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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What Singers Need to Know about Surgery

Hi there,

I'm sure everyone knows that surgery under a general anaesthetic is not something to be undertaken lightly. But did you know there is an additional concern when you're a singer? A singer friend told me years ago that his vocal cords got badly damaged when knocked by the breathing tube given to him during surgery under a 'general'. While he and his voice are back to normal now, it cost him months and months of extra work, vocal therapy and emotional turmoil. Is there information someone could have told him that may have prevented it?

I had the misfortune to need fairly major surgery recently and so I recounted my singer friend's story to my surgeon. He explained that in some cases there are different options that may help a singer protect their most valuable asset. He told me it is always worth asking your doctor whether using a mask, instead of a breathing tube, for the anaesthetic is possible. In my case apparently, as with most longer and more complex surgeries, unfortunately there was no choice. Oh well, I filed that away as good knowledge to have for the future. Knowledge that probably would never have been offered up unless I had prompted it. Reminds me of what we are always striving to teach the 7 year old: 'If you don't ask, you don't get'. A more religious person might say: 'Ask and you shall receive'.

So it's the day before surgery, I'm at the Pre-admission Clinic and one of the forms I need to fill out actually asks the question: 'Do you have any concerns about the general anaesthetic?' So of course I state here that I am worried, as a singer, that the use of a breathing tube could damage my voice. Judging by the look on the face of the Clinic Anaesthetist, she hadn't come across this response before. I recounted the experience of my singer friend. She gave me a very direct look and said something like: 'that kind of thing would be pretty rare. It's our primary concern as anaesthetists to keep you alive during surgery, whether that means you can sing or not.' I couldn't argue with her there but also couldn't help thinking she may have underestimated how much my ability to sing is caught up in my personal definition of 'alive'.

Now it's time for the actual surgery. I'm prepared and wheeled in by the nurses. I'm introduced to the anaesthetist who is looking after me for the surgery. After the usual questions about allergies and medical history she asks me, in what seems like a throwaway conversational question, what I do for a living. When I tell her I am a professional singer, she looks again at my chart and back at me sternly. 'You should have said something!' She calls in one of the nurses and says: 'this woman is a professional singer - we need to change the gauge of the breathing tube we're using!' She then speaks to the surgeon and asks him if he is aware of my occupation and tells him that they should take every precaution when it comes to working near my vocal cords. I explain weakly that I had told the pre-admission doctor. Obviously that doctor didn't think it important enough to note on my paperwork. This doctor leans over me so that her face is right next to mine and says quietly: 'every time you go under general anaesthetic there is a risk of your voice changing or being damaged temporarily or permanently. You need to know that and you need to make sure that whatever can be done to limit the risks, is being done'.

All's well that ends well and my voice seems to be as it was before. I have a great deal of respect for medical folk - the study, the hours, the dedication. But they're often pushed to their limits, especially in the public system. And even with every caution, let's face it, we need to be the number one person to care for ourselves. While there are times we may literally have to place our lives into the hands of medical experts, we can try not relinquishing absolute control where possible. I don't pretend that a few anecdotes and a surfing expedition with Google puts me in any position to know more than a doctor, but I do think any extra knowledge that I can bring to the table before I get laid out on one, can only be a good thing!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

How One Fan Stole my Voice

Hi there,

Let me say firstly that I'm sorry this isn't going to be a tale of some crazed stalker pinching my recordings or anything as equally intriguing, as my title may suggest. But it is about something more insidious for performers like me.

I did a gig recently where I completely lost my confidence. It was a new gig for me and I had a lot of new songs jostling for real estate inside my head so perhaps I wasn't as self possessed as I might have been with a more familiar repertoire. But really, I have been doing this a long time and I am often thrown into brand new situations, so what was so different?

It started almost as soon as the show began. A few times during the beginning of the first set, I opened my mouth and absolutely no sound came out.  I didn't have a cold,  my voice felt warmed up and in good shape before I hit the stage, so what was going on?  Eventually I spied in the corner of my eye, side of stage, a portable pedestal fan, aimed directly and going at full bore at my face. It was obviously meant to help the performers keep cool and combat the incredible humidity that hung in the air that night. The venue folk weren't to know that blasts of air like these were my Kryptonite.

Voices are as individual as the singers who possess them so not everyone would have had the same reaction I did, although it is fairly common. This fan was quite literally stealing my voice away by drying my mouth out. Anyway, I angled the fan away from me and that fixed the problem quick smart. Well one of the problems. I had my voice back but what to do about my desire to have the stage swallow me up because I was ashamed of my singing? It took the rest of the set to regain my equilibrium and I know my overall performance suffered as a result. Apparently I managed to summon enough superficial bravado to convince the audience that all was right with my world, and the momentary blips in my singing were barely noticed. But inside I was really struggling. And unfortunately, while I may be getting better and better at covering it up, this wasn't the first time I've let something like that throw me. It really reinforces the fact that singing and performing really are psychological games. Preparation, practice, skill - all vital, but sometimes confidence is everything.

Got any tips on how you handle your inner anxious dude?

All the best,

Monday, January 9, 2017

Now if I were Mariah Carey...

Hi there and happy new year!

Did you hear about Mariah's NYE show? She is blaming the production team for sabotaging her set in Times Square when her in-ear monitoring failed to work. Whether the lack of foldback was intentional or not, I know for sure that the quality of sound a singer receives on stage is an absolute maker or breaker of a performance. Audiences hear something quite different to our sound so sometimes it is hard to get their sympathy but I really feel for Mariah.  We know that not being able to hear properly can potentially make us sing off key and usher in such insecurity that a great singer becomes a terrible one. But as Mariah said herself in this particular show's aftermath, 'shit happens'. The trick is to pull yourself out of it smelling like roses. While we may not all possess her vocal gymnastic ability or star power, I actually think we gigging singers have one thing over Mariah Carey. One of the benefits of not being a multi million dollar megastar is the multitude of less-than-perfect gig conditions you get to experience! Being thrown into difficult situations over and over again tends to prepare you to jump just about any hurdle and still land on your feet.

I was in a kids show where we three girls performed to an audio visual track that, at one particular venue with an outdated system, started to skip noticeably and eventually froze. So we girls created acapella singalongs and dance competitions on the spot. While it was very obvious to the audience we were suffering fairly major technical issues, we kept them involved and onside and noone complained. If anything, we got extra credit for handling ourselves well under pressure.

I once did a nationally televised Christmas gig that had a huge live audience as well. I was one of two backing singers for a band that was to support some well known Aussie artists and celebrities. About 20 minutes before the show started, we were told we would be leading the live audience in singing Christmas carols during the commercial breaks of the live telecast. We were to follow the autocue. My fellow backing vocalist warned me she was not hugely familiar with carols and we had zero time to prepare. But the idea was we two girls would sing with the band and the crowd would sing along following the booklets of lyrics they had all received. I think someone forget to tell the audience because when the band played the first carol, we were the lone voices. That wouldn't be so bad except the keys of the songs were completely female unfriendly and so, in front of 30,000 people, we were jumping up and down octaves and throwing in harmonies on the spot to make the songs sound decent. We were doing OK with the first couple of well known tunes when the next song showed up: 'Good King Wenceslas'. At its appearance on our autocue, my fellow backing singer gave me a look of panic. Ok, so I was on my own for this one.

Now I love my Christmas songs but I wouldn't put the Good King at the top of my list and was only vaguely aware of its work. But all was going fine until the end of the first verse when the autocue froze completely. So in front of 30,000 people I winged the rest of the song, largely repeating the first verse over and over again! I don't think many people were any the wiser although I'm sure no one would have blamed me for shutting up completely if they had known the situation. But as performers, we are more than just singers, and I think we have a contract with our audience to entertain them the best way we can, in any situation.

I'd love to hear what you would have done in Mariah's position. What I wouldn't have done is walk off stage mid performance, however tempting that might have been. That kind of thing only punishes your audience and hurts your own reputation. I would have let the audience know what was happening, to make them really feel involved. I would have told the production guy - over the mic - to turn off the backing track because my audience and I were going to sing in the new year together. Then I would have led them in an acapella version of the songs. I think it would be pretty cool to say that you rang in 2017 singing along with Mariah Carey, don't you?

I'd love to hear some of your gig horror stories...

All the best,