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A note of caution for young singers

Adele seeks care in Boston for increasingly common throat ailment

Adele is seeking treatment from Dr. Steven Zeitels, a Boston doctor who has treated Steven Tyler. Adele is seeking treatment from Dr. Steven Zeitels, a Boston doctor who has treated Steven Tyler. (Mario Anzuon/Reuters)
By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / November 2, 2011

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She’s 23, the hottest singer on the planet, and about to have a leading Boston laryngeal surgeon repair the hemorrhaging in her throat that forced her to cancel her North American tour.

The good news is that Britain’s Adele, the world’s number one pop soul sensation, is not, as rumored, suffering from cancer. But lost in fans’ outpouring of concern is this question: Why does such a young talent have to turn to Dr. Steven Zeitels? He has treated others - Steven Tyler, Julie Andrews, and David Brudnoy among them - but only after they had been working for decades.

“The bottom line is the voice is an instrument and needs to be cared for. I hate to see young people injured,’’ said Phyllis Hoffman, who directs Boston University’s Tanglewood and Young Artists Vocal programs. “But I hope young singers learn from this.’’

Adele, whose album “21’’ has already sold more than 4 million copies in the United States, has said on her blog that she would be devastated if the injuries turned out to be career-ending. On Oct. 4, she posted: “i follow all the advice im given and stick to regimes, rules and practices to the best of my ability but it seems to simply not be enough.’’

Zeitels confirmed for the Globe this week that Adele’s throat ailment is not cancer, and can be treated with surgery.

Hoffman and other specialists, from voice coaches to vocal therapists, say that when these injuries occur - and they are happening more and more in younger singers - it’s usually either the result of fatigue and strain on the throat, misuse of the throat due to lack of formal training, or both.

Hoffman blames such injuries on “our reality TV music culture,’’ because of the seemingly increasing volume of young singers who go from occasional amateur performances to intense, daily singing sessions in an effort to make a name and build their brand.

“It’s using the body in an excessive manner. And it makes me cringe when I see it,’’ said Hoffman, BU’s chairwoman of Applied and Performance Studies and a professor of music and voice at the school. “Young people perform on these shows that require them to throw caution to the wind in exchange for a chance at fame.’’

The pace at which young people attempt to go from amateur to professional these days can do them in, Hoffman said, though she was careful to add, “I’m not suggesting this is the case with Adele, but it does lie at the heart of the problem with many young singers who suffer this type of injury.’’

Max Prussner doesn’t have Adele’s fame or 1.8 million Twitter followers, but the 24-year-old lead singer of Boston-based pop rock band Flight Patterns said he can empathize with her and that he is the poster child for Hoffman’s cautions.

“In late 2009, we were playing about once a week,’’ Prussner said. “And then things started to take off for us early in 2010, and we began recording an album and launched a three-month tour. And suddenly we went from once a week to at least every other day, and sometimes every day. And frankly I was tired. I was exhausted and not getting much sleep either in that stretch.’’

Prussner said he began to notice something wrong with his voice in spring 2010 when his range began to fail and he would lose his voice for a day following performances. “I couldn’t hit the high notes anymore,’’ he said.

It turned out he had a bleeding polyp on a vocal cord, caused, he said, by not knowing how to use his voice.

Surgery at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary repaired the damage, but after a mandatory two-week silent healing period, Prussner was placed in the care of Mary M. Klimek, a renowned senior speech pathologist at Mass. Eye and Ear and a classically trained former opera singer. She turned his assumptions about voice care on end.

“Mary was great because she helped me get my voice back,’’ Prussner said. “But mostly because she taught me how to use my voice. I learned through her that I wasn’t even talking right. And proper speech leads to proper singing.’’

By early 2011, Prussner had recovered and was singing again.

Klimek, citing patient confidentiality, declined to discuss Prussner specifically, but she did say that for every young singer like Prussner who seeks care and gets guidance on how not to repeat potentially damaging mistakes, there are many others who just don’t get it.

“I wouldn’t put it all on their lack of knowledge, though,’’ Klimek said. “Generally I think young performers these days are vulnerable to the marketing pressures of the music industry. And so they are put under more pressure sooner to sustain schedules of performances and recording work that constitute in and of themselves a challenge to vocal health.’’

As for the physical causes of vocal injuries, Klimek said she reminds singing patients constantly that “the throat of a singer is a strain waiting to happen,’’ and encourages patients to compare themselves to athletes, who after surgery go through many levels of therapy with specialists, “to make sure they are not only healed but that they know how to use their instrument - their bodies - properly.’’

Among the first things she teaches? Smoking (Adele smokes, and acknowledges it hurts her voice) and excessive drinking can cause damage to the throat.

Also, a husky sound, like the one Adele has, is not necessarily a sign of trouble.

Klimek pointed to the legend that when a young Lauren Bacall was told her voice was too soft, the actress stood under the giant Hollywood sign in Los Angeles for two days screaming at the top of her lungs to give herself a rough, sexier tone.

“And look at Louis Armstrong,’’ she said. “He found the balance that made his husky sound work, and he sustained a career for decades.’’

Klimek also said she tries to discourage her patients from trying to mimic the sounds of their pop idols, who often make those “sounds’’ in studios where their voices are recorded and then engineered to seem flawless.

As for Adele, her Boston physician told the Globe he is confident the young star behind hits like “Someone Like You’’ and “Rolling in the Deep,’’ will be fine. Zeitels, Eugene B. Casey professor of laryngeal surgery at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation at Mass. General, said Adele’s throat bleeding is “a common condition among singers. And in her case it can be fixed with surgery.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/jamesburnett.

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