Natalie Dessay Vocal Surgery

Vocal damage in CLASSICAL singers: It’s not just pop singers that get hurt

Natalie Dessay

My last post about Meghan Trainor seems to have started some great online discussions about vocal fold injuries in professional singers. However, it became apparent that many of my readers are unaware of how common vocal injuries are in classical singers. The problem is that most classical singers are so ashamed to be diagnosed with a vocal injury that they are not willing talk about it. It is a secret they carry around and only share with their doctors and perhaps their closest friends. Finding news stories about opera singers who cancel due to injury is nearly impossible. However, with a little research I was able to find a few sources that should be of interest and help lay to rest the notion that classical singers are immune from voice disorders.

NBC news interviewed world renowned laryngologist Dr. Steven Zeitels (Harvard Medical Center) for a story about the life span of a singer’s voice. The article says “Zeitels estimates he’s performed about 75,000 voice operations, 500-700 of those on singers….Most of the singers he has performed on have been opera singers, because of the substantial demands on their voice.” In the article he lists the names of some of his famous pop singer clientele, but does not list a single opera singer’s name. Why? Because there is such a stigma around vocal injury in the classical voice community that most singers are not willing to admit they have sought help.

I recently had a conversation with a world renowned singing voice specialist who has found it frustrating that none of their professional opera singers are willing to provide a written testimonial for public use. The singers’ refusal is not because they were unsatisfied with the therapy, it is because they believe they cannot publicly admit that they ran into problems. If you dig around online you can find stories of opera singers who have run into problems, but they are not easy to find. Soprano Natalie Dessay had an operation to remove nodules from her vocal folds. Denise Graves hemorrhaged during a performance when she sneezed backstage, which is similar to what recently happened to Megan Trainor. Rolando Villazón was diagnosed with a vocal cyst in 2009 that required surgery. Cysts can occur on their own, but they can also be a result of extreme vocal use. These are all well known performers who sing very well and still ran into vocal problems.

Perhaps more illuminating are the results of studies with anonymous participants. A scientist in Krasnoyarsk, Russia conducted a study to analyze the results of voice therapy on twenty-eight classical singers with nodules. Classical singers in a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh displayed the lowest Voice Handicap Scores of all the participants, suggesting that they felt significantly handicapped in the their voice use, more so than any other categories of voice users. Researchers in Melbourne, Australia found that 23% of classical singers had to cancel a performance within the last year due to a vocal issue and 51% of the classical singers said that they had struggled at some point in their career with one of seven diagnosed vocal conditions listed in their survey. If you search through the archives of the Journal of Voice and other peer-reviewed journals, you can find many other articles that deal with voice issues in classical singers.

What about voice teachers? One may assume that those who have made a career protecting the voices of their students would be free of problems themselves. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Yolanda D. Heman-Ackah, Carole M. Dean, and Robert T. Sataloff conducted strobovideolaryngoscopic examinations of voice teachers at a national convention. They examined twenty teachers, including seven who had vocal complaints, and all of whom identified themselves as singers of classical music. Of those teachers, eleven had vocal cysts, eight had vocal fold hypomobility, one had a polyp, two had Reinke’s Edema, and three had sulcus vocalis. Every single subject had signs of acid reflux.

So what does all of this mean? It means that ALL singers of ALL styles are prone to vocal injury and so are their teachers. It means that we are all human and we are not invincible. We need to stop saying “a lack of classical technique” is why pop singers run into problems and we need to stop spreading the myth that classical singers never get injured. Instead we need to start focusing on spreading knowledge about how to avoid vocal damage and how to recover from injuries when they happen. We also need to start encouraging classical singers to share their struggles and not be afraid to say they got hurt. We have too much to gain from each other and too much to lose by staying silent.


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