MS Changed Her Voice, but Bobbi Keeps on Singing
Once a prominent studio singer, Bobbi Vandervort created a one-woman show that puts the challenges of MS to music.
By Stephanie Stephens
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Although multiple sclerosis (MS) has changed her melodic voice, the singer-songwriter Bobbi Vandervort, of Los Angeles, hasn't lost her creative voice. As a studio singer, Vandervort used to perform on radio, television, and movie soundtracks. Now she's producing and filming a no-holds-barred, one-woman musical about the challenges of living with multiple sclerosis, calledI Still Have Something to Sing.
Vandervort released the show, with a different title, as an audio CD in 2015. Calling it "spoken word with music," she incorporates styles from ballad, samba, and jazz, R&B, blues, and gospel.
The musical is a labor of love for Vandervort, 69, and it has also been cathartic, she says, helping her to process the surprising and sad dissolution of a group of friendships.
Her younger son, Kit, a cinematographer, works with her husband of 49 years, Don, a home improvement expert, author, and HGTV personality, to film short sections of the show. The fatigue caused by MS makes it too difficult for her to stand on stage for the 70 minutes it would take to perform the entire musical.
"I sing 22 original songs, although not the way I used to," Vandervort says. She's decided to rhyme the dialogue portions, "and every time I get feedback, I transform it just a little bit more."
Stuttering and Word Retrieval Problems Signaled MS
Vandervort was diagnosed with MS in 1997 and had started exhibiting telltale symptoms a couple of years before that. "I had tingling legs, and I started stuttering and switching words around," she says. "I would choose the incorrect word, but use the number of syllables and first letter of the word I intended to say."
When her then undiagnosed MS progressed, the stress of going to recording sessions became too much for her. "That's just one of the ways we finally figured out what was wrong," she says.
At one point, Vandervort couldn’t sing at all, but in 2013, a friend requested she sing at his second wedding — just as she'd done at his first, 40 years earlier. As she worked on getting into better vocal shape, she recalled a motivational quote some attribute to Abraham Lincoln: "I'm a success today because I had a friend who believed in me, and I didn't have the heart to let him down."
Vandervort consulted a specialist who "did energy work on my vocal cords," she says. The specialist urged her to proceed slowly and to start with humming, working gradually from low to high notes. With time and practice, she was able to sing what she calls "an easy song in the low range" at the wedding and then to record her CD.
She considers it a goal well accomplished. "Life is a blend of living with intention and adding in that sweet divine intervention," says Vandervort. "When I sing my songs, I tell my whole history from the heart. I had to walk away from my career, but I walk the audience through the joy that music still brings to my life."
Healthy Living, Optimism, and Hope Keep Her Going
Vandervort does her best to stay in good health. She sees an acupuncturist, takes vitamins and supplements under the guidance of her general practitioner, and has made it a priority to become well-versed in good nutrition. One glass of red wine nightly helps her to let go a bit and relax.
She also keeps moving, swimming in her pool and going up and down stairs deliberately. She rides her exercise bike, does squats and other floor exercises, and lifts weights while watching travel shows on TV.
"I think I take exceptionally good care of myself," she says. "I believe in optimism, hope, and something greater than myself, and I feel that keeps me from greater physical disability." She enjoys what she calls "meditative mornings, when I open my mind to new possibilities."
She's not one to worry about what she hasn't accomplished in life, but chooses "to be open to where this life is taking me. Of course, this isn't an easy, 'cinchy' thing."
She finds herself having great days, and then the tables turn. "MS waxes and wanes and takes on new forms," says Vandervort. "I can feel amazingly well, get dressed to go out, put my hand on the doorknob to leave, and suddenly, oppressive fatigue comes over me."
Even worse is experiencing an exacerbation of her MS. "It brings fatigue, brain fog, and depression, along with pain, tingling, and irritability in my whole body. It's really hard to rest or sleep, or to just sit back quietly in the movie theater — almost like restless legs syndrome. It makes me want to jump right out of my skin."
Overcoming the Obstacles That MS Puts in Her Path
Vandervort’s family history may have played a role in her condition. MS, along with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and scleroderma, has affected other family members, both close and distant.
But even when MS is causing discomfort and getting her down, Vandervort uses the experience to fuel her creative endeavors.
Her husband, Don, reveres his wife's inner strength, drive, and tenacity. "When she encounters major obstacles, she reshapes how she will continue moving forward toward her goals," he says. "There's such a brightness to her spirit as she searches for the positives in life.
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