Gary Catona is a master at voice conditioning. The self-proclaimed voice builder—who has logged time with vocal greats like Whitney Houston and Andrea Bocelli—has been enforcing his athletic approach to produce and restore some of your favorite voices of all time. “I tell my students to think of singing like a sport,” he explains to VIBE over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “When you’re singing, you’re flexing voice muscles musically. So if it’s a sport and your playing tennis and football what do you do? You go to the gym and you work out and you build up the muscles for your sport.”
In an industry where losing one’s voice can be caused from lack of vocal exercise or saturated schedules reigns supreme, an epidemic has inevitably plagued some of music’s brightest stars, especially the past 365. Case in point: Adele, Sam Smith and Frank Ocean are among many vocalists who have had to cancel shows and postpone album releases because of throat injuries.
In January 2011, Adele presided over the music world with her poignant pen game and jaw-dropping vocals on her sophomore album, 21. (The following year in 2012, the now-diamond LP won her six Grammy Awards.) By October of the album’s release, she caught laryngitis and suffered a hemorrhage in her vocal cord, according to BBC. Adding insult to injury, she still performed the night of the vocal cord mishap. “But I sang through it, so that’s why it popped. Then I got better and I got a bit of laryngitis, which is more normal,” she told BBC Radio 1 about the incident. Catona predicts this may have happened because of a lack of voice building and training. “Adele lost her voice because he vocal muscles were not fit enough,“ he said. “Even though she is a talented singer, her vocal muscles were not able to endure the routine of singing on a regular bases with that level of intensity.” He also believes her issues might have stemmed from singing off-key, which means she might been singing notes that were either too high or low for her vocal range.
But what kind of exercises does a strong voice make? In case you were wondering, here is an example taught to me during this interview:
“If you could put your fingers on your Adam’s Apple, and were to go “uuuuuhhhhhh!,” Gary instructs. “Make that sound.”
As I put my fingers on my Adam’s Apple and make the sound, stressing the sound that the “u” letter makes, my voice stays at the same pitch for several seconds before Gary attempts to do it himself.
“‘Uuuuuuuuhhhhhh’ is a nice long stretch of the vocal cord,” he says.
While exercises like those have proven efficient for singing stars and even veteran boxer, Muhammad Ali, who sought out Catona’s talents after suffering from a vocal disease related to Parkinson’s Syndrome in 1985, Catona says he does the complete opposite of what’s popular. “People don’t understand that every aspect of your voice is controlled and determined by specific muscles,” he says, which is why many vocal coaches will suggest singing from your diaphragm, something Catona says isn’t really possible. “The diaphragm is only working when you breathe in. When you breathe out, which happens when you sing, the diaphragm is disengaged, you can’t even sing from it even if you tried,” he says.
Besides exercising, he also recommends staying away from alcoholic beverages, partying and cold drinks in general because duh. “The voice is controlled by muscles which are flexing, moving and stretching,” he says. “Cold temperature stops that movement and blood flow. Blood flow and heat are crucial to singing.” For the past three decades, Gary has helped rebuild some of entertainment’s most prominent voices, like the late Houston, Gloria Estefan and Usher. In doing so, he ‘s helped their peers become successful. “I’ve been teaching Seal for many years. He sings his butt off and never loses his voice,” Catona said. “None of my students do.”—Richy Rosario