Dressed in all black, choppy shoulder-length hair framing her heart-shaped face, Adar Seligman-McComas stands in the middle of a long stage illuminated by blue and red lights. Surrounded by her band—a saxophone and bass player to her left, a keyboardist to her right, and a drummer on a raised platform behind her—the tall men triangulate attention towards their lead singer. Despite being the smallest person on stage, she is the obvious focal point, drawing in the eye of her audience and commanding their attention as she sways back and forth, crooning with her eyes closed, the corner of her mouth curled in a smile.
ADAR, the band, puts on a powerful live show. Their music has been described as neo-soul, a mix of covers and originals with a funky, bluesy flavor. But no matter how much fun it is to watch the group play, it’s a guarantee that their lead singer is having just as good a time performing. “It’s the one thing that I’ve ever found that makes me that happy and that fulfilled and made me present with myself,” Adar explained to me. “I’ve always been a singer. There are childhood videos of me where I can’t speak yet, but I’m humming to myself.” That’s why it came as such a blow one night last December when that vital ingredient, the beating heart of the band’s performance and Adar’s raison d’etre, her singing voice, completely disappeared.
This sonic disappearing act was a long time in the making, Adar admitted. She’d been a singer for as long as she could remember, but she hadn’t always taken the best care of her voice. “I believe that I had vocal damage beginning when I was about 18 because I used to smoke cigarettes and sing really loud,” she told me. That early damage scarred her vocal cords, making it difficult to hit notes in her upper register. “When you have vocal damage, part of your range is missing,” she explained. “I would use my abdomen voice to try to hit notes in my upper register, but my upper register was pretty much entirely diminished, so I would try to attack it from a different place and that would create more vocal damage.”
Adar entered a vicious cycle, born out of her unbridled enthusiasm to perform with her band, who were beginning to play out a lot more to even larger crowds. “We started to get really busy,” she recounted. “I began to push myself and noticed that some of the songs were out of my range, but I sang them anyway.” As a trained vocalist and music teacher, Adar knew that what she was doing wasn’t good for her vocal health, but she continued to overextend her voice. “I was damaged, so I was acting upon it which created more damage,” she confessed.
The night that she lost her voice, ADAR was performing at Cary Street Cafe in Richmond. About forty-five minutes into their set, Adar leaned into the microphone to begin a song, but no sound came out. “I ended up having to whisper to the audience, ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t even talk anymore,’” she described. “It happened very suddenly.”
Adar had lost her voice before, but it always came back within a few days. This time was different. After seeing a doctor, she learned that a blood vessel in her right vocal cord had popped, filling the void with blood and expanding it to three times its original size, rendering her unable to create sound. “They told me not to talk for two weeks,” she recalled, “which, if you know me, that’s not something that I’ve ever done before,” she laughed. “So I talked anyway, and a blood blister developed on my vocal cord over the course of two weeks.” Her doctors explained that surgery to remove the blood blister was probably her best option, considering the busy gig schedule she and her band had planned for the spring. Even though the thought of lying unconscious on an operating table frightened her, Adar was determined to get better. “I would do anything to sing,” she told me. “I mostly had faith that it would be okay.”
Thankfully, everything did turn out alright. After surgery, the doctors put her on five days of strict vocal rest and she began to recuperate. “The whole experience was the most depressing and isolating time of my life,” Adar confessed, “because I was without my instrument, which is the love of my life.”
Eventually, she was able to test the mettle of her strengthened vocal cords and sing again. And when she did, something amazing happened. “About two weeks after my surgery, I was doing my vocal warm ups. Suddenly, I realized that I was hitting this note that I hadn’t hit since I was seventeen or eighteen, before I lost my range.” Adar, having gone through the ordeal of losing her voice, her most vital tool of self-expression, had actually recovered a long-lost piece of herself at the conclusion of this harrowing journey. “I fell to my knees on the floor sobbing tears of joy because I realized that not only was my voice back, but my entire range was back,” she gushed, the magic of that moment still lingering in her retelling of the story. “It was something I was sure would never happen again.”
Now, almost five months after losing her voice, Adar is preparing for her return to the stage. One of her band’s first performances after their injury-imposed hiatus will be at the Tom Tom Founders Festival Block Party on April 15 in downtown Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. This will be ADAR’s second year performing at the block party, a raucous portion of the weekend’s festivities, all of which are dedicated to the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that Tom Tom’s founder, Paul Beyer, believes were embodied by Virginia native Thomas Jefferson.
Adar’s commitment to her band, her fans, and her voice certainly fits with the ethos of the Tom Tom Festival and she’s looking forward to jumping into this new chapter of her career. “I’m excited and I feel a little bit anxious honestly, because I just never want that to happen again,” she confided, “but I feel confident that I’m really in touch with my body.” Adar continued, quipping, “I’ve seen my vocal chords countless times with a camera that they put through my nose and down my mouth. At this point, I know what beautiful vocal cords look like…” her voice trailed off as if she could barely believe her luck, despite the difficult journey of the past few months. “And now,” she declared, “I have them.”
ADAR will perform on Sunday, April 15 at the Tom Tom Founders Festival Block Party at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. Admission is free, all ages. For the full schedule of festival events, visit tomtomfest.com. Hear more from ADAR at adarband.com.
Photography by Tristan Williams