I have been thinking about the connection between voice and breath as a way to understand this new existence framed by my now official disability status. For persons with ALS, the physical manifestation of voice holds added meaning–bulbar onset usually means we lose our voices quickly in the dis ease progression, while limb onset means we agonize and worry about the vocal loss freight train rumbling toward us at its own unstoppable pace. You can measure vocal loss by the tinny electronic voices synthesized for our use. Of even greater significance is the breath. We who attend ALS Clinics or who participate in Patients Like Me ALS forums are well aware of the Forced Vital Capacity measure. Once it drops below a certain percentage, we are ineligible for most drug trials, causing pulmonary specialists and neurologists to start talking bi-pap or worse. The irony of the juxtaposition of my former life as a choral musician focused on breath and voice, with my dis ease that seeks breath and voice eradication, does not escape me.
When you direct a choir, one of the most important things you work with is refining the voice, the instrument of the choral experience. The voice is unique, intimate, indicative. In times of anger or sadness or lust or joy or any number of other descriptors that define the human experience, the voice more often than not shows first effect and last recovery. Under such circumstances, even the most rigorously trained cannot hope to vocally project without betraying emotion’s effects. While most of us learn to pay attention to a person’s body language, my choral identity taught me to listen more than look as a way of checking for truth. This was pretty useful as a high school principal as I could often detect small telltale signs when one of my kids was struggling to keep something out of their voice in order to obfuscate the full story. And it was a skill I continued to cultivate even as a college professor and administrator. It just helped me to be more empathetic, to hear the story around the words, to help construct a narrative we all could live with, agree on, even discard when no longer needed. All of this came from my early vocal training.
Humor me. I need to go back to the basics to sort this out.
The voice is dependent on breath. In an amateur choir, if you care about the quality of the collective sound, you probably spend more time on breathing and its association with vocal production than everything else combined. The breath is the foundation, the root, the connection we must establish and maintain for the voice to have presence, space, focus. If you are not connected, then the voice becomes reedy, airy, unsupported, out of kilter with the body and, believe it or not, disconnected from the soul of the music. Breath brings richness and presence and confidence to the most unsubstantial voice, and I often found great joy when a singer suddenly discovered the power she or he could project by attending to the breath. One of the outcomes of teaching choral musicianship was literally supporting my beloved singers in finding their voices, but even beyond this discovery was the hidden knowledge of the breath. In breathing is the most basic component by which we define life. You can perceive the sacred and profane in vocal production, determined by the holy life force found in the breath.
Or, another way to say it–if Pavarotti’s voice was God manifest, then the air he breathed was the Holy Spirit.
As a well inculcated western white male, the breath under my life-voice has always been a combination of my family, friends, work and holy spaces. It should be no surprise that I struggle to find my way into this new disability space since I was blessed with the good life’s work–preparing professionals to raise children to meet their potential, to effect wise leadership, to heal the rendered soul so life can move on. For me, the loss of my formal work is a kick in the gut, wind knocked out of me experience so that my underlying breath is out of kilter, and my new voice feels reedy in its quality. It isn’t that I am not breathing; I am just not supporting from the diaphragm, both literally and symbolically, as I used to do.
You probably noticed I did not post last week, with no explanation offered. I laid out two different blog entries using Dragon speech-to-text software, and in spite of vocally composing the pieces, I could not find my voice in the composition. It was like speaking down the large end of a megaphone–jumbled dumps of words with no center, no focus, no spirit crowding into the small space at the end–words tumbling out with no spiritual grounding, no real meaning except a chastising self-accusatory rant. Better not to put that out into the ethers.
And of course I set myself up with airy expectations of what one does when one “retires.” By now, I would have learned the software on which I must become more and more reliant. By now that book would be intellectually plotted. By now, I would have answered so many nice notes to thank people for their kind wishes and love, not to mention returning phone calls and thanking the countless lunch buddies generously checking on me and making sure I was fed. By now, I would have conceptualized the meta-analysis that would lead to revisiting failed ALS trials in combinations ripe for new conceptualization and success. By now, by now, by now…. Really, it is only today that I can admit the ravaged voice of intention without breath support.
In the past with this sort of challenge, I turned to concrete tasks. And last week was no exception. I organized and fixed the database that holds all the recorded music we own. I should have done this years ago. The ease with which I can find my daily soundtrack is delightful. But even here, I cannot escape the reality of loss. My left hand has now become a one finger wonder and as I type, it refuses to follow through or hover, dragging creatively random spellings into my attempts to standardize the labels that imbue databases with their utility. So the tried and true is another lesson in loss.
I am missing something.
In a choir, in any musical ensemble that strives for wholeness, holy unity, there is something else that brings you closer to the face of God. Like life, choral singing requires a delicate balance between the empowerment of voice and the responsibility to the ear. And there it is. We listen so that we can be one voice comprised of many, powerful in our foundations and sensitive to each other and the call of the musical task at hand. And I must do the same.
If I listen, this is what I hear.
There is nothing wrong with sitting quietly on a cloudy day just listening, listening to the sounds around me, listening to music or poetry or words or the inner voice that speaks when all is quiet. Find the quiet center. Find the purest tone. Find the holy. Find the always present voice, often drowned, over washed by the noise of productivity’s need. If the norm is loss, let go of the need to gain. Let go of the need to hold onto that whose ending is already written in the stars. Live through the ending, knowing that there is beauty in every moment of every breath, in every song, in the silent spaces, voices and breath and music.
If I listen.