The voice 

27/06/2012 00:00 

On her CV, Philippa Ratcliffe can rightly claim to be the woman behind the voice of one of the greatest sopranos of our times.

Philippa Ratcliffe

Philippa Ratcliffe


It was she who teased the life back into Lesley Garrett’s vocal cords after a ruptured blood vessel threatened to jeopardise her career.

“Her voice stopped dead in the middle of an aria at a performance at the Coliseum. It must have been psychologically terrifying for her. Opera singers are the vocal elite and rely on preserving their most precious instrument – their voice,” said Philippa, the consultant speech and language therapist at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital (RNTNEH).

Following her successful treatment, Ms Garrett was so grateful she established and funded a specialist vocal research lab at the hospital and still visits for regular check-ups. She is just one of thousands of patients over the past 25 years who have sat opposite Philippa in her tidy therapy room.

“I encourage them to trill their lips, blow raspberries, sniff and yawn their way through exercises designed to strengthen, stretch and relax the vocal cords. Advice on good posture and breathing, hydration and ‘vocal naps’ can also useful. No coughing, no throat clearing, no whispering allowed!”

Sometime lifestyle advice is needed. “I tell people not to shout up the stairs to their children – but to clap or blow a whistle instead!” Vocal cords consist of two folds of skin covered muscle that come together in the voice box and vibrate when air is blown through them, flapping at around 1,000 beats a second for soprano singers.

By way of demonstration, Philippa sings a few bars of ‘Summertime’ and tra la las up and down the scales in a mellow, rich voice. “Singing is a joyous release and the vibration of sound provides an adrenalin rush – it is a loudspeaker to our emotions. We present ourselves through voice – but we have to look after it.”

Philippa Ratcliffe

The RNTNEH Speech Therapy Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) team receives around 60 new referrals a month. Some are showbiz stars but the majority are ordinary frontline workers whose voice is their main tool of trade: a clergyman whose regular sermons are causing vocal problems, an aerobics teacher battling against high volume music or a softly spoken teacher who is straining to make himself heard.

Philippa, who has a master’s degree in voice pathology, works very closely with surgeons and other specialist therapists in the multi disciplinary team.

She said: “We are not voice coaches or elocution tutors. Our remit is a medical one, to work with patients in the early stages of a voice problem and turn them around vocally before the problem becomes major or to assist someone’s recovery after surgery or injury, eradicate the problem and prevent it re-occurring.

“I work with a great team and the best kit and together we can accurately diagnose patients and make them better. We jointly run more voice clinics per month than any other ENT team in the UK and so have a wealth of experience. I love this job with a passion and I have done since the moment I arrived all those years ago – I knew I had found my niche.”

 

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