Song Bird: Choral leader finds new voice
Krista Lang Blackwood, 41, knows first-hand “what happens to a dream deferred.”
A professional singer since age 17, she toured internationally as a soloist and performed a wide range of musical genres from opera to musical theater, choral music and oratorio. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music education, cum laude, from Texas Christian University and two master’s degrees in vocal performance/musicology from the University of Kansas. She also was working toward her doctorate of musical arts in voice at KU.
At age 30, the mezzo-soprano was on the brink of a professional career in opera. “I jumped in with both feet and then everything fell apart,” she says.
Blackwood lost her voice.
“I was not completely vocally paralyzed but began to have difficulty singing and speaking,” she says. “I went to general practitioners, to neurologists, to laryngologists. I got diagnoses as varied as possible Parkinson’s, acid reflux and hysterical paralysis.”
Blackwood also lost something else: her sense of identity. “My singing defined who I was,” she says.
Depression and grief set in. “You mourn the loss but then one day you wake up better. You start to rebuild your life and you start to look forward from there,” she says. “I had to stop doing what I thought I was meant to do. I had to reinvent myself. I decided to take control and try to become who I needed to be without the voice.”
In 2003, she founded Octarium, an eight-piece vocal ensemble, which has produced and recorded four acclaimed recordings. Octarium is Latin for “eight as one.”
Still, her new journey wasn’t easy. “They were singing beautiful things, and I just wanted to be up there with them but I couldn’t be up there with them,” she says.
Being unable to speak complicated her life in other ways. “I couldn’t order food at a restaurant. I couldn’t answer questions so I couldn’t have a job interview,” she says. “What you do without a voice as a singer is one thing. What you do without a voice as a human is an entirely different matter.”
As a new mother, she faced a new kind of heartache. “Here was my little tiny baby and I really couldn’t open my mouth to sing him a lullaby,” she says.
After much testing, Blackwood was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological voice disorder that involves spasms of the vocal cords causing interruptions of speech and affecting voice quality, according to the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association. To date, no known cause or cure exists.
Blackwood’s physician recommended she try botox treatments. Instead, she visited a doctor who had studied Chinese medicine for acupuncture and biofeedback treatments.
“But what this doc did, more than anything, was listen—though it’s hard to listen to someone who has trouble speaking—and as I talked, and told my story, we discerned a pattern that seemed to be hormonal,” she says.
Blackwood had been on a high-level hormone birth control pill since age 20 and recently had switched to a low-level pill. When she and her husband, Kendrick, decided to have a child, she discontinued the pill. The result was complete vocal paralysis. However, when she was three months pregnant, she recovered her voice.
“I could speak the whole time I was pregnant—I didn’t try to sing—and the whole time I was nursing. Then I stopped nursing and the problems began again.”
Based upon this information, her doctor prescribed her a high-level hormone pill and two months later she regained her speaking voice. Over time, she titrated down to smaller doses until she stopped taking medication altogether. Speech therapy has helped her redevelop her speaking voice.
Blackwood, who completed her doctorate, now serves as cultural arts director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, resident music director of Spinning Tree Theatre and a choral music lecturer at KU.
But she has one more goal.
“I’d like to be able to sing again someday and maybe do it in front of an audience,” she says. “I’m not trying to become a professional singer again. That part of my life is over. At this point, I’m just as pleased as punch that I can speak.”
For those struggling with an obstacle that stands in the way of a cherished dream, Blackwood offers these words: “Find people who are willing to listen to you while you talk about it. In talking, you clarify for yourself what’s happening. And when you process your thoughts, eventually you’re going to find a way to beat it.”