Making It When You Don’t Make It

Meet ‘Karen’

Karen is a 50-year-old soprano “with a good bottom.” She and her husband have been married for more than 30 years and have two teenage children. Karen has a long history of health issues that have caused great hormonal imbalances and widely fluctuating moods—but she also possesses a somewhat serious, fully committed nature balanced by a rather dreamy and expansive outlook on life.

In college and during her 20s Karen made her nature work in her favor by getting involved with 20th century music, women composers, African-American composers, contemporary opera, and chamber music. At that time she had a very intellectual approach to music and singing because it kept her from dealing with a body that was fairly unreliable. This approach worked. She developed a solid reputation in those circles and worked with some very interesting people, such as John Cage, Clare Shore, and Lori Laitman.

Karen performed regularly throughout the mid ‘80s and secured a teaching position at a community college. She premiered many American works in different languages and with unusual instrumentation—the Japanese koto or the mandolin, for example—at interesting events such as the 40th anniversary of the American-Japanese constitution, and for highly public events at well-known national landmarks. She also began singing frequently with local orchestras. She founded a chamber ensemble that performed at contemporary music festivals, and a vocal consortium that became a powerhouse team-teaching and performing unit.

When Karen and her husband decided to have children, something they had always wanted to do, serious medical problems began to show up. When she first became pregnant in 1987, the doctors classified her as a high-risk pregnancy because of fibroid tumors that grew at the same rate as the baby. During an orchestra concert one night she went into premature labor while she was singing. The pressure from the seven-pound fetus and the seven-pound tumor was just too much. She got to the high B at the end of “Ebben? Ne andro lontana” from La Wally and knew she wasn’t going to make it, so she jumped two octaves down to a low B and sang it with as much chest as she could give it. The review said, “She sang with ravishing delivery.” Karen gets a big chuckle out of that play on words to this day. She was put in the hospital and then on bed rest. Eventually, she underwent a C-section with complications.

In 1990 she underwent a myomectomy—surgeons removed fibroid tumors and rebuilt the internal organs the tumors had injured. Despite these physical challenges, Karen continued to do some interesting work, including winning a third-place national prize in a contemporary soloists competition—but her singing was suffering. Her breath management and support were missing; she exhibited signs of extreme tongue tension, and often suffered from hoarseness.

Karen’s entire body began to stop functioning for singing and she had no joy left in doing it. She vainly sought vocal help from some of the best “name brand” teachers in the area, and eventually fell back on her friends from the vocal consortium, who acted as her mentors and teachers when no other help was to be found.

In 1992 she became pregnant again, a second high-risk pregnancy, followed by a second C-section, this time with severe complications—the surgeon left the placenta in the uterus. She had to undergo a D&C (Dilation and Curettage) to remove the placenta and was at extreme risk on several fronts. During the first seven weeks of her baby’s life, Karen’s own life was hanging by a thread.

By 1993, after additional, severe reproductive complications, Karen’s singing was suffering greatly, but she remained active in her career by becoming president of her local NATS chapter. She is proud of the fact that she was the chapter’s first president to bring in experts on musical theatre singing techniques.

Not long after, Karen was invited to teach at a local university during a well-known voice teacher’s sabbatical. When the teacher returned, the university invited Karen to stay, but anxiety and depression kept her from fulfilling that obligation. She was now barely functional outside her own home.

Seeking professional help, doctor’s diagnosed Karen with severe clinical depression and adult ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), although like many people, she managed to hide it from the general public, even from her own husband. In his eyes she had simply become overweight and overbearing. In spite of these challenges, Karen was caring for their children very conscientiously and taking care of an ill brother who was living with them.

Karen continued to teach. She studied pedagogy, took some Alexander Technique classes and private sessions, and did church and volunteer work. The medication she took for depression seemed to put a filter on her singing and wreaked further havoc on her breathing coordination and support—but it helped her get through the day, one hour at a time. Karen began to read everything she could about depression and music therapy.

In 1996 Karen joined the faculty of a local music school. It felt to her like she was taking all the energy and desire she had for making music and pouring it into two things: teaching other people how to sing and caring for her family. Her own voice always felt stuck, her breath incomplete, her throat tight.

In April of 2003 Karen had to have an emergency complete hysterectomy. Six weeks later her father died suddenly and she had to travel to the funeral before she was completely healed. The following fall she tried to start Pilates and a hernia broke through her abdominal wall. That same fall she also started visiting an alternative healthcare clinic three times a week in a desperate attempt to finally claim some well-being.

At her teacher’s recommendation, Karen volunteered for a major health study exploring the relationship between depression medications in women in their 40s and osteoporosis. Her teacher knew that as part of the study Karen would get a complete thyroid check, which she was very concerned was a major factor in her dysfunction. During the check they found a huge, four-nodule goiter that ran the width of her thyroid and was inserting itself into all sorts of laryngeal functions. Her thyroid function, however, measured normal. Karen had the nodules biopsied just in case. Thankfully, everything was benign.

Over the next two years Karen continued to have her internist and endocrinologist measure her thyroid function. She was convinced it was connected to her hormonal imbalances—but each time, everything came back normal.

When Karen started her treatment at the alternative healthcare clinic, however, they ran a series of tests that went beyond testing thyroid function. The tests determined that her body was producing enough thyroid hormone, but it wasn’t being drawn into her cells. Karen’s healthcare providers put her on a series of supplements that included iodine to draw her natural thyroid hormone into her cells. The results were just short of amazing: the goiter shrank drastically.

In February of 2004 Karen had the hernia repaired. Two weeks after the surgery, she developed a strange cyst that ruptured her navel. Thankfully, it did not break open the hernia repair. That wound took a year to heal. After each of the surgeries she experienced deepening panic attacks, sometimes waking out of sleep in a state of complete panic.

A few weeks after she returned from the hospital a local museum called asking Karen to present a program of Nordic song to go along with its exhibit of Nordic female designers. She believed at that time that focusing on this program would be the only thing to keep her from going completely insane. She agreed to do it even though she had never sung that repertoire. In four months Karen learned Swedish and Norwegian phonetically, planned a program (including long stretches of piano solos for recovery time between vocal sets), learned the music, found a Swedish pianist, organized the logistics, and prayed she could carry it off.

By now she had no stamina, and every time she sang above the staff she became dizzy and nauseated. Both Karen and her husband knew she needed to perform this concert as part of her “whole self” healing. To her delight, she successfully presented the concert, even though she had to change the bandage on her belly button at intermission. It was probably the best singing she had done in 17 years.

In the past year Karen has finally returned to health and is feeling like she can sing again. She rarely experiences the panic attacks any more, and has been off all medications for almost three years. She continues to visit the alternative healthcare clinic once a month. In addition to the physical aspects of making sound, Karen has had to learn about the psychological aspects. She believes in the healing power of singing and music, and believes she was given just enough talent to make her persevere in the face of extreme odds.

Karen believes it is our job to meet our challenges to the best of the ability we can muster in the moment, and she gives herself and others permission to have that ability change from moment to moment. As long as we are doing our best, who can stand in judgment, including ourselves?

Michelle Kunz

Michelle Kunz is a professional certified life coach, helping individuals reduce conflict, gain clarity, and get more from their lives and careers. She has sung with the Washington National Opera Chorus on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage for over 15 seasons, where she also serves as Children’s Chorus Master. She serves on AGMA’s Board of Governors, representing the Washington/Baltimore Area, and on the Board of Andover Educators. Contact her at