Michael M. Johns III and Edie Hapner


Golden Voices

The Voice Center treats those who rely
professionally on having a good set of pipes

Call it the case of the hoarse auctioneer.

Assistant Professor of Voice Bonnie Pomfret remembers a middle-aged client for whom performing the requisite “twenty dollars, twenty, twenty, give me twenty, do I hear thirty” spiel had become almost impossible.

“Auctioneers have to do something resembling continual chanting, and he was getting hoarse and nearly losing his voice,” Pomfret says. “It was getting worse and he didn’t know what to do.”

For auctioneers, singers, talk show hosts, disc jockeys, actors, telephone operators, motivational speakers, and politicians (think of Bill Clinton’s rasp after giving too many campaign speeches in a row), hoarseness or laryngitis isn’t just an inconvenience–it’s a threat to their livelihood.

“Voice is very important for everyone, but many people don’t realize that one’s voice can be improved,” says Pomfret, a freelance solo soprano who taught voice at Emory College for seven years and now works at Emory’s Voice Center. “There is a skill component.”

The Voice Center, which opened in September 2003 in the Medical Office Tower of Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, is equipped to diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate those with voice disorders, especially professionals who use their voices to make a living. The center has several specialists on staff, including laryngologists, speech language pathologists, and voice therapists.

Michael M. Johns III, director of the center and an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, received his training at Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt. “Our voice is something we tend to take for granted until it is lost,” he says. “Then we realize fairly abruptly that it is the primary way we communicate.”

Some patients have voice disorders caused by underlying physical problems that require medical treatment or surgery, such as vocal fold polyps, nodules, or cysts; benign and malignant tumors of the larynx; acid reflux laryngitis; paralyzed or scarred vocal folds; and muscle tension or spasms.

“We took care of a fellow who traveled nationally giving financial seminars to large audiences,” Johns recounts. “His voice literally broke. He felt something happen in his voice box and he became acutely hoarse. He’d actually had a vocal cord hemorrhage that turned into a polyp on his vocal fold. He wasn’t sure what was going on for years. After a diagnostic study at the center, he had microsurgery and was home for a week on voice rest. Therapy restored him to his normal voice.”

Other clients seek help in dealing with a common phobia–fear of public speaking.

“One of our newest therapies uses virtual reality to create the experience of an audience,” Johns says. “Many of our patients are teachers, salespeople, executives, and singers who must speak or perform in front of large groups of people. Vocal behaviors change in front of a crowd.”

Edie Hapner, assistant professor of otolaryngology and a voice therapist at the center, says the new virtual reality technology “gives patients the opportunity to practice newly learned skills in front of an ‘audience’ in the convenient and safe environment of the lab, with the therapist close by for immediate feedback.”

Pomfret, who has sung across the United States and Asia with orchestras, works largely with professional or avocational singers at the center. Their number-one complaint is hoarseness, followed by voice fatigue and loss of high notes.

“Sometimes they just notice they can’t make it through a rehearsal or performance the way they could before,” Pomfret says. “You can certainly train for better endurance and better technique.”

As for the auctioneer? Pomfret is happy to report that his voice got better after five or six sessions of breathing and relaxation exercises.

“Mastering voice techniques is like building a house from the foundation up,” she says. “You can’t skip the basics.”–M.J.L.



© 2005 Emory University