Byzantine Chant
by Susan Reagan and Deacon Mark Koscinski

What voice have I to share with the world; to express needs and wants, to bestow compliments and kindness, to ask of others how may I understand?

A little over 6 years ago I experienced the sudden onset and eventual decline of my ability to speak. It was an ordinary day in late November… One moment my voice was normal and the next moment it was not. The quality of my voice began to degrade as I went from specialist to specialist in search of answers to this mystery. This began the start of a terrifying journey of loss, grieving and eventually the reclamation of life and faith.

The prolonged exposure to a chronically stressful set of circumstances (work, home life and graduate school) coexisting was too much for me to effectively cope. Some people get stress headaches, others develop digestive/stomach problems but my body’s reaction was the loss of its ability to speak.   The more I would try to speak the harder it became to perform this seemingly simple task. The frustration grew as I tried harder and harder to be heard, therefore beginning a vicious downward spiral causing damage to my body, mind and soul.

I gradually lost the ability to produce speech but not voice; my ability to transition from voice to speaking was essentially broken. Voice and speech are different in the sense that voice is the sound produced by humans and other vertebrates using the lungs and vocal folds; voice, is not always speech, as it includes laughing, crying, singing, and babbling.  Speech is a series of complex oral movements used to express one’s self with the use of decodable sounds.

The thought of losing one’s voice is at best incomprehensible and at worst inconceivable. Until having experienced the loss there is no way to imagine the grave mourning of self that occurs when the voice becomes broken. Voice is taken for granted by almost all that use it. When poised to speak many people without thought present their message, taking for granted this beautiful instrument in its fullest expression.

Having been raised by very devout Catholic parents my faith was ever present and ever practiced; there was no choice other than having blind faith in God. That level of faith was implied and expected in every aspect of life.   However, my blind faith was now challenged, questioned and doubted.   During this, the most trying time in life; I questioned how could God allow such hardship to fall upon one of his most trusting servants?

After several years of failed treatments, surgical procedures and pharmaceutical intervention hope was all but lost.   There were times of great anger, fist shaking and throwing stones up at heaven. I had turned my back on not only my faith but on God himself.   Shouting in a mangled and distressed voice, wishing for death to find me or some other form of relief from this living hell my faith was now gone.

Pursuing the last viable option to regain my voice I committed to a yearlong course of speech therapy during which I patiently recreated the most basic building blocks of speech.   Humming and speaking in a sing-song manner, counting to three and saying my name for hours on end was not only humiliating but tiresome. There was a great deal of physical pain involved as well, the pain was produced by years of forcing speech to occur using disassociated muscles improperly therefore having caused my entire upper body to contort.

Somehow little by little, ever so gradually in the lowest and most controlled tones my voice had started to return.   Chanting was the key to helping the brain to remap the neurological pathways that governed the production of speech.   The brain had to be reprogrammed back to the old normal after becoming conditioned to have an automatic tensing response cutting off the natural production of speech.

After finding a great deal of success in speech therapy there needed to be a way to maintain the gains that were made and perhaps even achieve greater vocal control once the formal treatment sessions had ended. A friend introduced me to Byzantine Plain Chant as The Byzantine Rite liturgical services are entirely chanted. There are eight “tones” used in the services; Plain chant is a form of chanting that requires no special skills or musical knowledge. This chant pattern in its simplest form along with other interventions has allowed me to regain my ability to speak. This form of vocalization initiates chord movement creating a physically comfortable environment for the laryngeal muscles to function.

The Byzantine Plain Chant can be applied to any speech or reading material. It was interesting to observe the Gospel in a chant tone. There are no musical notations in the Gospel book but it is easy to notice the Psalms were being changed in a particular pattern that was extraordinarily simple to learn.   After learning to adopt this technique to my own pattern of speech, it became easier to speak especially during times of emotional stress. Becoming more comfortable with this form of chanting my voice started to reveal itself once again.

After giving up all hope on ever being able to speak normally again the combination of speech therapy and the continued practice of using Byzantine Chant helped me to regain my voice, dignity, sense of self and will to live. Being voiceless in a vocal world is not only difficult but it is also depressing and frightening.

Having the confidence to use chant as a reliable method of communication during times of elevated stress has proven to be a valuable tool during my continued job search.   During a recent job interview my vocal cords started to seize from the inherent stress of the situation, having the comfort and security in Byzantine chant as a voicing option I conducted the entire interview in the Plain Chant.

The position was not offered to me but this was the first time having hope was actually an option. This ancient form of communication used in the praise of God is now incorporated in my daily life. Surely, this is a new use of this religious and cultural tool and not what Saint Basil intended it to be yet I suspect he might be smiling at this newly found use for an ancient form of praise. Employing its use has not only helped me to regain greater control over the production of speech, but also brought me back to faith in God.