Getting in Touch With ‘the Voice of the Soul’ : Therapist: Vocal teacher Gary Catona is written off by some because of his unorthodox ‘voice building’ technique. But to his celebrity clients, he’s a miracle worker.

Share via

When Michael Wilmington, formerly a movie writer for The Times and now the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, was stricken with spastic dysphonia--which leaves its victim with a strangled voice--he was able to overcome the problem by working with self-proclaimed “voice builder” Gary Catona. Today, Catona’s client list includes show business personalities who want to build their voices as well as ordinary people with vocal problems or traumas.

To Gary Catona, a voice isn’t just the wind passing through your gums. It’s “a very important part of who we are. It’s the voice of the soul.”

To some of his colleagues in vocal teaching, statements like this brand Catona as an uncertified, out-of-bounds flake.


But to many of his students and clients, he’s a miracle worker: A man who brings back lost voices, spiffs or tunes up others.

Catona calls his special technique “voice building” and his client roster includes singers Andy Williams, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Dawn Robinson of En Vogue, “D.O.C.” of N.W.A., Barnard Jackson, country star Lee Roy Parnell, singer-producer Baby Face, Gino Vannelli and Lenny Kravitz; actors Patrick Swayze, Jeff Goldblum, Jasmine Guy, Patrick Bergin, Charles Dance and Robert Blake; even, for a while, boxing champ Muhammad Ali. Catona regularly accompanies Liza Minnelli, Paula Abdul and Shirley MacLaine on their concert tours.

Yet, despite all this, Catona, 46, has miffed many of his coaching colleagues.

At a recent conference of the Triological Society in Santa Barbara, a medical conference for voice specialists, Catona and his writing and documentation partner, Dr. Warren Lyne of St. Joseph’s Hospital and the USC Medical School, presented a paper on his theories of voice building and therapy to a resoundingly silent room. One of the best-known speech therapist-authors in the nation, asked to discuss voice building, said: “There’s nothing special about Gary’s work. He’s had beginner’s luck. In time, he will pass quickly from the scene.”

So which is he: overhyped charlatan or miracle worker?

“He’s my savior,” says actor Jack Klugman, whose voice contracted to a whisper after his 1987 surgery for throat cancer removed one of his vocal cords and left the other a mass of irradiated scar tissue. Klugman couldn’t talk for a year but, after five months of exercise with Catona, he returned to the stage, in a June, 1991, benefit performance of “The Odd Couple,” with Tony Randall and, this year, in “Three Men on a Horse.”


When Klugman started with Catona, his voice was barely a whisper; in five months, he was talking. And now, according to the actor, “the power is there all the time--even though I just tune up for half an hour in the shower and 15 minutes before the show.” Klugman repaid the favor in a CBS “Odd Couple” TV movie special that aired in September, co-starring Randall, that described how unbuttoned sportswriter Oscar Madison recovered his voice after surgery by using Catona’s voice building.

Since 1983, Catona has worked with many voices damaged by accident, injury, surgery or illness. His most spectacular client was jazz guitarist and singer Larry Carlton, whose voice he restored after Carlton was shot in the throat at his Hollywood Hills home by a prowler in April, 1988--severing a nerve and paralyzing one of his vocal cords.


Still, voice traumas are not his only--or even main--concern. Mostly, he works with performers who want to improve their vocal range, power and expressiveness. Paula Abdul brought him on her “Under My Spell” tour to keep her voice in top shape. “To go on tour all over the world singing night after night, often in poor health, and never once losing my voice,” she says now, “that was almost like a miracle to me.”

One of Catona’s biggest star clients and boosters is MacLaine, who says that her own vocal range stretched from 1 1/2 octaves to 2 1/2 under his tutelage--allowing her to belt out Ethel Merman showstoppers like “Rose’s Turn” for the first time in her career. MacLaine constantly refers people to Catona--including Minnelli--and devotes four pages to him in her latest book, “Dance While You Can.”


What exactly is voice building? And why do some experts tend to ignore it?

Perhaps it’s the cliquishness of any small elite group. Perhaps it’s Catona’s up-front, slightly raffish manner. He tends to meet his clients in athletic sweats, driving a Jeep Wrangler to appointments and carrying along a portable Yamaha keyboard.

Or perhaps it’s because he lacks the usual vocal therapy credentials. At Penn State graduate school, Catona studied not medicine, but philosophy, in which he earned a master’s degree. And the technique he came up with is, by his own admission, a heresy--since it’s based on building voice through aggressive exercise, as a weightlifter builds muscle.

“The vocal mechanism,” Catona insists, “is largely a set of muscles, and that’s the way it should be treated.” The foundation of his method is an exercise system called isokinetics, in which “the muscle is taken through a full range of motion, with the speed constant and the resistance maximized.”

A Philadelphia native with Italian roots, Catona feels the other antecedent of voice building is the Italian tradition of “Bel Canto”: the full-throated style for which Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Cimarosa, Pergolesi and Rossini, most of whom also doubled as vocal teachers, wrote their operas.


Catona himself studied voice extensively for years under a variety of teachers. But he says much of what he learned was wrong.

Instead, he says his theories come from pragmatic observation, practice and his understanding of Bel Canto: the methods of famous singing teachers like Antonio Melocchi and of artists like tenors Mario Del Monaco, Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli and--his first love and inspiration--Mario Lanza.

Trying to sing like Lanza was what brought Catona to voice in the first place.

When years of training failed to give him the Lanza-like voice he wanted, he decided to go it alone. Soon he experienced catastrophe. While experimenting with his falsetto range, he felt his voice collapse and vanish, becoming “completely unfunctional.”

Catona discovered isokinetics while reading up on exercise systems in the University of Texas Library at Austin. He began rigorously exercising himself. Eventually, his voice returned--and the notes he took during this period formed the foundation of what he now calls “voice building.”


Watch Catona work out with one of his students--MacLaine, for example--and you can see how his sports background keys his methods.

He sits on a chair or stool, strikes a note on the Yamaha keyboard, asks the student to stretch into a wide smile and then sing the note themselves as strongly as possible, hold it, slide it up an octave--catching all the stops in between--and then slide it back down. He asks for the softer vowel sounds, Aaaaah’s sliding into Oooooo’s. He carefully guides his student through the regimen, sometimes singing the tone himself, sometimes manually adjusting the student’s musculature, a process he dubs “vocal patterning.” The student reaches, struggles, reaches again--and may be dripping with sweat at the end.


It’s a workout.

But, in the opinion of most, worth it. Lyne says: “Gary’s work in voice building has groundbreaking relevance to both vocal science and the vocal arts. In observing Gary’s students, I’ve come to the conclusion that great voices can be created even in cases of severe vocal dysfunction.”

According to Klugman, “People don’t understand how important speech is. They really don’t. It’s got to stop being a secret. I just want (Gary) to be appreciated. Not in the sense to be celebrated, but to be used.