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Losing his voice sent barbershopper Terry Ludwig in a new direction

By ELLE MOXLEY, THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
Posted Jun 19, 2009 @ 12:24 AM
Wednesday, 09 September 2009 02:00

Originally published at www.sj-r.com. Click here for full article.

In the basement of Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, 60 men lift their voices to sing sweet reassurances.
“No, no, Nora, nobody but you, dear. You know, Nora, yours truly is true, dear,” they croon, their energy and enthusiasm products of a bygone era.

The men are members of Sound of Illinois, an internationally ranked barbershop chorus that just took top honors at the Illinois District of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s spring conference.

But tonight, these masters of four-part harmony can’t seem to get past the second verse of “No No Nora.”

“No, no, no!” director Terry Ludwig calls, waving his arms and shaking his head. “Too much Kermit — more Pavarotti!”

Terry’s voice cracks. Ironically, in this room of melodious voices, he sounds more like a frog than an opera singer.

For Terry, who is 41 and lives in Springfield, barbershop music is more than a hobby. It’s a way of life.

But eight years ago, a rare vocal disorder stripped Terry of his ability to sing.


Director Terry Ludwig gives a high-five to Donovan Davis after Davis and Matt Carlen received a personal coaching session before the start of practice. David Spencer/The State Journal-Register

Music has always been a part of Terry’s life. He sang in his high school choir and majored in music education during college. While living in Quincy in 1987, he was performing in a community theater production when someone walked in wearing a barbershop chorus shirt.

Terry joined the next week. Within two years, he was directing the chorus there.

“It’s a great place where guys really get to share their love of music with just guys,” Terry said. “You can do the church choir thing, but it’s co-ed. You can do the symphony chorus thing, but it’s co-ed. Barbershop is just guys getting together and to sing and build bonds.”

About 30,000 men are members of the Barbershop Harmony Society, an organization devoted to preserving a cappella singing in America.

There are 36 choruses in the Illinois District. Terry has directed two — the Great River Barbershop Chorus in Quincy, and since 2002, the Bloomington-based Sound of Illinois chorus. He also sang in a quartet.

For Terry’s wife, Tina Ludwig, the barbershop culture took some getting used to. She was in college when she met Terry, and most of the guys in his chorus were in their 60s.

“They were his family at the time, his father figures,” she said.

The Ludwigs moved to Springfield in 2002 after Terry’s employer transferred him to Bloomington. They wanted to be closer to members of Tina’s family, who live in Springfield, so Terry commuted to work in Bloomington (he later took a job in Springfield).

Terry decided to join the larger and more competitive Bloomington chorus instead of the local chapter. That means commuting more than an hour each direction every Tuesday night. Factor in pre-rehearsal meetings and post-rehearsal celebrations (the chorus goes to Schooners in Bloomington after practice), and Terry is gone for eight or nine hours at a time.

He hit a deer on Interstate 55 once and still made it to rehearsal, catching the train home to Springfield in the morning.

Tina just laughs. She said she knew what she was getting into when she married Terry.

“(Their son) David was born on a Tuesday, and he (Terry) did stay in the hospital the entire night,” Tina said.

But Terry’s first call that night was to the bar where the chorus gathers after rehearsal. “It’s a boy!” he announced.

His chorus cheered.

The first note of trouble

Over the years, Terry said, he’s lost a lot of friends — some to cancer, others to heart disease — so he felt fortunate that the mystery with his voice wasn’t life-threatening.

But it still wasn’t easy.

It started in 2001 with a single note, right in the middle of Terry’s vocal range.

“I just couldn’t sing it,” Terry said. “It was like it had disappeared.” At first, he wasn’t too worried. In both the chorus and his quartet, he sang tenor — the highest of the four parts.

“It’s all in falsetto, that kind of Mickey Mouse where everything is sung way up here,” Terry said, imitating the cartoon character. “It didn’t seem to affect the falsetto.”

But one note became several, and soon, Terry had completely lost his singing voice.

Terry’s doctor referred him to an ear, nose and throat expert, who couldn’t find any damage to his vocal cords — just some redness, which she chalked up to allergies.

But the specialist’s treatment had no effect.

For Terry, who describes the members of his chorus as “dear, dear friends,” walking away wasn’t an option. He met Tina at a barbershop event. The three guys in his quartet are “uncles” to 8-year-old David. He owed barbershop too much to leave.

So he decided to stay. He couldn’t sing. But he could still direct.

Before his problem, Terry would always sing an example of what he wanted to hear so his chorus would know how he wanted a song to sound. When he couldn’t sing anymore, he learned to talk with his hands. He found words to describe what he wanted his chorus to do.

It wasn’t the same as singing, but at least he didn’t have to give up the relationships that meant so much to him.

A second opinion

When their leader lost his voice, Terry’s fellow singers wanted to know how they could help. One chorus member clipped an article from a newspaper about a voice specialist in Chicago. Terry made the trip.

This doctor diagnosed him with hyperfunction — a condition resulting from misuse of the vocal cords. He told Terry that with proper training, he might get his voice back.

But visiting a speech therapist in Springfield still didn’t solve Terry’s problems. His voice was getting worse. His speaking voice began to falter.

Soon Terry was left with a rasping, choking voice that caught every couple of words.

“It sounded like someone was strangling him,” Tina said.

Terry could no longer say certain letters or sounds. He found M’s particularly challenging — a problem because he started working at Menard’s three years ago as a commercial contracting sales representative.

As both a singer and a salesman, his voice had meant everything to him. Now it was gone.

At that point, Terry said he wasn’t worried about singing. He just wanted to be able to communicate with his family, his coworkers and his chorus.

The diagnosis

Tina pushed Terry to continue seeking treatment. His luck changed when he visited the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield.

Dr. Gayle Woodson, an otolaryngologist who pioneered a new a treatment for a condition called spasmodic dysphonia, had moved to Springfield just a few years earlier.

Spasmodic dysphonia, or SD, is a neurological condition that causes involuntary spasms of the vocal cords. The spasms can make the voice sound weak or broken.

“It sounds like they’re choking. In the most severe cases, they can’t get the words out,” Woodson said.

SD is uncommon — only about 50,000 North Americans have the disease — and few doctors recognize the symptoms. But Woodson is an expert on SD.

While working with a neurologist in Houston in the mid-1980s, she found that injecting botulinum toxin (known commercially as the cosmetic treatment Botox) into the vocal cords could control the spasms and improve voice quality.

Woodson quickly diagnosed Terry with SD. He just started receiving the Botox injections.

It can take six months for a patient’s voice to stabilize after beginning treatment. Some patients can only tolerate small doses and must return for shots every two to three months. Others only come in twice a year.

At first, Terry was worried his insurance wouldn’t cover the injections because Dr. Woodson is out of his network. But he lucked out again.

“For the first set of injections, the bill was just short of $3,000,” he said. “My insurance covered everything but $300. I can handle $300. It’s the $3,000 that scared me.”

Finding his voice

Most SD patients are able to sing even after vocal spasms claim their speaking voice.

But not Terry. Even with treatment, it’s unlikely he’ll ever sing again. The National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association reports Botox injections can cause breathiness and weakness of voice. The voice Terry gets back may not be the one he had a year and a half ago.

But that’s OK, Terry said. Those months when he could scarcely speak helped put his loss into perspective.

“Just being able to talk and communicate is most important to me,” he said. “I get my musical fulfillment from directing the chorus, in ways I don’t have to sing.”

Terry, who attends Hope Church in Springfield with his family, said he believes his diagnosis was a message from God to reconsider his priorities.

“I think he was just trying to tell me that I have a talent and an aptitude to teach people how to sing and specifically, how to sing barbershop,” he said.

The Sound of Illinois Barbershop Chorus has grown under Terry’s leadership. Last year, Sound of Illinois qualified for the international competition for the first time since 1977. He took 85 members of his chorus to Nashville, Tenn., last summer. This summer, he’s taking 64 of them to the international competition in Anaheim, Calif.

In the small world of barbershop music, almost everyone seems to know about Terry’s voice. Even though he knew it might be difficult to understand the director, Matt Carlen still wanted to join Sound of Illinois after moving to Taylorville two years ago because the chorus has such a good reputation.

“He (Terry) was in bad shape when I got here,” Carlen said. “It gets a little worse and it gets a little better day-to-day, but he still manages to command 70 guys every Tuesday night. They hang on his every word, and it’s not always an audible word. But you know — you can feel what he’s thinking.”

Terry uses a microphone system to help communicate with the chorus. But he doesn’t like it — he’d rather drop his voice to a whisper and walk across the risers. It’s the one vocal range that SD doesn’t seem to affect.

Back at rehearsal, on the night of the 20th anniversary of Terry’s barbershop directorial debut — with just a month to go before international convention — it might have seemed to outsiders that he was being hard on the singers trying to perfect their performance. Terry starts them, stops them, tells them that if their gestures aren’t over the top, they’re going to look stupid on stage.

But like the song they sing (in the last verse, the singers reveals that they would, indeed, leave Nora — but only for barbershop), Terry said much of the criticism is tongue-in-cheek.

“I’m the first to complain when it’s wrong, but I’m also the first to praise them when it’s right,” he said.

And in losing his voice, Terry Ludwig has found his calling.

Want to sing along?

* The Bloomington-based Sound of Illinois Barbershop Chorus meets from 7:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays at Second Presbyterian Church, 313 N. East St. in downtown Bloomington. For more information, go to www.soundofillinois.com or contact Jim Waldorf at (309) 663-4880 or jwald1603@aol.com.

* The Springfield-based Land of Lincoln Barbershop Chorus meets from 7:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St. For more information, go to www.landoflincolnbarbershop.com or contact chorus president Carl Follin at 415-2112 or carlfollin@comcast.net.

* The Springfield-based Sound Celebration Chorus features women singing in the barbershop style and meets from 7 to 10 p.m. Mondays at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St. For more information, go to www.soundcelebrationchorus.org or contact chorus business manager Sue Baker at 787-2373 or bakersuem@webtv.net.

Elle Moxley can be reached at elle.moxley@sj-r.com or 788-1532.

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