It’s been almost five months since 23-year-old British soul singer Adele, who’s up for six Grammys, including album, record and song of the year, fell quiet due to a vocal cord hemorrhage in early October. At the time, she was forced to cancel a 10-date sold-out U.S. tour, just as her sophomore album “21" was well on its way to becoming the top-selling album of 2011, having never left the Top 10 on the U.S. pop charts since its February release.
But it was recently announced that she’d be performing at the 54th Grammy Awards, which happen this Sunday, and it’s an appearance that will surely draw viewers, not to mention close scrutiny. The question is will she be able to pull it off, and if she does, will she be able to forge a long career out of what is sure to be a successful night for her at least in terms of Grammy wins?
Steven Zeitels, the director of Massachusetts General Hospital Voice Center, performed the surgery on Adele that will allow her to sing at the Grammys, putting a stop to her recurrent vocal cord hemorrhaging (bleeding, essentially) from a benign polyp. Zeitels, who was invited to attend the ceremony by the Recording Academy, won’t be surprised if Adele is back on the road before too long. “When I do that kind of operation, the typical time someone starts singing again is three-and-half to five weeks,” he said.
Zeitels adds that the Who’s Roger Daltrey, whom he also operated on, had a more serious condition than Adele, and was back on stage five weeks after surgery.
Though the words “vocal cord hemorrhage” sound alarming, the condition isn’t a career-ender, said Zeitels. Adele’s physician posits that plenty of regular folk may have more in common with Adele than they realize.
In fact, there was likely some vocal cord hemorrhaging after the Super Bowl — and we’re not just referring to the halftime performers. Though this theory hasn’t been tested, Zeitels suggested that if he were to examine 200 football fans who partied during the game, “a certain percentage that is maybe not insignificant — maybe 10% or 5%" would have seen their vocal cords overwhelmed with a trace amount of blood.
“The way you know it’s a hemorrhage is the voice gets really hoarse and doesn’t recover so quickly,” Zeitels said. “If you yelled a lot and it was hoarse that night, by the following afternoon you’re probably OK, but remember, performers have to sing. That’s a different mechanical requirement than just talking. If you’re a performer, you’re going right back into the athletic activity, so you will keep bleeding.”
Adele was just one of several high-profile singers who experienced vocal trauma in 2011. John Mayer and Keith Urban also underwent vocal surgery, leading to the following question: Are touring demands taking a toll on artists? The answer was a resounding no, at least according to Zeitels and a number of musicians. Zeitels theorized that the nonstop, everyday pace of the modern-day performer takes a bigger toll than concerts themselves, which have gradually become a more regulated business.
“I think their lives are more complicated,” he said of performers. “Thirty years ago there was no email. The more you go back and forth on email, the more phone conversations there are. If you communicate with seven different people, that may produce three phone calls.”
Marcia Ball, 62, is up for the blues album Grammy for her “Roadside Attractions,” and she said conditions for singers today are significantly better than they were when she started performing. She remembered having to project over stacks of amplifiers without any on-stage monitors.
“I started out screaming Janis Joplin songs, and doing so when they were new,” she said. “I was in a cover band when I was 18 and all I did was scream. There wasn’t a monitor in town. It’s a miracle I didn’t hurt myself.”
Ball’s younger blues-rock peer Carolyn Wonderland wasn’t so lucky. The 39-year-old Texan singer was performing the second of two shows in St. Louis on Nov. 9 when she opened her mouth and heard silence.
“It’s frightening as hell,” said Wonderland, who has resumed touring after being diagnosed with vocal polyps, blister-like bumps that can form when hemorrhaged vessels don’t heal correctly. “All of a sudden nothing comes out. After being able to sing or talk and communicate, it’s bizarre to have it taken away.”
It isn’t uncommon, said Zeitels, who stressed that advances in laser surgery have made it possible to treat severe cases without scarring or damaging the vocal cords. Adele performing live about three months after surgery is completely normal, said Zeitels.
“These people are pros,” he said. “You give them great anatomy, and it’s like a duck to water. They’re wired to perform. By the time they need to see me and there’s a polyp, they’ve spent years singing around it.”
Wonderland is opting to forgo surgery, treating the issue instead with rest and voice coaching. She was resistant at first to the latter, having prescribed to the belief that “you need to be able to roll out of bed and do it or it ain’t real,” she said.
“Initially, I thought I’d go in and be in some cookie-cutter mechanism and come out a choir singer,” she said. “That’s not the case. You learn how to support what you got going on and how to not tear it up.”
Soul singer Ruthie Foster, 47, has studied and taught voice (and covered Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” on her “Let It Burn”). She said young singers would be wise not to start out mimicking the belters on shows like “American Idol.”
“My voice teacher even told me, ‘The faces, don’t make the faces! They’re not necessary,’” remembered Foster. “That takes your energy. Your energy should go to what’s coming out of your mouth.”
There’s another reason to seek professional guidance. Not every artist solution is likely to be doctor-approved. Foster recalled touring with folk singer and former Limeliters member Glenn Yarbrough in the early ‘90s.
“He swears by a little cognac,” she said. “He said to me, ‘It clears out the gunk.’ I tried that myself, and, well, it was a nice plus.”