Throat Problems Silence Some of Music’s Biggest Acts
Barely a week goes by lately without another high-profile star cancelling a major tour due to various throat problems. John Mayer announced an indefinite live hiatus last year following surgery to treat a granuloma condition. Simon Le Bon revealed that six semi-tones had been wiped off the top of his range after damaging his vocal cords, prompting Duran Duran to reschedule their series of summer shows. Even Keith Urban was forced to postpone a benefit concert for the Country Music Hall of Fame after developing a polyp on his vocal cord.
But it’s world-conquering soul singer Adele who has faced arguably the toughest battle with her voice. Still only in her early twenties, North London’s finest should have been toasting her monumental success with arena tours across both sides of the Atlantic. But instead, she was forced to cancel all live duties following a nightmare period of silence which eventually saw her undergo vocal cord microsurgery to prevent recurrent bleeding in her larynx.
Fortunately, Adele’s highly worrying vocal issues appear to be behind her, having triumphantly returned to the stage at both this year’s Grammy and BRIT Awards. However, not all suffering vocalists are so lucky. Julie Andrews was left unable to sing for several years after undergoing surgery to remove non-cancerous nodules from her throat, whilst BBC talent show winner Connie Fisher was ironically forced to retire from her role of Maria in the West End production of The Sound of Music due to a similar problem.
So why are so many singers finding themselves in potentially career-ending situations? Surprisingly, the downturn in album sales could be to blame. Once the main source of income for the pop glitterati, the financial rewards from even a chart-topping LP are miniscule compared to even five years ago (Rihanna’s Talk That Talk recently reached number one in the UK with paltry sales of just 9,578), ensuring artists are going on the road far more frequently in an effort to make up the extra bucks.
With physicians claiming that 90 minutes of intense singing has the same effect on the larynx as a professional football game has on a lineman’s body, it’s perhaps understandable why Dr. Steven M. Zeitels, the Boston surgeon who operated on Adele, has recommended that vocalists should try and abstain from performing two nights in a row.
Of course, for most acts, who have to balance their on-stage activities with recording, promo and occasionally the odd day off, taking such a lengthy time between shows is a luxury they can ill-afford. The rock’n'roll lifestyle, synonymous with touring, can also be a contributing factor, whether it’s an excess amount of alcohol and drugs, a poor diet, or a lack of sleep.
However, according to the medical elite, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Dr. Zeitels suggests that advances in technology can now pick up and treat vocal problems more easily, particularly the use of fiber-optic cameras which can scan for abnormalities such as bleeding, cysts and nodules.
Dr. Natasha Mirza, the director of the Penn Center for Voice and Swallowing at the University of Pennsylvania, also believes that improvements in laser surgery have helped to reduce the kind of scarring that can destroy a voice, especially the advent of a green laser which unlike the carbon dioxide version, pulses light and heats the blood in the capillaries without damaging any of the surrounding tissue.
But as the old adage goes, prevention is better than cure, and some singers are said to be more susceptible to vocal problems because of a lack of classical training. Indeed, professor Antony Narula argues that powerful vocalists who try to achieve a much greater volume are hindered if they do not possess the correct techniques, suggesting a professional vocal coach should perhaps be a necessity for any regular live performer.
Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks can certainly concur with such a statement, crediting her voice coach since 1997, Steve Real, for helping to overcome her vocal issues. She even invited him to join her on stage to sing “Leather & Lace” during her In Dreams tour.
Of course, it’s difficult not to sympathise with the likes of Adele, Simon Le Bon and John Mayer, but thankfully it appears that the apparent epidemic of artists falling victim to throat problems is more under control than it ever has been.