Monday night on The Voice Australia, I watched contestant Adam Ladell turn all four judges’ chairs with his beautiful voice. What made his performance even more impressive was that he confidently stole centre stage despite being just 16 years old, and having Tourette’s syndrome.
Tourette’s is characterised by “rapid, repetitive and involuntary muscle movements and vocalisations called ‘tics’, and often involves behavioural difficulties” (source). The judges noted though, that when Adam sang, the tics completely disappeared.
In Adam’s own words:
“One of the things I’m most grateful for is when I sing it just goes away, because it gives me a break from ticking.”
What many people probably don’t realise is that Adam is not alone; it is not uncommon for Tourette’s syndrome and musicianship to go hand-in-hand.
Celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks dedicated an entire chapter of his brilliant book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, to the discussion of Tourette’s patients who were also musicians. He noted that “extraordinary, creative interactions can occur when someone with Tourette’s performs as a musician”, and cites many examples of Tourette’s sufferers who, when immersed in a piece of music, were freed of their usual tics.
One Tourette’s sufferer he interviewed described discovering music as “newly found masking [that] actually harnessed my unbounded energy, directing it into an orderly flow”.
Ruth Ojadi is another singer who has Tourette’s. She told the BBC in 2011, “I realised that actually making music was almost like a therapy. I get release from this and I’m able to just do something and know full well that I’m going to be in control of it at all points.”
So why does singing stop the outward signs of Tourette’s?
The best answer we have so far is this: the brain works differently when we sing. We enter into a different kind of consciousness, a different zone, different synapses are firing. It’s not a very satisfying answer, but the brain remains a vast and uncharted territory. We know the brain works differently when we sing, but we still don’t know exactly why or how, though neurologists such as Sacks are working on it.
When I was watching Adam Ladell on stage, I was reminded of a friend of mine who stuttered throughout school, particularly when she was nervous. Yet when she stood up to sing, there was no stuttering, every word was delivered with perfect clarity and beautiful tone. It is the same case with many other stutterers (including famous singers like Carly Simon and B.B. King), whose stutters are minimised or completely disappear when they sing.
Science aside, I like to think there’s magic and power in music that can’t be explained. It can move us emotionally, heal us physically, and take us on life-altering journeys without us having to move from the couch. I think it’s wonderful that a young singer like Adam Ladell is able to harness music as both a relief and release, while sharing his talent with the world and entertaining us so beautifully at the same time. I wish him all the best on his journey – he’s in very good company.