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Dan Sherwood, Senior speech pathologist at the Johns Hopkins Voice Center at GBMC, left, conducts an acoustical voice evaluation with patient and classical singer Francis Gilbert French. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

GBMC unveils voice therapy music studio

For Sarah Brady, losing her voice almost meant losing her career.

It began five years ago, when Brady, a 31-year-old elementary school music teacher, started getting very hoarse, very frequently. By Wednesday of each week, she says, her voice was exhausted and scratchy. Her singing voice had changed; she could no longer hit certain notes.

Concerned, Brady consulted with an ear, nose and throat doctor in Hagerstown, who blamed allergies. But the problems worsened.

“I was thinking about changing careers,” Brady said. “I love teaching, but it’s not fair to these kids to have a poor singing model. I thought about going back to get my master’s in physical education or special education — something less vocally demanding.”

Instead, in September, Brady sought a second opinion.

A laryngeal surgeon immediately diagnosed the real culprit: a nasty crop of vocal cord nodules — benign, callous-like growths on an individual’s vocal cords, often developing due to overuse or misuse of the voice.

Brady had some of the nodules surgically removed two months ago and began speech therapy in the Johns Hopkins Voice Center, which is part of the Milton J. Dance, Jr. Head and Neck Center at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson.

Her timing was impeccable: GBMC had just unveiled a $1.6 million “Fender Music & Voice Studio” inside the Hopkins Voice Center, where patients with all kinds of voice disorders can receive specialized evaluations and treatment, perhaps while strumming an acoustic guitar or practicing singing on pitch.

The new studio is furnished with $20,000 worth of high-end musical instruments and audio equipment, courtesy of Fender Musical Instruments Corp. The Milton J. Dance, Jr. Endowment Inc. supplied the bulk of the funding.

The goal is to provide an enhanced experience for patients that not only makes them more comfortable during treatment but also helps providers evaluate an individual’s voice and correctly diagnose the problem.

“The whole idea was to build a recording studio-type atmosphere where the person could come in and feel very comfortable and be able to recreate the vocal issues they’ve been having without feeling like they’re in a clinical setting,” said Gary Waugh, a former regional sales manager at Fender, who helped facilitate the partnership.

“We put enough gear in there that they could actually bring a few band-mates,” Waugh said. “So they could sit and play and be able to say to the doctors, ‘Did you hear that? That’s the thing [my voice] shouldn’t be doing!’”

The studio opened for patients about a month ago, but GBMC held a grand opening on Wednesday.

The soundproof room — filled with acoustic amplifiers, a keyboard, several guitars and a smattering of percussion instruments — is nestled among other exam rooms and offices in the Hopkins Voice Center suite, which was expanded as part of the project.

GBMC’s Head and Neck Center sees about 12,000 patients a year, said Administrative-Clinical Director Barbara Messing, adding she expects the Fender studio will draw more traffic.

Several people said they think the studio is the only one of its kind in the mid-Atlantic region.

“And as the singers and musicians get more mature, the need for this will only get greater,” Waugh said.

But the studio isn’t just for professional musicians, said Dr. Joseph Califano, medical director of the Head and Neck Center and a professor of otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“When we talk about who gets voice disorders, we’re talking about professional voice users — lawyers, teachers — as well as performers,” Califano said. “So we treat everyone from little kids with language and speech difficulties, to professional singers, and everyone in between.”

“It’s like a voice lesson,” said Brady, the music teacher, of her sessions in the studio. “I’ve learned a ton of techniques for how to use my voice properly.”

Various providers are on call, including speech language pathologists and surgeons, to address all potential culprits behind patients’ vocal issues, Califano said.

Hospital officials hatched the idea for the studio not long after the Hopkins Voice Center moved into GBMC in 2011. A physician who had a personal relationship with Waugh asked if Scottsdale, Arizona-based Fender would be interested in supporting the project.

The company “jumped at the idea,” said Waugh, who retired at the end of March but will continue to be a liaison between Fender and GBMC.

Brady, who lives and works in Washington County, said the treatment she receives at the center is well worth the hour-and-a-half drive.

“[My vocal issues] affected everything,” she said. “I stopped singing outside of work because the quality of my voice was so bad, but I hope I’ll be able to start doing community choirs again. These doctors have made a huge difference in my life and, obviously, my career, so I’m just unbelievably grateful to them.”