Coaching The Addicted Singer

Gary Catona explores some challenges of training gifted, yet struggling singers.

How can a singer climb out from under cloud of addiction? There are perhaps as many answers to that question as there are specialists.

Yet, we thought it would be important and interesting to explore the views of a vocal coach who works with gifted, yet struggling, singers on the ground.

Gary Catona gained considerable recognition recently for his work with the late Whitney Houston, whom he was training during her comeback release, “I Look to You,” and her “Nothing but Love” world tour.

We spoke with Catona about the psychological affects of vocal loss from drug abuse for singers.

Let’s start with the physical effects of addictions –what are the most noticeable effects from your standpoint as a vocal coach?
With hard drugs, like cocaine for example, the singer loses physical contact with the voice. A vocalist can be singing away and will have no idea what they are doing. It’s like Novocain. It deadens the nerves, and you can’t feel anything. Alcohol and smoking can aggravate the respiratory system and the lining, and the vocal cords dry out and swell. And, some singers have allergies to these substances. So much can be damaged to that effect.

But that’s not the only damage, is it…
I think it’s also important to say that drugs disconnect the artistic interpretation. It can’t be given and alters that spirit. And, when you can’t emotionally connect to the music, you can’t sing it.

How does this affect a singer psychologically?
For singers, you are your instrument. Most have an extremely emotional connection to their singing voices and to their sound. If they don’t have that, they lose confidence and motivation. Losing your confidence as a singer can take an even bigger toll and result in depression. Some singers become reclusive and shut themselves in, cutting themselves and others out.

Why do you think the confidence takes such a huge hit?
So much of yourself is wrapped up in your singing voice, particularly if you are a professional singer, and you have so much riding on it and so many others standing on your shoulders, depending on you. There is a lot of pressure.

Do you think singers know when they have self-inflicted the vocal damage with drugs and alcohol abuse?
I think they know. Whitney Houston knew. I think it makes an even bigger emotional impact when they are aware (the vocal damage) is of their own doing. It can be even more difficult to regain confidence and motivation.

How do you motivate them?
It’s amazing. Once we get the voice built up and working again, the motivation and confidence return. The depression disappears. They feel like they can work again.

Is that newfound vocal confidence enough to stop an addiction or do additional steps need to be taken?
Sometimes an artist becomes newly inspired and empowered when vocal confidence returns – enough so that the addiction loses power. In other cases, the addiction remains unchallenged. It’s difficult to know, in advance, how an artist will respond to increased vocal confidence. It’s a complex, psychological issue that cannot be reduced to a simple black and white formula.

What is your advice to singers struggling with vocal recovery and drug and alcohol addiction?
First and foremost, if you are a singer, you have to treat yourself like an athlete. It’s a process, and it takes time to engage in the building of the voice. You have to have respect for the great tradition of singing.

For more about Gary Catona, see

Megan Gloss is a classical vocalist and writer based in the United States.

Photo from Chiaroscuro Photography –