If a baseball player breaks his arm, he goes to an orthopedist. If a Broadway singer strains his voice, he goes to Joan Lader.
A Penn State School of Theatre alumna, Lader is a leading voice therapist and teacher who has coached some of the top performers on the Great White Way, as well as singers from the worlds of opera, film, R&B, rap, rock, and pop. In June, she was one of three recipients of the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre, a special award for standouts in theatre who do not fall under the standard Tony Award categories. While Lader typically keeps mum on her celebrity students, the nomination letter for the award was signed by Kristen Chenoweth, Patti LuPone, and Hugh Jackman, to name a few.
Lader has had her private practice for more than 30 years, one that has grown simply by word-of-mouth—even in the era of social media. “When I first started, I was working with doctors, and they sent singers to me,” she explained.
Today her client list is full of Tony, Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy award winners, ranging from names above the title to ensemble members from just about every Broadway show in the last 30 years.
While studying theatre at Penn State, Lader’s dream was to become a Broadway performer herself. She graduated in 1963, and soon found work in a repertory company and doing voiceovers. She slowly moved away from performing and began giving singing lessons, and then decided to pursue a master’s degree in speech pathology.
“No one knew what to do with professional singers, and that’s how it all started,” she said. “Now there are so many people with these mixed backgrounds of singing and speech pathology, but when I got started, there was no one.”
Lader blazed the trail in a profession that provides an invaluable service to singers, especially Broadway performers who need to sing during eight performances a week. When she started, doctors drew pictures to show singers how their vocal cords worked. Now tiny cameras take endoscopic images, so singers gain a better understanding of how to use their voices for the best results.
“Sometimes it’s not just an ENT [ear, nose, throat] problem—it could be chiropractic, osteopathic. Every patient is very, very different,” Lader said. “Not surprisingly, some are narcissistic, but that keeps things interesting.”
The commonality among Lader’s patients is that they have some form of vocal distress, such as vocal fold swelling or cysts on the vocal cords. Some may have had poor training or were trying to sing beyond their range.
“My goal is to improve the appearance of the larynx and get them to function normally without surgery,” she explained. “I typically see patients for three months, and then either keep them as students or send them to other voice teachers.”
Lader spends her days working with patients or students, and, several nights week, goes to the theatre to see her patients perform and assess their progress.
Working with Broadway artists is her passion. “I know the Broadway rep better than anything, and that is essential when I’m working with a Broadway performer,” she explained. “Also, I like being part of a Broadway team, working with directors and choreographers.”
When a show is dance-based, Lader sometimes has to alter her approach, because the performers have to move their bodies in different ways.
“There is no one-size-fits-all therapy for different singers, and I like that challenge.”
Lader, who is a frequent guest lecturer and master class teacher at institutions including Columbia University, Yale, the Broadway Theater Project, and the Voice Foundation in Philadelphia, is a certified Master Teacher of the Estill Voice Training System, and has extensive training in the Alexander Technique, Fitzmaurice Voice Work, and the work of Arthur Lessac. She said her teaching and therapy draw from all these disciplines in order to individualize the approach and address the specific needs of her diverse group of clients.
According to Lader, the voice therapy profession is a balance of science and art. “Over the years doctors have developed a greater respect for voice teachers, voice trainers, and speech pathologists,” she said. “And there is plenty of work, because more people are going into theatre than ever before.”