Dr Brian Hands standing
before his "Wall of Fame"
Photo credit: Jeffrey Hands
It was an Italian opera - a Verdi
or a Puccini, he doesn't remember which and the
prima donna was in trouble. Otolaryngologist Dr Brian
Hands got an urgent call to go to Toronto's Hummingbird
Centre in the middle of the second act. "She said, 'I
can't sing,'" Dr Hands recalls. One look at her throat
and the doctor told her she'd be risking permanent damage
to her vocal cords if she continued the performance.
But the show must go on.
"A young Montreal soprano who was
singing in the chorus had to take over," the doctor
reminisces. "She stood up backstage in her jean skirt
and sang beautifully, while the lead singer lip-synched
for the rest of the performance." That young Montreal
chorus girl went on to become a world class diva - but
the doc won't divulge her identity.
Some of Dr Hands' famous patients
Celine Dion The golden-voiced
chanteuse had to gargle every day with a concoction
of warm water, salt, baking soda, honey and Caro
syrup to protect her precious pipes against the
dry Vegas air.
Mick Jagger The Rolling
Stones front man had to cancel a couple of concerts
in 2006 to rest his hard-working vocal cords.
He now has a voice coach and does warm-ups before
Nicole Kidman The Aussie
star had to take voice lessons and do vocal exercises
to belt out ballads in Moulin Rouge.
Dr Hands has been the vocal doc
of the rich and famous for years Mick Jagger,
Celine Dion, Nicole Kidman, Lionel Richie, Sigourney
Weaver and Gordon Lightfoot are all rumoured to have
flocked to Toronto to see him, though he refuses to
confirm or deny. Their photos, signed with gratitude,
line the walls of his office. "People come to the office
and see who's on the wall, but I can't discuss my patients,"
he says with a chuckle.
He's been servicing these illustrious
vocal cords for over 30 years and enjoyed every minute
of it. "Dealing with music and professional voices is
the most exciting part of my practice," he says.
STAR DOC IS BORN
It all started in 1975, when the young doctor was just
about done with his residency. "The chief of staff at
my hospital, a cultured Hungarian who sat on the board
of the Canadian Opera Company (COC), came to me and
said 'You're going to be the doctor for the opera,'"
says Dr Hands, imitating a Hungarian accent.
Celine Dion in Vegas
Photo credit: AP Photo/Jae
Mick Jagger rocking at
a Stones concert
Nicole Kidman as Satine
in Moulin Rouge
Photo credit: © 20th
Here he was, a fresh graduate,
thrust into the position of treating performers whose
livelihood depends on their voices. It was a little
unnerving, he admits. But he rolled up his sleeves,
took extra courses and went for special training in
New York and Philadelphia, then returned to Toronto
in time to witness its theatrical golden age.
"Suddenly there were big productions
being previewed in Toronto, and somehow opening nights
always involved the male or female lead getting sick,"
he says. From the COC to Mirvish productions, his practice
evolved. So did his technique.
"In the old days, we used to freeze
the throat, then use dental mirrors and a headlight.
It's a far cry from what we do now," says Dr Hands.
These days the doctor relies on sophisticated equipment,
like his trusty videostroboscope. The tiny camera inserted
in the throat painlessly records digital images of the
vocal cords in action and allows the doc to diagnose
the problem instantly.
"Many times, the performers will
come back to get another picture of their vocal cords
when they're healed," he says. "This way, when they're
in trouble in Paris or Milan, they have a recorded image
of what their cords look like when they're healthy,
to show to the doctor."
But almost 85% of the time when singers come to see
him, the problem is not with their pipes at all, says
Dr Hands. "Sometimes it's the baggage from work or family
that affects their ability to perform. The stress or
anxiety changes their normal breathing support patterns
That's when Dr Hands pulls out
his secret weapon to heal the wounded songbirds: Buddhist
chakras. "I'm a firm believer in energy," he explains.
"The seven chakras [energy centres] in the body are
all interconnected, and they all relate to voice production."
The fifth chakra is where the voice
is located, the throat. "When this area becomes overly
tense, it means performers are holding a lot of underlying
angst," he says. Dr Hands' holistic approach allows
them to explore the source of their anxiety and deal
with it to regain their full vocal form. "I get quite
overwhelmed when I see the person I've treated singing
on stage and recognize the very minimal role I had in
getting them there."