Now that I was in full swing with Pilates Rehab, myotherapy and massage therapy, CK began my vocal exercises in earnest, allowing me to use my newly awakened core muscles. At first, I was extremely skeptical that doing these silly-sounding exercises could change anything for me. But I was so amazed at the difference I experienced just after a few weeks of doing them.
I would begin by doing some circumlaryngeal massages. This consisted of massaging the muscles that run along the outer sides of the thyroid cartilage, then gently moving the larynx from side to side. CK taught me how to find the thyrohyoid space and to very carefully massage this space in a small circular motion. When I first did this, my muscles were so crazy-tight it was hard to feel any space at all, but as my muscles responded to the massaging, my thyrohyoid space increased, relieving pain and bring about an increase of mobility. My daughter gave me some beautiful massage oil that smelled of gardenias to help make this painful yet necessary therapy enjoyable.
Once my throat was relaxed a bit, I would work on my Resonant Voice exercises. The goal of these exercises is to help me produce a strong, rich, “free” voice with reduced muscular effort. CK described it to me as a less effortful, front-focused, easy voice. The first time CK explained this I laughed—none of these words could be used to describe my voice or the effort it took for me to produce it. After years of using my upper chest and throat to breathe, I felt like I was pushing boulders up a mountain to make sound—nothing about it was effortless or easy.
CK would kindly correct my posture [I was a professional sloucher and huncher] and we’d practice bellow-like breathing. When I would feel less resistance in my chest or neck when exhaling, she would have me do some lip trills, then lightly start humming on a comfortable pitch. The goal was to feel a “buzzing” or vibratory sensation in my head bones and facial tissues. This did not happen right away—it took a good deal of work for me to channel my air to produce this feeling. It felt completely foreign and awkward, but once I was able to take my throat out of the mix, putting my lungs and face to work, the buzzing/vibration came and I knew what to work for.
I started practicing the resonant voice by learning how to hum correctly, then chanting made-up syllable of “molm” then going on to a list of “M” words, always going for the effortless buzzy feeling. From words we went to phrases, counting, reading passages and spontaneous sentences, all the while focusing on feeling the energy of my voice for each word. As I practiced phrases, sentences and passages, I noticed that many times my voice would drop off at the end, so I’d watch my breathing while I spoke, where I’d pause for breath and how many words I could say before needing to take a breath. I felt like I was learning to ride a bike all over again, so awkward and strange.
Another group of exercises I learned was the Stemple’s Vocal Function Exercises. This is a therapy program designed to balance and strengthen the laryngeal muscles and balance respiration, phonation, and resonance. Basically, you make funny sounds at different pitches trying to sustain them for a duration of time. To get my mouth in the correct position, CK had me begin doing these through a straw. I thought it was hilarious, but it works great. I bought a box of cute red and white straws and made sure I had one with me everywhere I went. If you’re driving down the road one day and see a middle-aged woman playing with a straw while she drives…it’s me. [Driving is a great time to practice some vocal exercises. You look weird but who cares?]
One of the biggest challenges for me to overcome was clearing my throat. I did it ALL THE TIME, to the point that I didn’t realize I was doing it. CK had me enlist the help of family and friends, having them gently remind me to swallow rather than clear my throat. It took a long time to overcome this, but now I hardly ever do it, having made the habit of swallowing. CK told me that clearing my throat was like rubbing it with sandpaper. That visual helped me to see the tremendous damage that comes from chronic throat clearing. [But I think my husband enjoyed a little too much being the throat-clearing policeJ]
The way I’ve described these exercises make it sound like I just picked it right up after a few tries….so not the case. If any of you have seen the movie The King’s Speech, where King George VI [played by Colin Firth] and his speech therapist [played by the brilliant Geoffrey Rush] go at their vocal exercises over and over and over again…and the King keeps stumbling and painfully gutting through it and the speech therapist so kindly and patiently invites him to “try one more time” …this was very similar to our experience. I bawled the first time I saw this movie—these scenes still bring tears to my eyes as I think of the courage it takes to gain a confident voice…and the kindness and patience CK had with me. It’s so much more than a sound, it’s who we are, what we think and feel about ourselves all wrapped around the many times we’ve failed at producing words that sound like what we are feeling and thinking. Do we try one more time and suffer the humiliation of failure and live another day with the weakness of having no physical/mental/emotional voice? All of these thoughts and questions were going through my mind as I faced one of my biggest challenges: public speaking.
My position in my church was that of Stake Primary President: I was responsible for approximately eight-hundred children and their two-hundred leaders. My responsibilities included many meetings which required me to address large groups of people on a weekly basis. I didn’t suffer from the normal fears of public speaking—having been raised in a church that expects this of their members and kindly trains them from an early age, I was well honed in this area. When given an assignment to speak, I had no problem preparing and conveying whatever information needed to be given to however large a group of people. My problem was my inability to breathe correctly along with vocal cord dysfunction, which, after just a few moments of continual speaking, left me in a state of hyperventilation, hands tingling and cramping, and lips blue and numb. So much of my focus was on how my body would react that very little of my energy was given to what I was saying. Most of my addresses came off as choppy and awkward, having to breathe at unlikely times. I experienced so much anxiety that a good portion of my sentences would end with a voice drop-off. I always felt that my painful delivery was so distracting that the message I was trying to convey was lost on the listener. It was an enormous understatement to say I dreaded every part of public speaking and felt like a complete failure at it.
Thankfully, through the structure of my church, I was blessed with two counselors, a secretary and a music and nursery specialist, all composing my presidency. These were kind, intelligent women who understood everything I was going through and were some of my biggest cheerleaders through my journey of healing. They would take my place in speaking assignments when it was appropriate, but many times it was solely my job to speak. At these times they would be right by my side with water, cough drops, whatever I needed to get me past the hyperventilation. As CK would teach me these vocal exercises, I would share them with my presidency and they became a wonderful source of reinforcement. It was our sad but funny joke that the hardest thing for me to do was to stand, with a bra on, and speak continually. Sometimes my post-speaking recovery would include going to my car and unfastening my bra for a few minutes.
When I first began with CK, having been so ill, I was relieved of all speaking assignments, regardless of the circumstances. But this could only go on for so long, so as I began to improve and become stronger, we set a date for me to take a speaking assignment. It would be a chance for me to put to use all these great tools that CK had taught me. When the time came, I was surrounded by my presidency, each one quietly going through breathing exercises with me, offering encouragement and support. I had to give a talk to about a hundred people at a child’s baptism, standing on an elevated stand, behind a podium and a microphone. When it was my turn to speak, I stood and walked to the podium, taking a deep, cleansing bellow-breath. I looked down into the faces of families all coming for what they were hoping would be a very special, meaningful baptismal experience for their child…and began.
I was super self-aware of my breathing and voice through the first few paragraphs, but then something amazing happened. My breathing felt like it stood up and began walking on its own. I didn’t have to watch it and my mind began focusing on what I was saying, the meaning of what I was trying to convey. My heart and mind, not focusing on breathing or the lack thereof, were given freedom to become a part of the message. I felt whole and in the moment and before I knew it I was done…and I felt great! I could have kept talking for several more minutes without any effort at all. When I turned and went back to my seat, my dear presidency was crying tears of joy for me. When the meeting was over, we went into the hallway and celebrated, jumping up and down, hugging and crying—no need to take my bra off this time J I was able to enjoy meeting family and visiting with people after the meeting…something I could rarely do before. I felt like I had made it over a huge milestone and I couldn’t wait to tell CK all about it.
To be continued...