By Aaron Blevins, 8/09/2012
Gary Catona’s system helps clients medically and professionally
While Gary Catona has long been a “voice builder” for celebrities, the West Hollywood resident is now pitching his unique technique to the masses — in hopes of giving the world a more powerful voice.
The Catona Voice Building System focuses on strengthening a client’s vocal cords, the muscles that affect them and the throat using isokinetics, which uses resistance to build strength. For years, the system was available exclusively through Catona’s tutelage, but the recent launch of a smartphone and tablet app has allowed it to spread.
“This is revolutionary stuff,” he said, adding that the system can improve a person’s singing and speaking voice. “It happens very, very quickly.”
Catona said he began to develop his system in the 1980s after a decade of traditional attempts to improve his singing voice failed. He had studied at Penn State University, earning a master’s degree in philosophy, but his efforts to learn more about the human voice brought him to do research the University of Texas.
There, he learned that muscles in the throat form the human voice. A former wrestler, Catona said he realized that if muscles controlled the voice, then the muscles could be exercised and strengthened.
“The vocal musculature [is comprised of] fatigue resistant, endurance muscles,” he said. “They’re not delicate, which I was told for many years.”
Catona also studied isokinetics. Eventually, he said he began using open throat vowel exercises, which freeze the throat and give it its natural integrity, to create as much resistance as possible. His clients would sing a range of pitches while increasing volume and resisting any change.
The Catona Voice Building System contrasted sharply with traditional voice coaching techniques. He said voice coaches generally advise their clients to sing from the diaphragm and project to the facial cavity while ignoring or relaxing key areas in the throat.
“They don’t build voices,” Catona said.
In 1991, he began working with actress Shirley MacLaine. Then, he helped Los Angeles Times movie writer Michael Wilmington, who had spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that can cause a weak, strained voice.
Catona still has the before and after recordings from his session with Wilmington, who came to Catona with a hoarse voice that was difficult to hear. Wilmington’s last recording sounded like that of a radio announcer.
“This one [recording] made me world famous,” Catona added.
That case would not be the last time that the voice building system served a medical purpose. Catona said several clients, including boxing legend Muhammad Ali, actor Jack Klugman and jazz musician Larry Carlton, have utilized his services for that reason. Many times, those looking for medical help have exhausted other avenues of care, Catona said.
He referenced one client whose larynx was frozen upward, giving the man a falsetto voice that was holding him back socially and professionally. Catona said healthcare professionals had suggested that the ailment was psychosomatic, and that it may be cause by stress.
“All he needed was an exercise to drop his larynx where it really belonged,” he added.
Catona said it is rewarding to help people regain a sense of normalcy. In some cases, his clients succeed or fail professionally based on their voice, so giving those individuals their voice back is like giving them a second chance at life, he said.
“You have no idea what it’s like not being able to talk,” Catona said. “It’s a cruel and self-abusive experience.”
His sessions generally last 20 minutes, and within 10 sessions, the results are substantial, he said. Catona said that, after the sessions end, his clients must maintain their voice with exercises, though they are not too extensive.
Golda Berkman, 13, an aspiring opera singer, is a believer. Her father, Shallom, is one of the founders of Urth Caffé, which named a pizza after Catona last month.
“It’s really helped my voice,” Berkman said of the lessons. “I have a much richer, bigger voice. …It’s working.”
Today, Catona hopes to make other voice coaching techniques obsolete. He said that his system has not really been copied or refined — likely because an acceptance of his system would essentially be a confession of using failed techniques in the past.
However, there’s an app for that. Catona’s Voice Builder app launched last month, and it teaches the isokinetics exercises that he offers in his home studio. It is $4.99, and is available on iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, though it requires an iOS 4.3 or later. The app was developed by David Fischkes, whose father was receiving voice lessons from Catona.
“It was, as they say, the perfect storm,” Catona said. “I’m very proud of it.”
While he hopes that the app is used around the world, Catona continues to give eight to 12 lessons per day from his West Hollywood home. His ambition has not waned. When asked about his future plans, Catona’s answer was simple: “take over the world, then the universe.”