By Christina Elias
When Iliana Brodsky woke up on the day of the most important auditions of her high school career, her voice was gone. So she did what most singers would: she pretended nothing was wrong.
“I couldn’t speak,” Brodsky said. “I couldn’t even whisper. Nothing was happening. And I did what you were always taught to do, I got up and I got dressed, I took my music, I put on my makeup, I drank about three gallons of tea, I put on the biggest scarf I could find and I went to the audition and I just stood there.”
But her disappearing voice didn’t come out of nowhere – there had been signs for months, and Brodsky would continue to battle to regain her most important instrument for years.
Brodsky had grown up in a musically-inclined household in Brooklyn – her grandmother and aunt had gone to a school in New York City that was then called the High School of Music & Art. Their school eventually merged with the similar School of Performing Arts to form what is known today as the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan.
“I always had it in the back of my mind that this was a viable option, and I loved to sing,” Brodsky said. “I loved, loved, loved to sing. If I could sing at school, it made math and science and history better, so I just started singing at school. When it came to applying to high school, it was kind of a no-brainer to do what they had done.”
When she auditioned for Laguardia – which boasts an alumni list with the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Liza Minnelli, Al Pacino and Nicki Minaj – she got in.
“It was in my junior when I started getting sick a lot, like I had this constant sinus infection and nobody knew what was happening,” she said. “All of a sudden I was tired all the time, but I thought maybe it was just the stress of living in South Brooklyn and going to high school in midtown Manhattan – waking up at the crack of dawn every day and coming home from rehearsals – I thought I was just tired, and everybody in New York is tired.”
Brodsky continued to go about her daily life, not noticing any major change to her voice that might be cause for worry.
“It wasn’t that my voice was changing, it’s that I started having to work harder to maintain the sound, and I stopped getting better,” she explained. “And that was really frustrating for me. I was maintaining a sound, so nobody thought anything was wrong with me. I just wasn’t getting better as quickly as I used to, and it was taking way more effort than it should have been taking.”
But things took a turn the spring day junior audition for specialized senior classes, including the highest-level chorus, individual voice instruction and opera workshop all in the same day. For one of the auditions, students were expected to learn five different arias (foreign-language music pieces) and their English translations.
Because Brodsky’s teachers knew she had not been irresponsible with her voice – like cheering loudly at a concert or football game – they read her random lines from the arias and let her write the translations to try to accommodate her.
“I actually wound up getting into the class,” she laughed. “But joke’s on them, I came back after summer and I still didn’t have a voice back. I didn’t get into the chorus, but I got into opera workshop.”
From there on, her senior year was a blur.
A closer look
She was still sick and voiceless come August, and none of the doctors she saw could tell her what was wrong.
“It was at the point where something was wrong with me, and everybody just kept telling me that nothing was wrong with me,” she said. “It was so damaging because I thought maybe I was just bad. Maybe I just lost my voice and I’m trying to find an excuse, and I’m trying to make it feel better by claiming that I’m sick, but maybe I’m just tired and not a good singer anymore.”
“The thing about being in a competitive art environment is that being sick is not an excuse, Brodsky said. “Being tired is not an excuse. That was ultimately the reason why I hurt myself because I spent a whole year singing and accommodating my voice while it was sick and trying to make it sound healthy in ways that were not healthy.”
Brodsky finally saw Dr. Lucian Sulica, an otorhinolaryngologist (commonly known as an ear, nose and throat doctor) at Cornell University. Sulica was the first to catch the build-up that on her vocal folds from being constantly sick. He explained to her that the vocal folds are some of the most gelatinous tissue in the human body, which is why they make noise. When one of those tissues hardens, it stops making noise.
“Whatever build-up was happening on my tissue that hadn’t been addressed was hardening it, and therefore it was technically paralyzed to some degree,” Brodsky said.
While Sulica put her on three months of vocal rest and a special diet, she started seeing Dr. Benjamin Asher who practiced a more homeopathic approach to medicine. She was sitting in his office one day, waiting to hear the results of a test she didn’t expect to learn anything from.
“Iliana, have you ever been bitten by a tick?” he asked her. When she immediately said no, he continued, “Are you sure?”
“And all of a sudden, I recalled this memory of like two years earlier when I was volunteering for a weekend in the fall at my summer camp, and I got a tick on my shoulder,” she said. “I just had some guy pull it off. And there wasn’t any bump, there wasn’t a circle, it didn’t look like anything, but that was the only time in my memory that I’d had a tick and that was about when I started feeling sick.”
Asher was the first doctor in New York City to be able to diagnose Brodsky with Lyme Disease.
According to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, Lyme Disease presents differently in each patient and is difficult to catch through screening tests – the commonly-used elisa test misses over a third of cases proven by culture tests. Because under 50 percent of those afflicted remember being bitten by a tick or show symptoms of a rash, many cases go undiagnosed. Those with chronic Lyme, like Brodsky, require longterm treatment and still experience relapses.
“So I had had this disease for two years before it was diagnosed, and in those two years that’s why I was so tired, that’s why I was sick all the time, that’s why I didn’t feel like myself, that’s why all of this other medication that the doctors were giving me weren’t helping,” she said. “I was being misdiagnosed for about a year and a half.”
Relieved, but not reassured
Sulica told Brodsky that she could still make singing her life if she worked for it, but her voice would never go back to normal.
“At that point, he said I would never be able to sing a two-hour opera like I could when I was 15,” she explained. “I had always imagined that I would do that, but I could work my way up to being able to sing for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes and 45 minutes. And maybe see how it goes. I was really really determined to do that. To just make it work.”
From then on, Brodsky was on voice rest and in rehab for months. She was on a strict diet and went every other week to get antihistamine injections at the age of 17. At the same time, she was forced to change her college list.
Changing which colleges she would audition for was difficult because her new list was filled with schools that didn’t match the training she’d dedicated herself to for years.
“I was singing for them, and I was sounding not good enough for them,” Brodsky said. “And I couldn’t tell them, you know? I was representing myself with a voice that didn’t sound like me in my head to people who I didn’t think I should have been representing myself to. And it was very damaging.”
Making it work
Brodsky lived and worked in Israel for a year before coming to Elon, where she declared a music performance major because she didn’t know what else to do. She eventually decided to pursue a general bachelor’s of music instead, but filled her freshman and sophomore years with music courses. She had finished her music degree by the time she began her junior year.
“I was killing myself over it,” she said. “And it was painful to still be trying something that I knew wasn’t representing who I was anymore.”
Lisbeth Carter, adjunct instructor in music, was Brodsky’s voice coach throughout her first two years at Elon. Carter has worked as a voice coach for about 30 years, teaching her students vocal technique, repertoire, languages and “musicianship in all.”
Carter said that although Brodsky “worked really, really hard and made a lot of progress, but there are certain limits to what one can do.”
It’s hard to undergo that type of change, Carter said, but Brodsky found out it wasn’t the end of her world after all.
“She found a true calling and I think that she’s going to be very very good at what she does,” she said. “She will have probably gained a great deal by her music studies even though that’s not necessarily the career path she’s going to follow.”
According to Carter, voice misuse and abuse is common among young musicians, even unintentionally through illness or injury.
“[Vocal folds] are like any muscle, it’s like any part of the body: if you injure it, sometimes it repairs and sometimes it does not,” she said. “The thing about it is if you smash your piano, you can go and buy another one. But if you abuse your voice, you only get one. It’s not negotiable – you have to care for it as something incredibly precious because we only get one.
Even as Brodsky tried to recreate the voice she once had, she realized she would never get to the same level she was at before she got sick.
“I just remember I had this sound of who I was, and then I just stopped hearing it after a while,” Brodsky said. “I was trying to recreate it and I couldn’t, and it was frustrating and it became pointless, and I started finding other interests.”
Identity in swing
“They talk about the stages of grief; I went through all of them,” she said. “I think that first one where I was told, ‘You can work on this,’ and me falling so hard for that idea was denial in a big way … I think the idea of letting it go was for my sanity. I needed to figure out what else there was first, was part of it. I didn’t have any other interests. I didn’t have anything else.”
She said the year she spent living and working Israel before coming to Elon helped her discover her other interests, and she eventually declared a second major.
“I became enamored with religious studies,” she said. “I realized that I could be successful at other things, and it wasn’t a compromise of who I was but it was and extension of who I was.”
Despite somewhat moving on, music remains something Brodsky holds close to her heart.
“I still don’t sing in front of people, really,” she admitted. “It was hard. I don’t tell people, I don’t talk to people about it still, I just still try to find the words for it, because it’s not been a part of my identity at Elon but it was my entire life before it.”
The ordeal with her voice is almost five years behind her, but Brodksy still struggles with that part of herself even today.
“I think I’m always going to feel something when it comes to being in a music community – or even just singing in the shower,” she said. “It makes me feel weirdly sad. Even though singing is still such a relief, hearing myself sing makes me sad. But that feeling – I don’t think it’s going to go away, but I think it will change and I’ll become more comfortable with it.”
Something she has taken away from her high school and college experiences is the ability to stand up for herself and trust her body. It’s hard for her to think that she remained silent for so long just to find out she had been sick the entire time.
“I knew something was wrong with me and I knew that my voice was damaged,” Brodsky said. “I just kept going because I was so young and everyone around me was just pushing. I thought, ‘Maybe they’re going through the same thing – why would I be any different?’ I should have stopped. And I should have spoken up for myself.”
Because of her long battle against an invisible illness and the loss of her voice, Brodsky has changed entirely. Despite constant struggles to pinpoint her new identity, she continues to look to the future.
Brodsky has been rehired at the summer camp she’s gone to her entire life, where she’ll serve as director of group programming. After this summer, she plans on returning to New York City.
“I’m giving myself two years of leeway, but the idea is that in fall of 2019, I think I’m going to rabbinic school,” she admitted. “I want to do community work. I want to work with people. And so this is, I guess for me, the way to go about it and still remain part of the religious studies community.”
She credits the loss of her voice as the reason she discovered an entirely new facet of her personality. Her advice to other young performers who may be struggling is to trust themselves and broaden their understanding of what success looks like.
“If you stop pushing yourself for this idea of perfection, you can open your eyes to this whole world of you.”
This article can be found on Elon News Network here.