World Voice Day – April 16
An intimate look at two cabaret artists thriving despite vocal health issues.
As part of Cabaret Hotspot’s ongoing mission to promote great training and awareness in the field of cabaret, I met with two artists whose recent shows belied their ongoing issues with vocal health, issues which were not readily apparent in their respective shows, but nonetheless affect how they prepare for, approach, and perform their repertoire of songs.
Richard Holbrook / Beating Cancer of the Jaw
In my review of Richard Holbrook’s Christmas show at Don’t Tell Mama last December, I briefly referred to the battle he had with cancer of the jaw: “His boyish charm gave the evening that magical sense of wonder we (hopefully) all had as children, and his voice, bouncing back beautifully after his bout with esophageal cancer, had just the right stuff for his material: light, airy, and elegant, but with a heft that carried him through some of the more difficult songs he chose … If at times he delved a little too far into the sacred, it nonetheless grounded the evening with a true sense of the faith that is an integral part of both the season, and who he is.”
Two things about that quote: One, he did not have esophageal cancer, he had cancer of the jaw. Second, in subsequent conversations with Holbrook, it became apparent that in addition to his solid technique and incredible will to regain his voice, it was, and is, his faith that carried him through the worst of the illness and beyond.
“It started in the summer of 2013, I was going to do my Fred Astaire show at Don’t Tell Mama in October, and in late August I was diagnosed with single cell carcinoma, and I had thought it was a canker sore that wouldn’t go away. In reality, it was a low-grade malignancy that needed to come out immediately. So I had to cancel my show, leave my job temporarily, and with the help and the love and support of my family I went down to Atlanta – where the bulk of my family lives – to Emory University Hospital. The surgery was important, of course, but I was going to need a lot of support during the recuperation period. And by the time I got down there, in mid-September, the cancer had spread to the jawbone. The surgeon said ‘The jaw has got to go.’ “
After a 13-hour surgery in early October, in which they removed the left jaw bone and replaced it with the fibula from his right leg, he had to re-learn how to speak, chew, and swallow. “I went through six weeks of radiation, and twelve weeks of herbal chemotherapy, where I didn’t lose my hair or get sick.” By November he was speaking again, and by Christmas, he was able to chew and eat solid food. “My recovery was really quite rapid, although it didn’t seem so while I was going through it, and the doctors and surgeons were a little concerned because they weren’t sure if I’d be able to sing for a while, maybe even a year. But I said ‘No. No. I’ve got to get back. I’ve got things to do.’ That’s what my mother said, when she was diagnosed with cancer: ‘I have things to do.’ She was determined to beat it, and so was I. And the day I had the tracheostomy removed, the surgeon said ‘Do a falsetto.’ And I did. And he said he was so proud of me, that I had done a complete 180.”
Returning to New York in February of 2014, he continued to reclaim his voice.
“Initially, my voice was very gravelly, it felt like I was scraping gravel off a driveway, but I was determined to get back in shape as soon as I could. My range had become somewhat limited, so I had to keep keep stretching my vocal chords, and working on my range until I got it back to where it was before the surgery.” Because of the solid technique he had developed in his early vocal training – he had always sung as a child, and began taking lessons in his late teens – in addition to the strong family ties and faith he has had his entire life, he never stopped moving forward, and by the spring of 2014 he was singing again, by the summer he sang at the National Conference of Jewish women, and in October, one year after the surgery, he was back on stage with his Fred Astaire show at Don’t Tell Mama, immediately followed by being invited to sing – for the first time – at the New York Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention in Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and he hasn’t stopped singing since. Thank God. (And technique.)
Claudine Casson-Jellison / Essential Vocal Tremors
When Claudine Casson-Jellison performed her show “Packing Orders” at Don’t Tell Mama last January, I noted in my review: “As both a professional entertainer and an educator in the NYC Public School System, Cassan-Jellison is gifted story teller … she used her impeccable musicianship to seamlessly switch between speaking and singing, giving layers of subtle meaning and depth with every word.”
During our interview she noted: “I stopped singing professionally about 30 years ago. And right before then I had some problems with an auto immune disease that knocked out singing for about a year and a half. But my voice came back, and I was very happy. And then for a lot of different reasons, I decided to go into education. And that was one of them, because I was tired of being on the road, but it had also been my heart. When I was in college, children’s theater and creative drama had been my minor, and I really thought I was going to go in that direction.”
After more than twenty years as a teacher, and then administrator in the NY Public School System (and not singing publicly for much of that time), Casson-Jellison decided “Well, hell, I’m going to retire in like eight years or so; I’m going to start singing again. And I did. I did some concerts here and there, and right before I retired, I did an act.”
It was while preparing a second show and working with David Gaines (her musical director/accompanist) that he noticed something didn’t sound quite right. “Dare I say it? I don’t even know if I want you to print it, but… I was singing flat. And I was like “What you mean singing flat? I don’t sing flat! The only time I sang flat was when I had the auto immune disease because it was in my lung.” And after working with a series of voice teachers and speech pathologists, which helped but didn’t fix the problem, several people, including Gaines, recommend she start working with voice teacher [and Cabaret Hotspot! Editor-In-Chief] David Sabella. After working with Sabella for a few weeks, he noted “It’s not you. I think it’s something in your vocal mechanism.” Sabella sent her to the Sean Parker Institute (at Cornell Weill Medicine), and she met with Dr. Lucien Sulica, head of otolaryngology there. “And Dr. Sulica was lovely. … [he] just took a look. He came out, and he said, while I was still with the gauze: ‘Hmmm. Tell me: is that vibrato on purpose?’ And I wanted to say (with a mouth full of gauze) ‘Now why the hell would that be on purpose?’ I mean, that was part of my problem. And it was widening. He went back in, for like… the whole thing was five minutes. He said ‘You have what’s called Essential Vocal Tremor; It’s the same kind of tremor that you see people have with their hands, but it’s in the vocal mechanism, in the cords’ shape. … And the best way to control it is to do all the other good things that you know about singing, and, you know, just relax this mechanism.’ I started to read up on it. And I remembered things with some teachers, like I had one teacher who used to put her thumb here (she pointed to the underside of her chin), ‘Why can’t you relax your tongue? Relax your tongue!’ And I kept saying ‘It is relaxed. It’s relaxed, you know?’ And then something else was happening where we heard a little bit of air coming through. So I went back to Dr. Sulica and I said, ‘I really need you to tell me exactly where the tremors are. Because I think my palate and my tongue are involved.’ He went back in, and he said ‘Yes, your palate and your tongue are involved.’
So, not just the cords, it is the whole mechanism. But on the positive end, now I’m working with David [Sabella], I’m working with a speech pathologist at Sean Parker, Christine Estes, who I love, and for me, it’s really about re-discovering singing. Basically, think I’m learning Tony Bennett singing, you know, cut it short? I had money notes, you know, like, I would hold things forever. Because I grew up in that time where every young singer wanted to be Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Everything was big notes, that was what singing was to me.”
Now, working with both Sabella and Estes, Casson-Jellison is vocalizing every day for 20 or 25 minutes, concentrating on singing in her head voice, where she can control the tremors, and talk-singing in her chest voice. And cutting notes short. “Honey, when you hear yourself go flat, JUST STOP!” And the story telling. “It’s as much about story telling as about the music. That’s important to me. The story telling part.”
Full Disclosure: when I initially reviewed Mr. Holbrook’s show, I had no idea of his history. And there was nothing in his performance that gave me any clues to what he had gone through. I learned about his history with jaw cancer later, after the show when we ran into each other at Joe Allen’s after the show. With Ms. Casson-Jellison, I had been told she was having some vocal problems, but during her performance I didn’t notice anything awry.
Cabaret Hotspot! reminds you, if you fear you may be suffering from a vocal issue, yet diagnosed, please seek professional medical help. Vocal issues are common in our industry. There is no shame in a vocal health injury or illness. Tennis players get tennis elbow. Writers get writer’s cramp. These are repetitive stress injuries. And Singers are also at risk for these types of injuries, not to mention a wide range of other biological, and pathological issues that effect both vocal and physical health. If you need a referral to a vocal health professional please reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org