Interview by Kat Bergman, Communications Manager for the Prechter Program
Jennifer is one of the over 1,300 dedicated research volunteers who participate in the Prechter Program’s many studies. She has been a participant for eleven years.
Jennifer went to the University of Michigan to study voice. She also has a service dog, a Samoyed named Maya. Read below about Jennifer’s love of music and the immense help Maya is to her.
Please tell us about your love of music and singing – how did it develop?
I started singing in my church choir in the third grade. It wasn’t long after I joined that I was asked to sing special parts with the adult choir. By the time I was in junior high, I was singing in not only the school choirs but state honor’s choir, and three church choirs. I loved singing harmony, which can be a challenge when you are a first soprano and the highest voice period, so I started singing descants above the melody when the congregation would sing hymns, some of my own design and some written.
In junior high, I followed my passion to Interlochen All State which was a program run for only Michigan students and staffed completely by the University of Michigan. That’s when I first fell in love with the University of Michigan style of teaching and had some of the same professors as a child that I would have when I arrived six years later on the campus as a budding freshman.
The first time I sang on the stage at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor was January of 1987 as a 7th grader. I was hooked and I knew my destiny lay at the school. In 1993, I entered the University of Michigan School of Music officially. I studied under many brilliant minds including the great Melody Racine and, of course, my dear friend and musical father Jerry Blackstone, who helped shape and guide me. I consider him the most influential person in my musical training because he always made practice fun and he never hid his faith which I knew guided him. Watching him gave me courage to step out on my own faith as well and that has made all the difference. He asked one of my friends and me to sing at his church as a sophomore and I will never forget the reception. He was an amazing mentor and guide for me all these years. He took over for the UMS Choral Union in 2003, which is when I decided to join. He never knew of my disabilities although I am sure he must have suspected. I pray that what I am doing now would make him proud.
You’ve mentioned to me that you have anxiety. How does it manifest when you are on stage? How have you dealt with it in the past?
My anxiety for many years was able to be managed just by powering through. I would spend hours, sometimes days, psyching myself up, fasting so I didn’t get sick on stage, and then praying that I wouldn’t faint during the performance. More than once I have had to sit down because my heart was going so fast it made me dizzy. During the rehearsal process I was so anxiety ridden that there were weeks I couldn’t even will myself to get in the car -- the dread was so real – and this was something I LOVED doing!
That all being said, when I perform, I typically go into a zone and try and block everything out. However, a few years ago my bipolar medicine regiment was completely changed because the drugs that had helped me for years had stopped working. As my doctor explained, for about 12 years I was always slightly drugged and sedated with the regiment I had been on, which made dealing with anxiety easier. Now, I didn’t have a chemical crutch. I was facing the world as I truly am. I honestly feel more like myself mentally then I have in years – even though I have technically been stable since 2004 – I feel more alive and focused, and more willing to step out, but only because I have my faithful service dog to steady me. She is more powerful and more reliable than any drug, plus no side effects!
Tell us more about your service dog, Maya. How does she help you?
Maya is a completely unique service dog tailor-designed to work for my specific needs. The first thing you will notice is that the closer she is to me physically, the more anxiety-prone I am. She tends to touch me to try and calm me down. This can be as simple as a paw on my foot or, when I need more immediate help, she will lick my hand. When I drive and am anxious she will simply put her paw on my arm or put her head in my lap to instantly calm me.
She can sense my heart rate, blood pressure and smells changes in my pheromones when I am about to have a panic attack. Her main goal of being with me is prevention but if I do have a full blown panic attack, she often senses it before I do and will start nudging my leg to get me to move. If that doesn’t work will bark at me to almost “herd” me to a safe, quiet place where she can coach me through the attack. She will sit me down and lean against me, and in extreme cases make me lie down, and go heart to heart so our heart beats will sync up. Then she will press her forehead against mine, close her mouth and deep breath with me. After I am breathing normally she will lick my face to continue to calm me. The whole process can take 5 to 10 minutes. It is SO much more pleasant than having to be rushed to the ER thinking you are having a heart attack.
Maya also watches me throughout the day and when she senses my anxiety level starting to rise she grabs her leash and prompts me to walk – the best way for me to mentally manage my anxiety. She knows when I am to take my meds and which ones are to be taken when. She knows increments of time so I can ask her to come and remind me to do something in 15 minutes and she will come back exactly 15 minutes later and point at me reminding me I am supposed to do something. She wakes me up in the morning so I do not sleep too long and she also knows my bedtime and will herd me to bed if I try to stay up too late.
Our relationship is a very unique and special one. She is an amazing dog and unbelievably devoted and faithful.
You recently were one of the singers in the University Musical Society Choral Union’s performance of Handel’s Messiah, with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. How was that experience?
I have sung with the Choral Union since 2003, but by my last concert in 2016, during the entire performance my heart rate never dropped below 150 bpm. I had no way of measuring my blood pressure on stage but I seriously thought about checking myself into the emergency room after that performance. I knew I couldn’t continue being in the Choral Union because my life was being threatened by my crippling anxiety.
I told my director I needed to take last year off while I dealt with medical issues and then in the spring I let him know I wanted to come back but only if I could have my service dog with me. Many hurdles had to be jumped through, but I ended up being allowed to have Maya with me during performances.
The end result for me was FREEDOM! For the first time in almost 30 years I had FUN, and for the first time in what felt like forever I had absolutely no symptoms of anxiety! Maya checked in with me all throughout the performance, keeping physical contact with me the entire time, licking my hand when she needed to shock me and drop my heart if it started to race, and I was simply at peace throughout the whole performance.
The music and the story of Messiah has very special meaning to me because it is the entire life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I long every year to be able to tell the story to the audience. Because the meaning is so profound to me, I am brought to tears many times throughout performing, but instead of anxiety tears they are tears of joy now!