History & Culture

Meet the voice doctor

Fr. (Dr) Paul Poovathingal at his clinic  

Vocology, the science and practice of voice rehabilitation, may be in a state of infancy in India but well developed and practised abroad. The Chetana National Institute of Vocology in Thrissur is one of the first of its kind and its director is Fr (Dr) Paul Poovathingal. The first Christian priest to obtain Ph.D. in Carnatic music from the University of Madras, Fr. Paul had his lessons in vocology under Prof Jeanne Goffi of the University of Columbia and Prof. Ingo R Titze, the director of the National Centre for Voice and Speech, Denver, the U.S.

Prof. Titze, acclaimed as a pioneer in the field, earned a diploma from the University of Iowa, Colorado. Back home in 2006, he founded the institute and opened a weekly clinic, where people with varied voice problems queue up to be treated, sans any surgery or medicines.

And the voice disorders apart from puberphonia, include those caused by vocal cord nodules, vocal cord paralysis, insufficient phonetory gap, ‘Spasmodic Dysphonia,’ muscle tension Dysphonia and vocal cord cancer as well as stammering. Paul ascribes all these to unscientific voice production.

Interestingly, Paul’s treatment is a blend of both Indian and western techniques. Voice is the manifestation of breath and once exercises for correct breathing is practised almost all problems can be remedied, he holds. Lung pressure therefore is of paramount importance for vocal intensity and stamina. This is judged by measuring the Maximum Phonation Duration (MPD). After holding the breath for some time, duration of exhale is checked using a stop-watch. While fifteen seconds is ideal, for singers, it has to be above twenty seconds.

Pranayama practised regularly for 15 minutes and voice warming up exercises for 12-20 minutes early in the morning on empty stomach improved MPD considerably. Pranayama of four kinds are insisted — Anuloma-viloma (alternate nostril breathing), Bastrika (bellow’s breath), Seethali (cooling breath) and Ujjayi (victorious).

Opening of the mouth fully several times helps the patient to unlock the Tempro Mandibular Joint (TMJ) of the jaw thereby reducing the tension in the chin muscles. The movements of the tongue are rendered effortless with exercises.

Production of the sound ‘shick’ helps to activate the abdominal muscles, the very origin of voice. And when done with rendering the vowels, it can help correct pronunciation as well. Artificial yawning creates more space in the pharynx which improves the quality of voice through resonance. Paul adds that Puberphonia is essentially psychological. Even after attaining the age of puberty, the patient’s subconscious mind retains the voice of his mother or women in the family and he imitates the same. This is a fall out of the falsetto muscles getting connected to the brain. The treatment involves reconditioning the vocal muscles through exercises and finally connecting them to the brain, which result in the production of typical matured voice.

Stammering is a phobia, which can be hereditary as well. Paul’s advice is to stop speaking and take a quick breath. This is repeated many times.

The patient is made to read a passage for 15 minutes so that the eye sight, syllables and the respiratory muscles get synchronised. The voice of a patient affected by Spasmodic Dysphonia lacks clarity and intensity. This happens when the nerves from the brain connected to the vocal cords are damaged. It is a neuro-vocal problem.

Paul is in constant touch with speech pathologists across the globe and has been introducing the latest breathing exercises like Lax Vox Voice Therapy (LVVT), which is the discovery of Dr. Marketta Sihvo of Finland, an acclaimed voice therapist. This involves singing or speaking through a straw so that the vocal cords can vibrate more freely. The straw phonation exercise is also the remedy for Semi-Occluded Voice Track (SOVT), arising from a narrow vocal track.

The clinic at Chetana is well equipped with modern gadgets. Only a few cases need more sittings whereas feedback from most of the patients, who exercise regularly are all praise for the ‘priest with a healing touch.’ The institute organises annual vocology workshops that are attended by voice professionals from many States.

Many are the ENT doctors who refer cases to Chetana as they have realised that surgery is ineffective. Veteran musicians have directed singers for treatment by Paul. Incidentally, Fr Paul is also a disciple of K.J. Yesudas in Carnatic music. Popularly known as the ‘Singing Priest,’ he presented concerts at the Rashtrapati Bhavan when A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was the President and also for M.S. Subhalakshmi in Chennai when he was a student of University of Madras.

Interestingly, the students of Chetana Music College, of which Paul is the founder-principal, follow the syllabus of his alma mater. A globe-trotting musician, he cured a voice patient in Milan, Italy during the last tour.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 10:44:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/meet-the-voice-doctor/article25505440.ece

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