, I attended some Feldenkreis and Alexander Technique classes and journaled about my movement practice (swimming, stretching, running, movement sequences) with noticeable improvement in my singing, posture and breathing. Although I was still very much determined to be a famous opera star, I became fascinated by what I learned in my movement practice and I began integrating new concepts with my private students.
Everything came to a head during the second year of my D.M.A. I felt like I was under pressure to do everything ‘perfectly’ because I was the recipient of a substantial teaching scholarship. In order to supplement my stipend, I took on outside teaching jobs and chorus positions. It felt like there was no time to stop and focus on solidifying the material I learned from my independent study or to continue to educate myself on body awareness. On top of it all, two of my immediate family members were suffering from life-threatening illnesses AND I went through a break-up. I felt strangled by my circumstances and I started noticing – almost overnight --- that suddenly my upper vocal range was no longer easy and free and---what’s this?!---I had a strange blip in my sound in the upper middle register that I had never experienced before. My stressed-out, workaholic mindset led me to habits of pushing and forcing that manifested themselves in my voice. I went to visit a lovely ENT in the DC area who diagnosed me with severe acid reflux and teeny tiny vocal nodules---GASP! For a classical singer this diagnosis can sound the alarm and I was no exception.
I seriously considered dropping out of my graduate program and forfeiting my full-fellowship. I simply felt like a fake singer---I couldn’t properly model the technique I was describing, so therefore (in my own mind) I was a fake. Even after the steroid shots, the 3-week vocal rest period, and the ‘thumbs up’ / you’re in the clear’ from my doctor, I still felt like I had a tension-filled stress knot that reeked of bad vocal habits nestled in my throat that simply had to be untied. Maybe I could be a writer and publish commentary on art songs---or perhaps teach piano lessons or go back to school for something else---some other career? The REAL problem here was that I equated my value as a person with my value as a singer. To be honest, the only thing that kept me in the game was teaching. TEACHING! Thank God for teaching. Thank God for all of the students who trusted me, who asked questions and showed up for my classes and private lessons! Their love for singing, their fresh faced honesty and sincere desire to learn inspired me to suck it up, go back into the practice room and figure it all out; if not for myself then at least for the sake of their development.
In addition to changing vocal teachers and re-structuring my vocal practice / habits, I knew I wanted a positive change in my life. My skepticism from years before had worn off and I figured ‘what the hell?’ so I signed up for a yoga class at a studio in DC where I had attended an Alexander Workshop. The class was at 7am, it was hard, my movements were clumsy and
awkward AND I got a parking ticket but WOW, did I feel AMAZING. The idea to study yoga and become a yoga teacher came to me on the first day of the first class I ever attended. Similar to my experience of having noticeably improved singing after my movement classes, I noticed that after yoga my voice felt better. Significantly better! I signed up for a membership right away at the yoga studio and have never looked back since.
Although there were days when I couldn’t get through an octave scale without my throat squeezing and grabbing, there WERE many small victories. I’ll never forget the day I sang ‘The Salley Gardens’ with an open throat---I wept tears of gratitude! I sang Disney songs and songs from Broadway shows that I sang as a teenager just to feel some joy in my singing. Thanks to regular yoga practice (i.e. learning how to feel my body and coordinate it with my breath) I learned to find (by feeling) exactly where and when I was pushing and squeezing my voice. Through increased physical awareness I was able to slowly let go of the physical patterns that inhibited my singing. Using the model of efficiency; balancing effort and ease, I rebuilt my voice from the ground up.
Another life-saver during this very difficult time was my work-study at the yoga studio. In exchange for a free monthly membership, I spent about 4 hours a week at the studio folding towels, washing cups, checking students in, straightening props and changing the toilet paper rolls. At Kali, I felt appreciated just for being me---I felt recognized as Madeline---the friendly face who checked people in. People didn’t know me as a singer or a teacher—they just knew me as Madeline, if they knew my name at all.
In my first year and a half of regular yoga practice I sampled various forms of yoga; including Vinyasa, Yin, Yoga Nidra, Rocket, Forrest and Bikram, as well as some seated meditation. In July 2014 I attended a Led-Primary Series (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) taught by Michael Joel Hall (founder, DC Ashtanga) and thereafter committed to regular Mysore-style instruction in this discipline, which has been my main practice since then. I admire the specific structure and cumulative style of the Ashtanga yoga system and I also appreciate the one-on-one learning style afforded by the Mysore tradition. In Ashtanga, postures are held for a counted number of breaths---as a life-long musician, I’m not at all surprised that I gravitated towards a yoga style that is based on counted movements!
These days, I continue to discover new ways to release my sound and stand on my head (not at the same time) and thankfully, I’m no longer obsessed with becoming the next big opera star. I had to give up the role of the impatient, fame-seeking opera-aspirant in order to take time to take a good long look at myself in the mirror and figure out how to really sing. This long process forced me to develop true patience, fortitude and gratitude. Bottom line: Today, I’m grateful just to be able to sing healthily and well! I’m eternally grateful to my students who inspired me to keep going during the dark days when I thought I wanted to quit. I truly love to sing just for the sake of singing; not fame, rhinestones and glory. I know now that learning about my voice and sharing what I learn with others IS THE THING that I love best. Singing is a gift, a joy and a privilege that I will never ever take for granted.