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Dr. Robert Stataloff on Caring for the Voice

Sataloff discusses the physiology of how we talk and sing. He is author of "Professional Voice: The Science and Art of Clinical Care." (1997 Singular Publishing Group) Sataloff is a Professor of Otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is part of a emergency clinic there for singers who experience vocal problems. He has treated many famous singers. Sataloff himself is also a performer. He sings professionally and is the University's choir conductor.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on July 21, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 21, 1998: Interview with Robert Sataloff; Commentary on computer grammar checkers; Review of Tab Smith's album "Top 'n' Bottom."


Date: JULY 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072101np.217
Head: Professional Voice
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Yesterday, we heard from country singer Johnny Bush, who had to re-learn how to sing and talk after his vocal chords were affected by a neurological disorder.

My guest today is a doctor and voice specialist who treats singers with vocal problems. He also works with a wide range of professionals who rely on their speaking voices. Dr. Robert Sataloff is a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and directs Jefferson's Arts Medical Center, which offers 24-hour emergency treatment of medical problems that threaten to interfere with a performance.

Dr. Sataloff has treated many famous singers, but keeps that aspect of his work confidential.

He's a singer himself and the conductor of the Thomas Jefferson University Choir and Orchestra. His books include "The Professional Voice: The Science and Art of Clinical Care." I asked Dr. Sataloff about the typical problems he treats at the Arts Medical Center.

ROBERT SATALOFF, AUTHOR, "PROFESSIONAL VOICE: THE SCIENCE AND ART OF CLINICAL CARE," PROFESSOR OF OTOLARYNGOLOGY, THOMAS JEFFERSON MEDICAL COLLEGE: Well they're all sorts. Some in singers are just what the public might expect -- hoarseness, voice weakness, sometimes something as simple as a cold. More importantly, things like sudden voice change. "I was rehearsing and all of a sudden I finished rehearsal and I was hoarse."

And those are true emergencies. Those can be caused by problems like a ruptured blood vessel which, if not treated right, can end a career.

GROSS: What can you do for a singer's who's hoarse and if they don't get some help they're gonna cancel a performance?

SATALOFF: That, of course, is a big question. And it depends what causes the hoarseness. Canceling a performance is a big deal for a performer and also for a physician. Cancellation of a performance can be as damaging to a career, almost, as injudicious performance. So we never cancel performances unless it's absolutely necessary.

If the hoarseness is caused by dryness, for example, from working too hard, talking too much, not being well-hydrated -- not drinking enough fluids -- that we call an inflammatory laryngitis. We can often overcome that quickly with hydration; sometimes some medications like a mild cortizone product if it's really necessary, and some exercises to relax the muscles that end up tightening up.

GROSS: Like what?

SATALOFF: If you take as an analogy any sport. Say you're playing tennis and you start to have trouble and you're not a real pro, you start to work harder and harder. And the harder you work, the worse it gets and the more your arm cramps up. So the first thing a tennis pro would do for you is relax that arm. He'd move it back and forth, put it through some range of motions, have you shake it out, teach you how to swing without the racket in your hand, and make things effortless again.

Well, the voice is a system of muscles and nerves just like any other athletic body part. The exercises that we use do exactly the same thing. They may be relaxation and stressing exercises like...


... that take a voice through its range, which is hard to do if you're all tightened up. They may be light agility exercises, just an...


... to loosen up tight jaws. They may be simply breathing exercises, with no sounds at all. Anything to get the person using only the muscles necessary and not the extraneous muscles. It's the universal principle of artistic economy.


Doing what you have to do in one brush stroke instead of 10 to get the best picture.

GROSS: Have there ever been difficult judgment calls where you've said to a major performer: "you have to cancel tonight; I don't care about the impact it's going to have, but you're going to really damage yourself if you sing tonight."

SATALOFF: Absolutely. And it's -- it's very difficult for everybody involved. If someone has a hemorrhage, has ruptured a blood vessel in the vocal fold, or torn the surface -- ruptured mucosal covering -- those conditions are so dangerous if you sing or act or speak on them, that no performance is justified. They can lead to vocal fold scar and permanent hoarseness which we really can't do very much about.

Those are relatively easy. The tough judgment calls come in between where things are not quite that bad, and then we have to balance out the risks and the benefits. How good is the performer? How important is the importance? And the circumstances are not necessarily what most people would think.

Take a great technician -- Luciano Pavarotti, as good a technician as there is. So you would think that Pavarotti can sing around anything, and indeed he can. But his career is so established and so valuable that there is no performance worth risking his instrument.

On the other hand, if you have someone who is about to sing the Metropolitan Opera auditions for his last year of eligibility and has a shot at winning, that may be a career make or break opportunity and may be worth taking a little risk, if the person is a good enough performer and the risk is small enough. That's where the judgment calls come.

There's also a huge financial responsibility. I remember a platinum album rock star on his first tour, and he had never sung six nights in a row to huge houses before. And he developed nodules. We took him off the stage for two performances, which not only cost his insurance company half a million dollars, but cost HBO fees, the city sports stadium parking authority, 'cause it was a last minute cancellation, the vendors -- a decision like that is a $2-3 million decision.

GROSS: What was the outcome?

SATALOFF: The outcome was that we gave him emergency voice therapy, which sometimes makes people chuckle when they hear it, but it's for real, for a period of five days; taught him how to use his voice both singing and also speaking because he had to do a lot of radio interviews and other taxing things like that.

GROSS: Well, forgive me.


SATALOFF: And after five days of intensive training, we got him back on the stage, followed him through several other cities. His nodules went away through proper voice use, and that's been at least five or six years. He's never had trouble again. But he had had no training.

GROSS: I won't ask you to mention the singer's name 'cause that's confidential information, but what are some of the things that you had to tell him to do different than what he was already doing in speaking or in singing?

SATALOFF: Almost everything.


SATALOFF: It's -- it's interesting. Many rock singers and other pop singers have very little vocal training. So as soon as they get into trouble, they change things and they change them from good to bad. And they change them randomly.

So what happens? All of a sudden, the voice you've depended on to make you happy and to make you millions of dollars becomes insecure, so you grab. You tighten muscles in your throat. You pull your tongue back. You tighten your jaw. You try and do something to keep control. And those things are bad.

They tax the voice. They lead to vocal injuries 'cause they increase the pressure on the delicate tissues on the vocal folds. They cost one pitch -- you lose range, you lose volume control, and the voice fatigues. It's called hyperfunction or voice over-use; muscle tension dysphonia (ph).

So we break that all down. We teach people how to breathe. We teach them how to relax the muscles they don't need to use. And how to use efficiently the muscles they do need to use. And how to use the parts of the body for the functions for which they were designed in voice production.

GROSS: Maybe you could give us a little voice lesson, because as you point out in your books, so many people use their voice professionally, not necessarily singers -- teachers, lawyers, nearly everybody has to speak professionally in their work, some more than others. And I think a lot of people speak with a lot of strain.

So, I'm wondering maybe we could talk a little bit about typical problems that people have just with speaking.

SATALOFF: Well let's take the most typical problem. People tend to force their voices down in pitch; that is, to masculinize their voices. We all have...

GROSS: Men and women or...

SATALOFF: Men and women.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SATALOFF: It's especially problematic for women, but it's men and women. And it's interesting in our society that there's actually an understandable reason for it. There have been studies, as you probably know, that show that if you take a man and a woman and put them in a crowded room, and have them both say the same thing at the same time, people will hear only the man.

Our society responds to that rich, authoritative male voice so naturally and subconsciously we tend in that direction in order to be convincing.

However, each voice has its own frequency range, from the lowest note to the highest note we can do. If we speak habitually in the lowest few notes, the bottom third of the voice.

GROSS: Down here.

SATALOFF: Down there, even the sound of the young baritone proving to the world that he is a singer -- those require forces on the delicate tissues of the vocal folds that are excessive. And they are damaging -- that is the behavior that causes injuries such as vocal nodules, which are little callus-like bumps on both vocal folds from repeated overuse; cysts, which come from individual trauma. They are little fluid-filled bumps; sometimes hemorrhages and other problems.

GROSS: My guest is voice specialist Dr. Robert Sataloff. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with voice specialist Dr. Robert Sataloff. He's a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia where he runs the Arts Medical Center.

Now I think most people have a fairly wide range that they could speak in -- in the falsetto -- kind of like this -- and really deep down like that. And it's sometimes I think hard for people to figure out where where -- where's my most natural place to speak. How can you find your most natural place to speak?

SATALOFF: Actually, the best way is to take a few lessons.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SATALOFF: People have a huge vocal range. Very few people use more than a few notes because they think they sound silly. Yet, when they go to the theater, and they listen to a great orator, he may be using an octave of speaking range. If they listen to a wonder radio announcer like you -- if you talked the way most people talk, using one or two notes at the bottom of your voice, you would put people to sleep. People don't realize what they sound like themselves.

We have a system that we use in which we combine voice therapists, speech language pathologists, with singing voice specialists, singing teachers whom we've trained to work with people with voice problems, and acting voice specialists in a medical office setting.

Suppose you came -- we would not only work with your speaking voice, we would work with your singing voice, whether you wanted to sing or not. When we teach people the tricks of singing -- how a singer reaches range, reaches those long lines, uses the voice to control dynamics and to speak softly and yet be heard in the back of the room -- when you can do all those things in singing, what you need to do for speech becomes very easy.

So, we expand the voice.

GROSS: What are some of the typical exercises you might give people to warm up, just for speaking?

SATALOFF: OK. There are a lot. And it depends on the speaker and the person. The most common speaking warmup exercises that we don't use all that frequently, but do sometimes, come out of the acting tradition. And they include, to begin with, body warmups because we don't speak just with our throats.

The whole body is there. And they include some physical exercise things for a few minutes -- stretching, loosening up the neck, rolling it around in circles, loosening the shoulders, the arms, bending from the waist, taking deep breaths -- having all of the body support muscles working.

Then some easy things to get breath flowing, like deep sighs. Just a "ahhhhh" over a pitch range to get things moving and flowing if you're tight. You almost -- "ahhhhh" -- you almost can't do that smoothly.

Then there are some things like lip trills...


... that again require both relaxation and help pull things forward. We like to use a lot of singing exercises, and not at the extremes of range, but we will have people do some light five-note scales no matter how bad they may sound, like...


You do those for five minutes before you have a cup of coffee in the morning. And it's like stretching before you go out to jog. We do vocal marathons all day.

GROSS: Singers always talk about breath support, and a lot of times when rock singers are starting to lose their voices and they go to a singing teacher for some help, they learn to breathe completely differently than they used to breathe, and they find that that helps them a lot. What is really meant by breath support? And what can we all learn from this?

SATALOFF: The vocal folds which is what we've called the vocal cords for the last 10 years, are folds of tissue that come together and pull apart, like your lips do when you buzz through them...


... that sort of sound. The vocal folds themselves actually make a rather unimpressive noise, somewhat like the one I just made, and that's whether you're Pavarotti or mortal. It sounds just about like that. That sound is not the vocal signature or personality.

That's not what makes somebody know that's Terry Gross on radio. What does that is above the voice box. It's the resonance chambers of the mouth and the throat and the nose. The vocal folds are the mouthpiece. We have above them a system of constantly variable, infinitely variable, interconnected resonators.

And what's a resonator? The brass part of a trumpet or a trombone is a resonator. It likes some of the sounds that are fed to it and enhances them relatively, and it doesn't like some other sounds and it suppresses them. So if you make a sound at the vocal fold and it has an acoustical signal that looks like a line, once it gets through the resonator system, it looks like a bump. It looks like a mountain range.

Those peaks and valleys constitute our vocal signature. They're our timbre, our recognizable vocal quality. Shifting them around allows us to understand vowels. And there's a special one we can talk about in a moment if you wish, called a "singers formand" (ph) or "speakers formand" that lets us be heard over noise.

To set all this into effect, we need to make those vocal folds oscillate, go back and forth. We bring our vocal folds together and hold them with a certain amount of force. We then, with our lungs and especially with the muscles of our abdomens and backs and rib cages, blow. We take a lung full of air and compress it. That pushes up through the vocal folds. It overcomes the pressure holding them together, blows them apart, and then they...


... snap back together. They don't vibrate like strings. They open and close like buzzing lips. And that's how we make the sound.

GROSS: So really the volume isn't a question of like forcing it out. It's -- through your throat -- it's a question of getting the right air to support the sound. Yes?

SATALOFF: Yes, except in the patients who end up in my office.

GROSS: Right.


SATALOFF: And that -- that's exactly the point; exactly the point. If people do not use their support muscles effectively, like the rock singer example you just gave, then they try to do something to get the sound out.

And the something is excessive muscle use in the throat, in the neck muscles which are not designed for power functions. They're designed for fine control and to set the vocal folds into vibration and to modulate their pitch and delicate things.

Similarly, let's take Pavarotti again. If you put Pavarotti on stage surrounded by 200 professional choristers and a 100-piece orchestra, you can still hear him loudly and clearly. Why? Is he louder than all those people?

Certainly not -- he doesn't have a particularly loud voice, but he's got that great ring that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. That correlates with an acoustical peak, a singer's formand, a resonance sound. At around 3,000 hertz (ph) -- that's 3.5 octaves above middle C, 2.5 octaves above the highest note Pavarotti can sing -- up where you would think nothing makes any difference at all.

GROSS: That only dogs can hear.

SATALOFF: Yeah, but it doesn't. If you filter out just that little bit of sound, 2.5 octaves above his highest note, his voice disappears into the crowd.

GROSS: So, these are like harmonic overtones that he's getting?

SATALOFF: That's exactly right, and they're the ones that allow you to hear him. They're also the ones that allow you to be heard if you're speaking in a bar or on a stock market floor or giving eight performances a week in a theater without microphones. It's that acoustical ring.

GROSS: So, this is question of where the voice is resonating in the head?

SATALOFF: That's a reasonable construct for the description, yes.

GROSS: Now, I don't think people think about adjusting their voice boxes when they speak.

SATALOFF: That's why we use all that nonsensical imagery to get people to think about shapes and colors of sound. Sound is one of the many things, along with taste and smell, for which the English language is deficient. So we use visual images.

GROSS: Dr. Robert Sataloff is a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia where he runs the Arts Medical Center. We'll talk more in the second half of the show.

In the meantime, here's Frank Sinatra with a song from his film "The Joker is Wild" -- the song with high notes his character can't reach after he's roughed up by gangsters.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


FRANK SINATRA, SINGER, SINGING: When somebody loves you
It's no good unless he loves you
All the way

Happy to be near you
When you need someone to cheer you
All the way

Taller than the tallest tree is
That's how it's got to feel
Deeper than the deep blue sea is
That's how...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Dr. Robert Sataloff. He's a voice specialist whose treated many famous singers and also works with people who use their speaking voices professionally.

Dr. Sataloff is a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia where he runs the Arts Medical Center which offers 24-hour emergency treatment for singers. He's a singer himself and directs the Thomas University -- Thomas Jefferson University Choir and Orchestra.

As you knowingly point out in some of your books, a lot of rock singers are afraid to seek any kind of vocal coaching 'cause they're afraid it's going to make them sound like opera singers, which they do not want to sound like. And you point out that they can get vocal training without sounding like an opera singer.

What is it that makes an opera singer sound like an opera singer?

SATALOFF: Great question. It's the way they develop their -- first of all, in many cases it's the way their resonance systems exist from the way they were born. And in addition to that, it's the way they develop them to cultivate that sound; the way they make the adjustments in their throat and in their mouths, to get the mix of overtones that we were talking about earlier.

If people are trained properly in how to sing and in how to speak, they can do whatever they want. There is no reason why singing lessons should make a rock or pop singer sound like anything other than whatever he wants to sound like. But there is a problem, and the problem is a bad tradition, which is changing, among my fellow singing teachers.

For the longest time, most of the best singing teachers have refused to teach rock or pop students. They only teach so-called "serious students" -- opera singers. Yet, we all complain about what we hear on the radio all the time.

Singing teachers around the country are now realizing that if we're going to complain about what we hear among pop singers, then we have to be willing to work with those pop singers; that they are every bit as serious artists as the Metropolitan Opera singer.

And it's now becoming easier. But for the longest time, you couldn't really find first class singing teachers who were willing to work with popular artists.

GROSS: One of the patients I know you had to work with was Teddy Pendergrass, the soul and rhythm and blues singer who was in a car accident that left him pretty much paralyzed, I think, from the neck down. Now, you were telling us about the importance of, you know, the lungs and the chest muscles in supporting the sound.

When you're paralyzed, you're still breathing, but you don't have that control over the chest muscles, how does that affect your voice and your singing? And what kind of work were you able to do to help Teddy Pendergrass with that?

SATALOFF: Well, Teddy is unique in many ways. As you know, I keep the names of my celebrity patients very confidential, but Teddy has gone public and has just written a nice autobiography in which he discusses some of our work. So we can talk about that a little.

In theory, if you're quadriplegic, you shouldn't be able to sing again. It really shouldn't work. We did some early work with Teddy and created a device so that he could get some belly support using something that went around his waist where when he flexed his arms, which he can still do, it tightened the support around his waist.

And I felt pretty good about that; thought it was a very clever idea and Teddy used it for a little while, and then discarded it and found a way to do everything on his own, using what respiratory function he has. Now, he doesn't sing quite the way he used to.

His phrasing is a little different. His volume's a little different. The mixes are a little different. But he is an extraordinary human being who doesn't give up and found ways to modify what he does and make the impossible possible.

GROSS: I want to ask you about a medical condition that affects the voice that so many people have and that's acid reflux. It's a digestion problem. It's the cause of a lot of heartburn. Maybe you can explain how reflux, which is one of the most kind of advertised medical problems now, and one of the most prescribed for medical problems -- how that affects the voice.

SATALOFF: It's a problem of astonishing prevalence...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SATALOFF: ... among everybody. We have done research and looked at other things in our professional voice population, and close to 50 percent of our patients have reflux problems. Reflux is a condition in which stomach acid and other undigested food and bile salts and other stomach contents come backwards, up the esophagus or swallowing pipe, and sometimes up high enough to end up in the throat -- little droplets end up in the voice box and little droplets can even be aspirated into the lungs.

How could this be so common and missed so often? Well the reason for that is people think reflux, they think heartburn. People who reflux badly enough to have symptoms in their voices usually do not have heartburn. Probably it's because the sensors in their esophagus are bathed in acid all the time and stop responding, but we don't really know for sure why. But because the people don't complain of heartburn, many doctors don't realize that their other symptoms are reflux-related.

What symptoms? You wake up in the morning with a low, gravelly morning voice -- you're a bass all morning; you're supposed to be a tenor; bad breath, especially in the morning; waking up with dry scratchy sore throats; getting up once or twice at night with a dry throat to get a drink of water. Frequent sore throats -- you go to the doctor, they say you're a little red; give you an antibiotic; you get better with it or without it; chronic cough; asthma that's difficult to control and many other problems.

It's an especially important condition because untreated over time, it's a serious chronic irritant. It causes changes in your swallowing pipe called "Barrett's esophagus" (ph) and it can lead to esophageal cancer and laryngeal cancer, voice box cancer. It's a serious cause of laryngeal cancer in non-smokers and probably a co-factor in smokers.

So it needs to be recognized and treated.

GROSS: So what do you need to do about it?

SATALOFF: Traditionally, people have treated it with antacids, elevating the head of the bed because when we lie down at night, the throat's lower than the stomach and gravity brings acid up into our throats and we breathe it in. So you use gravity for you -- raise the head of the bed six inches. If you don't slide out the foot in the morning, it's not high enough. Dietary changes -- alcohol, caffeine, citrus products, tomato products -- pretty much everything good aggravates reflux.

GROSS: It's always that way. Yeah.

SATALOFF: Avoidance of eating for a few hours before you go to sleep -- those measures turn out to be inadequate for many people with reflux that involves the throat, and especially for professional voice users. We have some people who reflux up into their throats every time they sing. And the whole time they sing, because as they increase their intra-abdominal pressure by tightening their support muscles, it squishes everything out of the stomach up into the throat.

Now, think about this. Everything I told you is basic reflux treatment, but whoever said that neutralizing reflux, making it non-acid, was good enough? Everybody's just accepted that. You still reflux when you're on all those drugs, it's just that the Ph is neutral. So more and more, we've been shifting toward surgery to solve the problem which we used to avoid like the plague until a few years ago.

The other issue is, we don't 100 percent know what it means to shut people's acid secretion mostly off for 40 or 50 years. This diagnosis is often made in people in their teens or 20s, and it's common in infants. Reflux is the most common cause of pneumonia in the newborn nursery. Some people are born with it.

There's now a laproscopic (ph) surgery procedure, and that is such a good operation that I had it done a year and a half ago.

GROSS: Did you really?

SATALOFF: Yes, my wife has a practice limited to breast surgery and laproscopic reflux surgery, and she has the best results I know, so I made my poor wife do this to me.


SATALOFF: And -- because I got tired of taking all those medicines and having reflux symptoms anyway.

I think that over the next several years, we will see an increasing trend -- it's already started -- toward minimally invasive surgery to cure the underlying problem, rather than medicating the problem for 40 or 50 years.

GROSS: My guest is voice specialist Dr. Robert Sataloff. He's a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he runs the Arts Medical Center. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Robert Sataloff. He's a voice specialist, a head and neck surgeon, and a professor at Thomas Jefferson University. He directs the Jefferson Arts Medicine Center.

So, what came first for you in your career -- singing or being a voice specialist?

SATALOFF: Well, actually being a doctor came first, but not being a voice specialist. My father is a well-known ear surgeon and I actually don't do head and neck surgery. I do two things: I take care of professional singers and I do microsurgery of the ear and ear-brain interface. And that's all part of the specialty of otolaryngology head and neck surgery.

I got interested in ear surgery and had planned to do that since I was two. I then had my voice change when I was 10 or 11, and it was a lot lower than it is now and we thought I was going to be a Russian bass. So, I started taking lessons and ended up being a baritone like everybody else.

When I got into my residency at the University of Michigan, my singer -- professional singer colleagues started calling me to find out what to do about their voices. And I was in Ann Arbor training to be a neurotologist, an inner-ear and skull-base surgeon which is what I do when I'm not taking care of singers.

And I went to the literature to look up how to take care of singers and there was close to nothing there -- precious little. So along with a couple of particularly prominent laryngologists who were interested in voice in the country -- Wilbur James Gould (ph) in New York; Hans Von Leyden (ph) in Los Angeles; Van Lawrence in Houston -- one or two others -- we evolved this field, starting in the latter 1970s until now. And it's gone from nonexistent to a recognized subspecialty.

GROSS: One last question for you. I know you direct the choir at the hospital.

SATALOFF: I do indeed.

GROSS: What's new in the repertoire?

SATALOFF: Well, we just finished the second portion of "The Messiah" and we are this year going to do Bach's "Magnificat" and shortly a new contemporary work that was written for us by a wonderful composer named John Davison (ph) -- the nicest piece of large half-hour long contemporary holiday music I've heard in a long time.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SATALOFF: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Dr. Robert Sataloff is a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he runs the Arts Medical Center and directs the Thomas Jefferson University Choir and Orchestra. He's also the author of several books.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Robert Sataloff
High: Dr. Robert Sataloff talks about the physiology of how we talk and sing. He is author of "Professional Voice: The Science and Art of Clinical Care." Sataloff is a professor of otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, he is part of a emergency clinic for singers who experience vocal problems. He has treated many famous singers.
Spec: Music Industry; Health and Medicine; Physiology; Voice
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Professional Voice
Date: JULY 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072101np.217
Head: Grammar Checkers
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Well after talking about the voice, it's time to think about writing. We now rely on our computers to check our spelling errors, but what do we want from a computer program when it comes to the rules of grammar?

Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been thinking about the computer's editing functions and our own expectations.

GEOFFREY NUNBERG, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: To the list of crimes and derelictions that Bill Gates has been charged with, we can now add the murder of the English language. At least that's the opinion of writer Ralph Schoenstein (ph) in a recent New York Times op/ed piece on the Microsoft Word grammar checker.

Schoenstein complains that the checker doesn't flag the simplest errors. It doesn't protest when you modify absolute terms like "unique" -- as in "she was a most unique woman." It makes no objection when you fail to use the subjunctive in sentences like "if I was a player, I would go." And so on for dozens of other traditional rules of usage.

Actually, the only mystery here is why anyone would expect grammar checkers to work as well as spell checkers do. It could be, of course, that people have been so snowed by techno-hype that they expect computers to be able to do anything. If they can beat a grandmaster at chess, why can't they edit a simple freshman composition?

But copy editing calls for a lot more discrimination than playing chess and discrimination isn't computers' long suit. You might want your checker to flag "he sells most unique rugs" on the grounds that something either is unique or isn't. But you'd want it to accept "most unique rugs command high prices."

Spotting that distinction is a lot harder than figuring out if somebody spelled "weird" with E-I or I-E. When you think about what's involved in the process, in fact, it's impressive that the checkers can accomplish even simple things like spotting the subject-verb agreement error in a sentence like "the boy have left."

The real problem with grammar checkers isn't that they fail to catch so many obvious problems as that they're built to spot so many bogus ones. As time goes by, they seem to pander more and more to all the infantile school room prejudices that people have about usage.

Back in the days when checkers were sold as separate software products, I recalled talking to a woman who was in charge of development at one software house. When she started out, she said she was full of high hopes about bringing grammatical uplift to the masses. It's certainly an alluring prospect -- the idea that writers might have this grammatical angel hovering permanently at their shoulders.

But when she started talking to the sales people, she was quickly disabused. "How come our checker doesn't flag split infinitives," they'd say. And she'd say: "oh, that's just a stupid superstition." And they'd answer: "well, it may be stupid, but the other checkers have it and they're using it as a selling point against ours."

So of course in went the split infinitive, along with all the other schoolroom fetishes that have been giving grammar a bad name for centuries: don't end a sentence with a preposition; don't begin a sentence with "and" or "but;" and of course, avoid the passive. After a while, that angel over your shoulder starts to sound less like H.W. Fowler (ph) than like Richard Simmons.

You can't blame the computer for the dumbing down. The trivialization of usage was accelerating well before Bill Gates graduated from what used to be called a grammar school. You can see it in the Sunday supplement language columns, in the publishing houses that have taken to firing their copy editors to save money, or the textbooks that list all of these rules under the heading of "sentence mechanics."

You can see it in the reverence that people accord to Strunk and White's little book "The Elements of Style," which has done more than anything else to persuade people that the whole subject of usage can be reduced to a few pithy maxims, which is what leads them to suppose that computers can deal with it.

And in the end, it may well be the grammar checkers that seal the fate of usage. It's like most of the other tasks we perform by means of a computer, like web-searching or talking to a voice-recognition system. After a while, we learn to accommodate ourselves to the limits of the technology. In every relationship after all, somebody has to be the adaptable one.

If computers can't distinguish between the passive sentences that make sense and the ones that don't, we'll spare ourselves a lot of problems just by avoiding the whole construction. Before long, we'll be conforming slavishly to all the rules the checkers can spot and ignoring the others.

But it won't be Bill Gates' fault. Every age gets the software it deserves.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

Coming up, a new reissue by saxophonist Tab Smith.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Geoffrey Nunberg, Palo Alto; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Language critic Geoffrey Nunberg talks about the accuracy of automatic grammar checkers included with computer word processing programs like Microsoft Word.
Spec: Computers; The Internet; Language; Microsoft Word; Grammar
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Grammar Checkers
Date: JULY 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072101np.217
Head: Top 'n' Bottom
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: By 1951, saxophonist Tab Smith had played in the bands of Lucky Millinder (ph) and Count Basie, among others, for 15 years. He was ready to cut back on music and go into real estate when he recorded the song "Because of You" for United, the first successful black-owned record label. It became the company's biggest hit, selling about a quarter of a million copies.

For the next six years, Smith recorded more than 90 titles for United, half of which were never issued. Delmark (ph) Records has begun releasing all of Tab Smith's records. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of the series.


MILO MILES, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Once upon a time, smooth jazz were not cuss words among hepcats. Eisenhower was president, but underground culture was alive. The juke boxes that catered to African-Americans, beatniks, and the coolest city kids invariably included lightly bopping numbers for dancing in the late hours.

Small combos on the border between jazz and R&B dominated the style, some leaning toward jump blues, some leaning towards ballads. One of the most amiable masters of the mode was Tab Smith, who did fast ones and smooch tunes in exactly equal proportions.

His bright, warm tone fit snugly into his concise, slyly sophisticated phrasing. Without fail, his sound gets compared to the fabulous Duke Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges (ph). Tab always bristled: "what do you mean I sound like Johnny?" he'd say. "I'm Tab Smith, and that's who I sound like."


With some judicious echo and his plain-spoken but passionate reading of notes, Smith can take a monumental big band standard like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and make it into a bluesy bump just for you and the partner in your arms. Through his whole time on United, he got delectable help from Walter Johnson, aptly characterized by Count Basie as "that soft and easy drummer."

Half the 90 numbers Smith recorded were never issued. Delmark Records has begun putting them out in a series that has filled three CDs so far: "Jump Time," "Aces High," and "Top 'n' Bottom." Smith is always consistent and it might be best to start with Jump Time and the big hit, Because of You.

Still, Top 'n' Bottom has the most unreleased tracks and probably they were not released because executives feared they were too funky to cross over. Top 'n' Bottom includes all sorts of tidy ensemble tricks, such as Smith's wild guy/nice guy act with trumpeter Irving Woods (ph) on "Cabolino" (ph).


Oddly enough, hardcore music buffs did not give juke box jazz like Tab Smith's much respect in its time. Many considered it pop fodder, wimpy in comparison to gnarly, hard bop. Yet now we can hear how tricky it is to play as sweet and danceable as Tab does without sacrificing any blues or soul.

GROSS: Milo Miles is music editor for Three albums in a series of Tab Smith's recordings from the '50s on United have been released on Delmark Records.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Milo Miles; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: World Music critic Milo Miles reviews "Top 'n' Bottom," a new re-issue of the music of saxophonist Tab Smith. The songs were recorded from 1953-1954.
Spec: Music Industry; Top 'n' Bottom; Tab Smith
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Top 'n' Bottom
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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