Getting Mouthy, Pt. 2: Metal Mouth
Installment #2 of my re-posting previous articles chronicling my teeth-grinding journey. This was originally published in the fall of 2012…..
After I shared the initial story of my dental problems from my incessant nocturnal teeth grinding, I finally came up with a plan of action. I am happy to report that I am well on my way to regaining my dental health. Unfortunately, the first step in this process meant having to get braces. And let me tell you, braces as an adult is no picnic, especially as a professional voice user.
As of now, I have had braces for a little over seven months, and I will need to wear braces for eighteen to twenty-four months. Although I am now used to them, my initial transition was not easy. The most difficult part was learning to sing and teach all day with all this stuff in my mouth. I had already worn braces in junior high, but as a teenager, I was not teaching for six to seven hours a day, and I certainly did not have a busy spring concert schedule.
There were other differences this time around as well. From what I can recollect from my earlier days of wearing braces, in addition to not talking and singing all day, I also did not worry about my orthodontists’ food restrictions, and I certainly did not stress out about having food lodged in between my brackets.
That changed as an adult. I now follow my orthodontists’ orders explicitly. I have to avoid sticky, stringy and hard foods as they can become stuck to my braces, dislodge a wire, or even break off a bracket. Foods like toffee, celery, carrots, corn on the cob, nuts, and tortilla chips are off limits. I am supposed to avoid sugary and sweet foods such as soft drinks, ice cream, and hard candies. Luckily, I am not a big soda drinker, but I have to admit, I have not been able to give up my cherished bowl of Frosted Flakes each morning. Other foods that could be potentially harmful, I just cut up into little pieces. Foods that the majority of people eat with their hands, like a sandwich or a slice of pizza, I have to cut up with a knife and fork, because I cannot actually bite down on food.
The other ‘fun’ part about braces is the paraphernalia I carry with me at all times. This includes a travel toothbrush, a small mirror, a collapsible travel cup, dental wax, floss threader designed specifically for braces, and a really cool device called a Proxabrush. This handy little tool is a small, spiral dental brush that helps dislodge food debris from in between my brackets. Gross, I know, but I would rather extricate spinach from my mouth in the bathroom rather than having it prominently displayed in my mouth all day. There is nothing like going out to a fancy restaurant for a romantic meal, and then having to excuse myself to the bathroom immediately after in order to survey the damage. While teaching, my students have become accustomed to my periodic trips to the bathroom to quickly brush my teeth. I cannot stress the importance of a sense of humor amidst all of this. Although if one more person tells me how ‘cute’ I look, I might implode. Really? Cute? I am in my 40’s, there is nothing cute about an adult wearing braces.
Initially my mouth hurt. All over. I had a difficult time talking, so singing seemed like an insurmountable goal. However, it is just braces. It is not like I had something catastrophic happen to me. I eventually ‘sucked it up’ and learned to deal with it. Probably the most painful adjustment was the havoc wreaked upon the inside of my mouth. I constantly had canker sores, cuts on my tongue, and bleeding gums in the first few months. Teaching all day exacerbated this, especially when I had to teach a class. Last semester I taught vocal pedagogy to twenty-two undergraduates twice a week, and a graduate seminar in Italian Art Song, which met once a week for two and a half hours. Many days it hurt to really move my mouth, and teaching my classes required loud and articulate talking. However, my gums and cheeks eventually toughened up. Now I only have occasional issues, mostly immediately after having my braces adjusted every four-to-six weeks.
Upon getting braces, I was faced with three upcoming performances, the first of which was only six weeks after getting braces. I was definitely looking forward to the performance, but managing it with braces was a slight concern. I was traveling to Big Bear Lake, CA, to judge a high school voice competition, present a master class, and participate in a recital. At this point, I was still experiencing a fair amount of pain and discomfort. Talking at the master class was probably the most difficult as I still felt like I had rocks in my mouth, and my upper lip had a nasty habit of getting caught on my braces. Super attractive, for sure. Although I maintained a sense of humor, it was still a bit disconcerting. Several students in the master class were wearing braces, so I made jokes about that, and we all had a good laugh at my expense. The recital was not too difficult, just generally uncomfortable.
My second singing engagement was with the Fresno Community Chorus and Orchestra, under the direction of Dr. Anna Hamre, in May. I was singing the soprano solos in Honegger’s King David. As a CSU Fresno alumni, I was really looking forward to this concert, in addition to having the opportunity to sing such an amazing work. By this point, my braces were under control.
Or so I thought. It is always the little details that catch you off-guard. As singers, we often have pre-performance rituals in preparing for a concert. As an utter creature of habit, I too, have a pre-performance routine. I am extremely fortunate in that I do not experience performance anxiety, but my mouth and throat do get really dry. I typically eat a peanut butter & chocolate chewy granola bar right before going on-stage. This helps combat my dry throat and gives me a little caffeinated energy to get through the performance. What I neglected to anticipate was the lovely bits of granola that were lodged in between my brackets! Ugh! Of course, I waited until the very last second to eat my granola bar. So as I am walking out onto the stage, into a beautiful hall that seats 750 people, I am fishing around in my mouth with my tongue, desperately trying to dislodge bits and pieces of granola. Not one of my finer moments. Thankfully, I had enough time between walking on stage and my first solo entrance to make sure my mouth was free of debris.
My final concert of the year was only a few days after the King David performance. I was fortunate to be asked to present a solo recital and master class at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, England. Thankfully, my previous concert experiences had adequately prepared me for my final concert of the season. The biggest difficulty here was rehearsing with the pianist for two hours the day before the concert, the recital immediately following the next day, and then the master class the day after that. It was a lot of concentrated use of my mouth, but I managed to get through the tight schedule with ease. At least this time I remembered to substitute my pre-performance chewy granola bar for something that was less problematic.
My best strategy through all of this has been to maintain a sense of humor. Yes, braces are uncomfortable. Yes, braces are unattractive. And yes, braces have encroached upon my teaching and singing. However, if the end result means a beautiful and healthy smile once again, I will gladly take the eighteen to twenty-four months of annoyance. At least I can laugh at myself enough to call myself metal mouth.