My interview with Mezzo-Soprano Heather Johnson

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!

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Heather Johnson: You had a vocal injury.  What injury did you have?
Maddy Miskie:
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.  

I felt my voice crack as I shifted registers and I thought ‘oh sh##$!
 

Heather Johnson: Was this shift all of a sudden or did it happen gradually?
Maddy Miskie:
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?
Maddy Miskie:
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.  
 

What are the most important things you would tell yourself?
 


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?
Maddy Miskie:
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!’
Maddy Miskie:
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.

"Singing Lessons With Madeline" By Michael Joel Hall

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.

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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)