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Adele, Grammys and Vocal Damage

BY ANDREA BENSMILLER

If you thought Adele’s Grammy performance, besides the obvious pitch problems (whether caused by bad sound or not), felt strained, pushed, tense, not quite so fluid…it was.

People have probably forgotten by now that in 2012 Adele, after damaging her voice on a French radio show, was diagnosed with polyps on her vocal cords, had them removed, and then was ordered on vocal rest.

Supposedly, that’s supposed to cure damage of the significant kind, and allow the sufferer to just go back to being their normal vocal selves. In addition, she took time off to escape the throng of fame and had a baby.

But it leaves out a crucial part of the story about vocal cord damage, which more specifically goes like this:

There are two critical layers of the vocal cords (or “folds”) that not only protect them but make vibration possible. The outermost is called the epithelium. It’s said to resemble the lining on the inside of the cheek. The next layer is called the superficial lamina propria, which is described as “gelatinous.” Vibrations in this layer are what produce sound. Damage to this layer results in scarring. When it has been damaged or worn thin, it does not repair itself.1

Polyps, nodes/nodules, and a bunch of other kinds of growths and abnormalities of the vocal cords aren’t always the first sign of damage. They may be the last sign of prolonged trauma.

Voice doctors have discovered that most polyps come after either a minor or major hemorrhage in the cord, which is a bursting of either a small or large blood vessel. Continued singing on the hemorrhage may eventually result in a polyp. The vocal cord can have some injury even before the polyp has formed, making complete recovery difficult. Surgery can result in significant improvement and, in the right hands, resolution of symptoms.

However, it is important to identify the things that may have caused the injury in the first place. Vocal damage may be seen in careers that start too young with no training. In these cases, producers dictate the sound of young artists vocal character with limited knowledge or interest in how a raspy forced sound that sounds ever so cool in the recording will eventually damage their voice in long hours of live performances night after night.

This is why we study. How is it that some of us can sing for four or five hours in front of loud bands every night with limited monitoring for most of our lives and never end up with nodes?

Technique is a large part of this.

It just can’t be replaced.

It takes years to master technique. Certainly more time than our youth obsessed industry gives us to complete the work, and prepare for the demands of constantly using it.

And that’s truly unfortunate. Because I would bet that all of us will remember fondly the days when Adele opened her mouth and time almost stopped. I noticed when Hello came out that her technique seemed more clean and precise. But singing live isn’t the controlled utopia of the studio where multiple good days’ tracks can be comped into a seamless stellar performance.

The voice is a stunning gift. And can be easily robbed of us.

In subtle and unexpected ways.

There’s just no substitute for good education.

(Medical source: Dr. Reena Gupta, Osborne Head & Neck Institute. Voice Doctor LA)

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Waldo Watts

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