Voice doc hits high note with the stars

Vocal cord expert Dr Brian Hands mends celeb patients' pipes

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 performing.

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.

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 Hong

Mick Jagger rocking at a Stones concert

Nicole Kidman as Satine in Moulin Rouge
Photo credit: © 20th Century Fox

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 for singing."

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."



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