Voice doctor Abelson to present master class for School of Music

Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer

A doctor saying, “Open wide and say, ‘Ah …’ ” can be unsettling to an ailing singer.

But that is the job of Tom Abelson, M.D., an otolaryngologist from the Cleveland Clinic, who will be giving a voice master class at 10 a.m. today in McKnight Hall.

The ear, nose and throat doctor will help teach young singers how best to maintain their most precious instruments — their voices.

“Singing is athletic,” Abelson said. “So a singer using the highly developed techniques and musculature of the voice box is just like any athlete using their specialized musculature in very efficient ways.”

If a singer does not know how to use his or her voice box correctly, inconsistencies and injury are more likely to occur.

In ranking technique mastery, Abelson places opera singers at the top of the list, followed by theater singers. And gospel singers, though powerful and sensational in voice, commonly lack proper technique.

Abelson said that he often deals with actors who have not learned the proper way to yell and end up throwing out their voices.

In the past, doctors relied on mirrors to examine inside a patient’s throat for damage. That method, though useful, was an inexact science. Nothing could be determined on a microscopic level.

Then, the advancements came.

“The technology has improved with the development of fiber optics, where you use a flexible telescope to look at the voice box and record it with a camera,” Abelson said. “And also the development of scoposcopy, which flashes a light on the voice box while in pitch, so that it looks like a slow motion movement of the lining of the vocal chords.”

Those innovations allow doctors to see beneath the surface and uncover tiny problems that can present major livelihood and health hazards.

“There are a number of medical problems that people can have that we’ve diagnosed the problem based on them coming in with a voice problem,” Abelson said.

Those include acid reflux, hypothyroidism, cancer and even Parkinson’s disease.

“Parkinson’s can cause a tremor, so if the voice is at rest, they don’t have a tremor, but when they go to use their voice, they do,” he said. “Also, people with Parkinson’s can lose the strength that allows them to project their voice louder.”

Abelson will also delve into how menstruation, menopause, medication and other things can affect the voice.

It has been quite a journey for a doctor whose vocal studies began by chance more than 30 years ago in Cleveland.

“I had a best friend who owned a performing arts studio, where performers would come through,” Abelson said. “And when they had medical problems, their managers would call them and he would send them to me. And I realized that I had to learn a lot to be able to help these people coming from all over the world.”