Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thoughts on Generosity

I had a wonderful conversation with a client the other day about generosity- both the ability to be generous, and to be able to do so selflessly, with no thought to receiving something in return; with no regard for the potential of being 'taken advantage of'.

I experience this conversation- and the same general reaction (huh?) to my views- often in my studio. There is always a surprise at my desire and even determination to give; there is always a wonder at the idea that giving might not be contingent upon some proof by the receiver that he or she will indeed be grateful and/or will do something of equal measure in return.

In an attempt at an explanation, I ask my curious clients this question: how can limits be overstepped, how can lines be crossed, if boundaries haven't been drawn? Further, if 'invasions of privacy' and 'constant giving' are anticipated and seen as opportunities to share, connect and help- to love and improve the life of another through kindness, if nothing else- then how could these generous actions be anything but positive, for everyone involved?

For those that see this argument as unbearably 'Pollyanna-like', I assure you that the benefits are applicable to both receiver and giver. When I allow myself in the quietness of my smaller moments to dwell on the technicalities of my schedule or fees- the practicality of my practice and career- both my mind and practice inevitably become smaller... how can great, free and brave ideas be born from time-bound thinking that revolves around details of budget, schedules, income and to-do lists? Further, being willing to give constantly keeps my mind and heart open, which greatly improves my own life, relationships and self. While many would insist that I am opening and propping wide a very dangerous door, I have never once felt overwhelmed from this way of thinking and being; in fact, exhaustion comes only when I try to compartmentalize, separate and isolate myself for fear of being taken advantage of.

I'm not sure why the horse is before the cart for me on this issue; certainly there are other areas in my life where the reverse is true, but in terms of lending books, being flexible with session length and fees, and being available at all times to clients by phone, text and email, I find that this openness is not something that is ever taken advantage of, but instead, that it renews the faith of and faith in people, and in turn, breeds like kindness.

While many would disagree, I truly believe in Carl Rogers' notion that all people are inherently good; that we all strive for balance, openness and interconnectedness. Those that seem to contradict this adage- upon a closer look- often have experienced a great lack of kindness, generosity and indeed, love in their lifetimes. Like physical injury, emotional scars take years to heal, and often- if the insults are repeated- never do. If however, an environment can be fostered where people are unconditionally and constantly given kindness, trust, warmth, and the benefit of the doubt, not only do they grow both personally and vocally, but the world- and the views of those in it- begin to shift from a place of seeming scarcity (of time, money, trust, talent and love) to one of abundance. Rogers' 'unconditional positive regard' is indeed a universal medicine that can heal a million wounds.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Pre-nodules, Nodules, Acid Reflux and Vocal Care

As every singer knows, we’re only as good as our voices sound on a given day. Whether it’s allergies, fatigue, or a cold– or something more serious– we’re largely at the mercy of our instruments.

The good news is that most voice problems– even the most seemingly troublesome ones– are usually nothing to stress over. Even when we lose our voices, rarely are things so serious as to warrant surgery. Polyps (watery sacs often caused from a single, powerful vocal blowout) and hemorrhages (resulting from the bursting of a blood vessel in a vocal fold) are often exceptions to this rule, but incidents of both are few and far between, and rates of surgical success are extremely high.

Much more common, when it comes to vocal pathology, are vocal nodules and ‘pre-nodules’, which unlike polyps and hemorrhages, are caused from prolonged vocal strain and misuse. Ongoing tension causes swelling of the vocal cords, which in time develops into harder, callous-like growths. These growths interfere with the natural vibration necessary for a healthy vocal sound, resulting in a raspy, throaty tone, particularly in certain areas of the range. Happily, while nodules are sometimes removed surgically, vocal rest, therapy, and retraining usually allows them to diminish, and the vocal cords to return to their healthy state.

If you’re experiencing vocal troubles beyond a normal cold or sore throat, the best first step is to schedule a visit with an Otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) who can look at your vocal cords to see exactly what the problem is. If you have voice loss or discomfort, it’s a good idea to rest your voice as much as possible until your appointment. 

One of the most commonly diagnosed voice issue is acid reflux, caused by stomach acid coming back up through the esophageal sphincter and into the larynx, resulting in the reddening and swelling of the vocal cords. Unlike indigestion, many people don't feel reflux, only the symptoms of it... itchy throat, hoarse voice (especially in the morning), and an inability to 'clear the cords'. These issues tend to cause singers to overcompensate by working harder through the ‘thickness’ to produce sound, often in unhealthy ways.

On its own, reflux isn’t usually an issue that will put your voice at risk. That said, any resulting pushing and strain can lead to the creation of pre-nodules, nodules, and other vocal challenges.

As you may already know, there are some purely physical causes of reflux: eating too late, intense exercise after eating, going to bed on a full stomach, too much caffeine, eating spicy and other acidic foods, as well as hormone treatment therapies and birth control pills which loosen the lower esophageal sphincter (Click here for an in depth discussion about the cause and treatment of reflux). In my experience, however, anxiety and acid reflux usually go hand in hand. In fact, I’ve met very few calm, centered people with this issue.

If your doctor discovers that pre-nodules or nodules are present, complete vocal rest for two weeks is a good start to treatment. While this break will help, and sometimes even get rid of the growths, rest won't take care of whatever caused them; working with a voice coach or speech therapist is usually necessary to help you learn how to use your singing voice correctly. They will also help you to discover whether your speaking voice might also be creating problems. Lack of confidence, personal stress, and unexpressed or difficulty expressing emotions can also be huge contributors to vocal challenges, in the singing and speaking voices. 

Fortunately, true vocal pathology isn’t as common as people think; it isn’t the result of normal, powerful, and even prolonged, healthy practice or training. In fact, favoring your voice– going easy on it for fear of causing damage– may often cause more problems than singing in a full, supported, and confident voice. Fear tends to cause not only muscular tension, but for singers to 'pull off their air', thereby restricting the vocal tract and putting undue pressure on the vocal cords. Therefore, whatever vocal troubles you may be having, remember to keep things in perspective. You can handle and heal anything that comes your way. 

For more information on the psychology and technicality of voice production, visit Jennifer's website: Also check out Jennifer's book, The Art of Singing: Discovering and Developing Your True Voice as well as her articles in The Huffington Post and Psychology Today on authentic self-expression and performance. To work with Jennifer in person or on Skype / FaceTime on technical or emotional issues that interfere with your singing and self-expression, visit: