In The 'Shout At Cancer Choir,' No Voice Boxes Needed To Sing Out

May 3, 2021
Originally published on May 4, 2021 4:28 pm

CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE? Rehearsal from Bill Brummel on Vimeo.

There are no velvety-voiced crooners in the Shout at Cancer choir. All the singers have undergone laryngectomies — voice box removal — to treat cancer. The new documentary Can You Hear My Voice? profiles this unique U.K. choral group.

The choir is the brainchild of Dr. Thomas Moors, an ear nose and throat specialist and life-long singer. Moors is executive director of Shout at Cancer, a London-based support and rehab group for laryngectomy patients.

Moors remembers that when he first came up with the idea for the choir, it was met with laughter, surprise and disbelief.

"It just seemed ridiculous that he would expect a group of people with no voice boxes to stand up and sing in a choir," explains Sara Bowden-Evans, one of a handful of choir members who shared their personal cancer journey with Pasadena filmmaker Bill Brummel — himself a laryngectomy patient. The Peabody award-winning and Emmy-nominated documentarian lost his voice box in 2016.

Radiation treatment for tonsil cancer years ago caused scar tissue to build inside Brummel's windpipe. The laryngectomy saved his life, but he can no longer laugh out loud and his vocal range and pitch are severely diminished.

"I couldn't imagine how I would work after laryngectomy — I couldn't imagine walking around in public with a hole in my neck," Brummel says.

The laryngectomy procedure leaves cancer survivors breathing through a surgically created hole in the front of the neck. And they require a voice prosthesis to speak.

"The voice is a really essential part of who we are and how we express ourselves," says Lizz Summers, a speech and language therapist for Shout at Cancer. "And there's an enormous sense of loss that can occur when somebody loses their natural voice or the voice they had before."

"It alters so many basic human functions," Brummel says.

The Shout at Cancer choir, pictured above in 2018, is featured in Bill Brummel's new documentary, Can You Hear My Voice?
Bill Brummel Productions

Speaking through the tiny implanted voice valve requires a lot more breath than normal speech. Singing builds lung strength — and performing builds confidence.

Can You Hear My Voice? won an audience award at the 2020 Nashville Film Festival; its next showing is in May at the RiverRun International Film Festival in North Carolina. The film crescendos with a concert at the London Tabernacle Theatre. Dr. Thomas Moors gives the choir a last-minute pep talk as they walk onstage. The evening also features moving poetry written by choir members, and a light-hearted kazoo number along with the group's renditions of popular songs.

Choir member Andrew Beaumont says the group helped him find meaning in the midst of his cancer journey. "Instead of wondering whether my life would continue, I would think: Well, why the hell shouldn't it continue?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
A 2017 Shout at Cancer performance in Ostend, Belgium, courtesy of Dr. Thomas Moors
YouTube

NOEL KING, HOST:

Some people who lost their voice boxes to cancer have formed a choir. A new documentary profiles them, and Stephanie O'Neill reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?")

THOMAS MOORS: Sound check. We're starting here. Ollie?

OLLIE: One, two. One, two.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: In this scene of the new documentary "Can You Hear My Voice?," members of the Shout At Cancer choir in the U.K. warm up before a sold-out concert at London's historic Tabernacle theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?")

MOORS: Andrew?

ANDREW: Hello, hello, hello.

MOORS: All right.

O'NEILL: There are no velvety-voiced crooners in this bunch. All have undergone laryngectomies, or voice box removal, to treat cancer. The procedure leaves them breathing through a surgically created hole in the front of the neck, and they require a voice prostheses to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?")

MOORS: Ian?

IAN: One, two. One, two. One, two.

MOORS: Thank you.

O'NEILL: The choir's a brainchild of Dr. Thomas Moors, an ear, nose and throat specialist and lifelong singer. Moors is executive director of Shout At Cancer, a London-based support and rehab group for laryngectomy patients.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?")

MOORS: I remember quite well when I first suggested, let's form a choir, they responded with laughter and surprise and disbelief.

SARAH BOWDEN EVANS: It just seemed ridiculous that he would expect a group of people with no voice boxes to stand up and sing in a choir.

O'NEILL: That's Sarah Bowden Evans. She's one of a handful of choir members who share their personal cancer journey with Pasadena filmmaker Bill Brummel, himself a laryngectomy patient. The Peabody Award-winning an Emmy-nominated documentarian lost his voice box in 2016.

BILL BRUMMEL: I couldn't imagine how I would work after a laryngectomy. I couldn't imagine walking around in public with a hole in my Neck.

O'NEILL: Lizz Summers is a speech and language therapist for Shout At Cancer.

LIZZ SUMMERS: The voice is a really essential part of who we are and how we express ourselves, and there's an enormous sense of loss that can occur when somebody loses their natural voice or the voice they had before.

O'NEILL: Speaking through the tiny, implanted voice valve requires a lot more breath than normal speech. Singing builds lung strength. Performing builds connection and fulfilment among choir members like Andrew Beaumont.

ANDREW BEAUMONT: I have found, instead of wondering whether my life would continue, I would think, well, why the hell shouldn't it continue?

O'NEILL: Laverne Williams is a professional singer and Shout At Cancer volunteer. During performances, her voice helps smooth the choir's rough sound. During practices, she guides the group through breathing exercises like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?")

LAVERNE WILLIAMS: I just want you to press gently, taking some air in and letting it out. Take your breath in.

O'NEILL: The film crescendos with the concert at the London Tabernacle theater. Dr. Moors gives the choir a last-minute pep talk as they walk on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?")

MOORS: All right, everyone. Just relax. We are prepared, all right? We know what we're doing, and we're going to enjoy ourselves, yeah?

O'NEILL: The evening features moving poetry written by choir members, a lighthearted kazoo number, as well as the group's renditions of popular songs like this one, made famous by Louis Armstrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?")

SHOUT AT CANCER CHOIR: (Singing) I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

O'NEILL: "Can You Hear My Voice?" won an audience award at the 2020 Nashville Film Festival. Its next showing is this month at the Riverrun International Film Festival in North Carolina.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?")

SHOUT AT CANCER CHOIR: (Singing) ...The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.