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Throat Surgery And Top Singers

With Mike Pesca in for Tom Ashbrook

Adele, Keith Urban, R. Kelly and more. What’s behind the surge in throat surgery for top singers?

British singer Adele performs on the stage of the Miles Davis hall during the 42nd Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, late Saturday, July 12, 2008. (AP)

British singer Adele performs on the stage of the Miles Davis hall during the 42nd Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, late Saturday, July 12, 2008. (AP)

If you want to sing out sing out.  Unless you can’t. A plague, or at least a spate of cases has afflicted vocalists of late.  Nodules, polyps – hemorrhaged vocal chords.

The soaring English singer Adele has been grounded, Keith Urban, put out to pasture, John Mayer – waitin’ for his throat to heal – all have gone under the knife and laser or are about to.  This isn’t just coincidence say the voice experts and doctors who tend to the broken throated.  Singers are pushing the limits of sound, and some are paying the price.

This hour, On Point: Voices lost and found.

-Mike Pesca


Shirley Halperin, Music editor for the Hollywood Reporter.

Dr. Steven Zeitels, Director of the Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation (the Voice Center) at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Penelope Bitzas, Professor of music at Boston University. A mezzo-soprano, she has performed in a variety of musical genres, including opera, contemporary, solo, and orchestral.

Rich Juzwiak, Pop culture writer for The Daily.

From The Reading List

MTV “Now that Kellz has his voice back, he has a few things to say. First, he’d like to say thanks to the fans who held him down during his rough patch and give a shout out to the doctors who stayed focused during his surgery.”

Adele’s blog “Guys, im heartbroken and worried to tell you that yet again im experiencing problems with my voice. its ridiculous i know! i cant believe it myself. 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.”

Boston Globe “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.”


Professor Penelope Bitzas in the On Point studio. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Professor Penelope Bitzas in the On Point studio. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Dr. Steven Zeitels outside the On Point studio. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Dr. Steven Zeitels outside the On Point studio. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

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  • LoveGreatSingingVoices

    It’s simple, just read this and you won’t need to listen to the program:

    Apparently, they don’t know how to sing properly because they’re using their throats too much and stressing out the muscles controlling and surrounding their vocal chords.

    That’s why Whitney and Mariah can’t belt them out anymore and have a limited range.

    They get overworked, they get inflamed and they don’t heal properly and are susceptible to infections. 

    Imagine if they weren’t using amplification how bad of a situation it would be. 

    It’s a shame most singers don’t get the proper training and most teachers and coaches don’t know the proper methods.

    • Gregg

      Great point but I don’t think that is always the case. Polyps can form and age also becomes a factor. I think Elton John had the surgery too. Warming up properly and singing from the diaphragm are essential but even then problems can creep up. I’ve worked with many singers over the years including a few with #1 hits and one in the hall of fame. They all are very careful not to speak much before the gig and to warm up thoroughly.

      • LoveGreatSingingVoices

        No disrespect, but EJ is more of a performer than a singer.  If he has had the surgery, it’s probably more than likely it’s because he’s a ‘throat singer’ as well.

        Whether someone has had #1 hits or is in the ‘Hall of Fame’ does not relate to them knowing the proper singing technique.

        You can have talent, a great voice and stardom and still not have the best technique.

        • Gregg

          Elton says his voice is stronger now than before the surgery, it’s lower but fuller. I consider him a singer but I just brought him up as an example, you can classify him any way you want. The singers I worked with mostly had marvelous and proper vocal technique. Maybe it undercuts my argument because they have never had the surgery either. I just think you can have the proper technique and still run into trouble.

  • CORY.

    Technological transhumanism?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn, or Betty Carter ever had throat surgery. 

    • CORY.

      Love me some Ella!

  • Elizabeth

    I’m a university classical voice teacher and an opera singer myself. A few years ago due to extreme stress in my life and not doing my normal warm up routine I developed something called “kissing nodules.” They were two tiny, just forming “blisters” toward the anterior of my vocal folds. Luckily I see an ENT regularly and with six months rest and exercises, I was back in the saddle and perfectly fine in that time period. This goes to show that this can happen to anyone, even healthy singers, but truth be told, most “pop” singers yell. This is my experience as an adjudicator and I’ve seen first hand the damage that can be done. Healthy technique, good classical training and a diligent warm up routine are essential for ALL singers. I’ve wanted to stop my ear with ear plugs at some of the “singing” I’ve heard over the years, and the “culture” of american idol has not helped one bit. REAL singers are rarely EVER over-night sensations. It takes work, Work and WORK, along with strict practice and time management. This program doesn’t surprise me at all, and sadly in a society that encourages instant everything, it will continue.

    • Dakey Dunn

      I suspected as much. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Definitely “stupid topics” day on On Point – I’ll try again tomorrow.

  • Fred from Newton, MA

    I’m an avid, amateur classical singer, doing mostly choral
    work.  As my technique has improved over the years (I turned 60 this
    year), it has become _easier_ to sing higher, longer, and purer tone. 
    This is primarily breath related, powered by the diaphragm and intercostal muscles,
    and avoids stress in the throat.  My advice to any singer is to get good
    instruction from a competent classical teacher.  Keep in mind: for
    centuries, “popular” singers had to be heard in large halls, above
    the orchestra, with no electronic amplifiers.

  • Drew You Too

    I’m going to go sit on my front porch with my “little friend” and wait for The Fall, sad that The Revolution won’t be covered.

  • Beez

    Are they performing more often? With the decline in record sales many musicians are forced to tour practically all year.

  • Hazzanlane

    Not only are pop and rock singers simply doing too much (singing, talking, etc.), they don’t usually have good vocal technique to begin with. And they don’t work in an ongoing fashion with good voice coaches.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Justin Bieber’s musicality?  Would Stephen Colbert call it his musickiness?

    • Dakey Dunn

      Before seeing his name in print, I thought he was a Nickleback spawn.

  • Golem

    Why isn’t Tom Waits in on this conversation?!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    At least Roger Daltrey was screaming about something meaningful:

    Meet the new boss; same as the old boss!

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps the human voice shouldn’t make some of those sounds.  Mariah Carey’s vocal gymnastics were physically painful to listen to. 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp


      Go to 7:50 and tell me that he shouldn’t do that.

      • Anonymous

        My criticism wasn’t directed at him.  Her songs are saccharine crap with vocal gymnastics to make up for lack of artistry. 

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

          Too true.  I’ve just been feeling like screaming a lot lately.  What we need is a Who/U2 concert, followed by a mass occupation–the two would easily be one.

    • http://www.facebook.com/black.blackboy.5 Black Blackboy

       You are full of shit…just mad because you can’t do what Mariah can.

  • mommaknecht

    I heard that Michael Jackson had throat/vocal chord surgery to keep his voice unnaturally high. Is that true? Also, this kind of surgery isn’t a one time deal right? I wonder how many time someone like Adele might get this surgery in her lifetime.

    • Dolly

      Michael Jackson had excellent vocal training from childhood all the way til the end.  It kept his voice ‘naturally’ high and tuned up like a Ferrari.  And yes, many artists have had numerous vocal cord surgeries in their lifetimes.  If you don’t eliminate your bad vocal habits, you’ll re-injure them.  Vocal cord damage doesn’t usually hurt, it just starts sounding more raspy and tired.  Check out http://www.vocalizeu.com.  There’s a new app to help singers prevent surgery! 

  • Art In BG.

    I wonder if Falsettos are more or less to suffer damage.  Or a singer like Tom Waits, Howling Wolf or Captain Beefheart whose voices sound like sand paper and broken glass, do they suffer more or less damage than a diva like adele or whitney? 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Geddy Lee’s voice has improved over the years.

    • Brett

      I think it depends on what the person’s natural voice sounds like and how they use their voice. Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) sounded as if the voice he sang with was his own. Waits sounded very different when he started than his trademark vocal sound of Drano® drunk with a whiskey chaser. On his first album, he sounded like a fair-haired Folk singer. I think his sound has become, at this point, the result of permanent “damage,” as it were; however, it does sound as though he is singing from his diaphragm. I just think he developed a vocal style that wasn’t necessarily “natural” or that used proper vocal technique. As with many lifelong professional singers, Waits has probably had his share of problems and has had to learn to use his voice in proper ways to prevent further damage. (I personally like Waits’ singing, BTW.) Sting suffers from regular bouts of laryngitis; which, [my opinion] he sings about a whole tone and a half above where he is naturally. Some of the vocal melody notes he sings are very high for someone of his range, and they sound choked or strained. I don’t know if there is a causation there, but… 

      Using the timbre of one’s voice (one caller mentioned this), as well as respecting one’s own limitations, is an important tool in preserving vocal health, as well as the other practices of singing from the diaphragm, warming up the voice before performance, and resting the voice properly (herbal teas of rose hips and lemon grass also help), all should be part of a regular habit if one plans to sing well over a lifetime. My advice to singers: strive to develop your own sound that is natural to your own voice; never try to sing like others. And, REST your voice as much as you can! 

      Using the technique of falsetto, if executed properly, is very easy on the voice; using a kind of half-falsetto (something many Pop singers use) is also easy on the voice if executed properly. Using a full-voiced vibrato, something opera singers use all the time, can result in vocal strain if not employed properly. Many Pop singers who use vibrato may really push their voices to achieve the effect, night after night, without proper warm up or technique, and may damage their voice in the process.   

  • TheQueenOfSinging

    Speaking of singers, if you ever get the chance, go hear Patti Labelle.

    She can blow the roof off of any dump.  Saw her a couple of times, once at Carnegie Hall.

    Guaranteed, you will be blown away.  Don’t miss her amazing talent.

  • Ben

    Slow news day?

    • MakeSomeNews

      Always plenty of news worthy issues, except NPR just doesn’t want to deliver it.

      How about corruption in congress, like the insider stock trading 60 Minutes reported on Sunday?

      Steve Kroft: What do you mean honest graft?

      For example insider trading on the stock market. If you are a member of
      Congress, those laws are deemed not to apply.

      Kroft: So congressman get a pass on insider trading?

      They do. The fact is, if you sit on a healthcare committee and you know
      that Medicare, for example, is– is considering not reimbursing for a
      certain drug that’s market moving information. And if you can trade
      stock on– off of that information and do so legally, that’s a great
      profit making opportunity. And that sort of behavior goes on.


  • Petergriffith5

    I disagree with folks who are saying that this is too light of a topic.  The guests are interesting as is the topic.  

    However, the host, Mike Pesca detracts from the show by repeatedly offering his own opinion ion the same level of expertise as the guests who have actual expertise.  

    A good host facilitates the guest and the topic, Pesca is overpowering both guests and the topic..   

  • Mibs131

    I was listening to the vocal program tonight and I think it should be clarified that Whitney Houston’s vocal issues were exacerbated by alleged drug use, cocaine in particular. 

  • Stonegage

    I have traveled as a professional vocalist and back-up singer for 10 years.  At one time, I was singing 200 concerts a year.  Had it not been for my vocal training in college, I know that I would have cut my career short. 
    However, it wasn’t the singing that wore me down as much as it was the post-show signings, the meet-and-greets in a loud room…  The greatest culprit of vocal damage for me was something with which we all sruggle: -lazy speech.
    Practice makes perfect, and water and sleep do wonders, but proper breath support is everything. 

  • http://www.vandermeervoiceandarts.com Vandermeervoiceandarts

    With singers using microphones, mixing boards, etc., we really cannot accurately assess the size or real nature of a voice.  Only in an acoustic non-amplified setting is it possible to get an idea about the size and quality of a voice and its ability to project, to resonate through, and interact with space. 
    Singers, especially young singers, in their attempts to sound like so and so, have been known to suffer vocal damage (nodules, polyps, bleeding, etc.).  I have seen young singers with stars in their eyes and a lot of preconceived notions about who they think they should sound like (Adele, or even a raspy tenor) abandon their own natural and/or trained vocal abilities and instead, in their efforts to imitate someone else, sing with excessive vocal strain to the point of experiencing physical pain.  Combine this with a tween or teen’s drive and passion for stardom, coupled with peer pressure and the need to ‘belong’, it can be a dangerous vocal cocktail.  
    It is a sad industry, vocally speaking, witness the vocal decline of Mariah Carey, Whitney, and many many others…  Perhaps we are standing on a threshold of a new era when the songwriters themselves honor the healthy pain-free voice in their songwriting, and when singers are willing to expand their vocal tone colors and range beyond a one octave raspy belt sound; where pop culture values an ‘earthy’ emotional sound that also happens to be beautiful, healthy, powerful, heartfelt, and passionate.

    • DollyVocalHawaii

      Wow, very well said!  In working with hundreds of singers’ vocal technique for almost 20 years now, I completely agree.  Maybe now that it’s harder to keep the consequences of ‘yelling’ out songs a secret, singers will put more work into mastering their instrument!

    • Bodizepha66

      Very well put, I agree the secret to longevity is to stay within your range & concentrate on your own style.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/4V4NV6IG2M5A4WQY3XSZPH6XJI SilviaM

      I completely agree with you and there is so much ignorance on the subject that I decided to fight it. Wherever I go – theater , piano bar(not opera of course)  I hear damaged voices and young people imitating their idols.Let’s spread more information – I started  a course  called “Meet your voice” (or close to this in translation-I am in Bulgaria.For singers, actors, teachers, and anyone who is interested in vocalizing .Cheers

  • choral director from CA

    To those people who are complaining that this is a frilly story: there are lots of ways to have a voice in life. Singing is a powerful one. I’m so glad this topic is coming into the open. Singers in the past had to live in shame when their vocal cords became injured.

  • Dakey Dunn

    Witney Houston started a trend of screaming rather than singing. It is tacky, annoying, and… well, very American. If they need surgery it is their fault for prostituting themselves to the canned music industry. What a shame ( in some cases).

  • Dakey Dunn

    I find it highly suspect that none of the guests on the show has pointed out the problems as described in the comments by Elizabeth 11/15/2011 09:33 AM. Sounds like they are bought and paid for. 

  • Beartunes

    I’m a normal guy, and it’s no fun when your vocal cords hurt 24 hours a day.  I’m glad to have learned Dr Zeitels’ name!

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