Singer-Ben VanBuskirk Able to Rock Again

"It is reassuring that Dr.S.Sims is a musician & singer..."


Rock singers – good ones, at least – are known for their ability to alter their voice, to sing high, extra loud, or in a low, throaty, scratchy moan that suggests smoky rooms and hard times. Unfortunately, what often makes rock stars and memorable voices also can lead to vocal problems that shorten or damage singing careers.Lead-singer,BenVanBuskirk knows about vocal problems. The Chicago-based rock singer has sung with a number of bands in recent years and is currently the lead singer for Seven Day Sonnet, an alternative/metal band on its way up. With the support of a well-known music producer, the band released its first album in 2009 and worked on a new recording in 2010. It launched a tour of clubs in the Midwest in early 2011.

Just a few months after the 2009 album release, VanBuskirk noted “something weird” in his voice. It broke frequently, and felt hoarse when he talked at any length. “It didn’t feel quite right,” he recalls. “It wasn’t just an off day or two, - it lasted longer than a cold would.”

His girlfriend suggested he see a doctor, and VanBuskirk eventually met UIC laryngologist H. Steven Sims, M.D., an associate professor of otolaryngology. Sims, a musician and singer, treats professionals (including singers and other performers) with voice disorders as Director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care. Sims diagnosed a polyp, a benign growth on VanBuskirk’s vocal cords. For professional singers, vocal cord damage can mean the end – or at least significant disruption – of their livelihood. Polyps, even if treated, can recur, and are common among singers. (Sims estimates that 15 to 20 percent of singers develop polyps or related vocal problems.) Voice problems of all types are more common among those who use their voices professionally, especially singers. In fact, some studies indicate that vocal problems are twice as common among singers as the general population, Sims noted.

Coming on the heels of an album release and Seven Day Sonnet’s rise, the diagnosis was potentially a setback for VanBuskirk. The world of rock bands can be very macho, and a voice-related disorder – especially for a band’s lead singer – can be a real setback. Also, because many rock singers have less formal voice training than other vocalists, many don’t know how to treat or protect their voice, or even to see a doctor when things aren’t right. For a band, the reputation of its lead singer affected by voice problems can turn away potential fans, music reviewers, and producers – the people who help build a band’s reputation. But, luckily for VanBuskirk, the experience was less daunting, thanks to Sims and other voice professionals he consulted. During his visits with Sims, he learned that getting the polyp removed was important to his and the band’s future. There was a downtime during his treatment period, with fewer performances, “so it made great sense to get it taken care of,” he said. “Dr. Sims reassured me that this was routine. He was very easygoing, and I felt I was in good hands seeing someone who wasn’t shocked about my case.” Sims removed the polyp via a procedure called direct microlaryngoscopy, which uses specialized, miniature instruments with help from a microscope. Also known as phonosurgery, the technique is designed to preserve the voice. As important as the surgery itself, through Sims and other clinicians experienced in treating performers’ voice-related problems VanBuskirk learned a lot about how to protect his voice and help prevent voice problems from recurring.

For one, he learned he had to stop smoking. Polyps arise from voice strain; for VanBuskirk, pushing his voice to get the best sound from it certainly contributed to his case, but smoking did more harm than any other factor, Sims said. “Smoking inflames the vocal fold with both first- and second-hand exposure,” it contributes to vocal disorders of all kinds, Sims noted. So VanBuskirk has changed a lot of habits – not the least of which is smoking. He admits he’s “pretty much quit.” Avoiding smoke in the often cramped, smoky surroundings of the rock music world is virtually impossible, he admits. And rock is hardly a 9-to-5 gig (although he has a day job as well).

Rock singers smoke, we drink onstage, stay up late, and go to bed at 4 in the morning,” he noted. Other changes VanBuskirk has made incorporate some of what he learned during his treatment. For example, he’s had speech therapy and voice hygiene sessions. As a result he knows a lot more about his voice and its care than before, including tools many of his peers in the rock music world don’t know about. “Now I do warm-ups backstage – scales, for example. Most singers don’t do that,” he said. “I changed my whole routine. I drink a lot of water when I wake up every morning. At work, I support my voice adequately and get close enough to people so I don’t have to yell when I talk with them. And I try to do at least two periods of vocal rest every day, times when I don’t talk at all.”

As the band’s reputation and club bookings grow, VanBuskirk is glad his most important tool is in good working order for the increased demands ahead. “A lot of rock singers don’t even want to think about training their voice,” said VanBuskirk. “But, if you want to better yourself and your standing in the scene, you need to learn about taking care of your voice. People don’t realize how fragile their vocal system is. It can take a lot of beatings, but a lot of singers take their voice and its life for granted. It’s in the back of my mind that this could happen again, but knowing the symptoms and the tools to prevent it is helpful.”

“It was reassuring to have a doctor who’s a musician and singer himself. It was an amazing weight off my shoulders to know that a doctor was there who could assure me that if I got the procedure I could use my voice as I needed to when the band’s work got heavier,” he said. For Dr. Sims, who’s treated dozens of singers and artists from opera, jazz, musical theatre, and other venues, working with artists like VanBuskirk is part of his medical and musical mission.

“I am always interested in helping young singers help themselves with knowledge and tools that protect their own voices and help them identify their sources of support,” he said. At the Chicago Institute for Voice Care, Dr. Sims addresses vocal problems of performing artists, teachers, and others who rely on their voice.

 For more information about Dr. Sims, visit

 For more information about VanBuskirk or Seven Day Sonnet, visit

 For more information about Dr. Sims, visit

 For more information about VanBuskirk or Seven Day Sonnet,  visit

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