The Next “Voice Science”

[What public health, ethnology, and neuroscience have to do with it]

seated CSL sing.crop

In the mid-20th century, people started to understand how the vocal cords actually work. Nineteenth century singing teacher Manuel Garcia had famously arranged a mirror and candle to SEE his voice, but until technologies arrived to capture moving images of the cords as they vibrate, and to analyze their complex sound, much remained unknown. In recent decades, throat physiology, acoustics, and medical technology have combined into the specialty discipline of voice science, with the singing voice a prominent target of ongoing study.

Because of these advances, researchers can quantify the difference between “belt” and “bel canto” in both sound spectrum and aerodynamics. Surgeons can use lasers and microscopic tools to repair damaged vocal cords. Voice rehab therapists, like me, can develop exercises to rebalance over-active or under-performing vocal muscles, even when those muscles are less than a centimeter long and completely out of sight. A choir director can side-cue a sound engineer: “Our consonants are getting lost in this new hall, but a little boost at 4-6K might crisp things up,” and it does.

So far, so good—but I happen to think that vocal performers, teachers, and vocal rehab specialists need more help, from more kinds of science. Here are some additional fields of study that might help all of us better understand and serve the voice.

(1) Sociology and public health: treating vocal artists as an under-served population in need of better-targeted health information and access to care.

Elite classical singers and stage actors, and wealthy pop-music stars, generally know where to go for medical voice help, and when, and why. But many of the hard-working, less-famous performers I work with took a long time to get to a voice doctor; I may see them only after months or years of well-intended but incomplete advice from their friends, teachers, families, producers, and health food store. Or they’ve wanted medical care but have been seen by generalist ENTs, who don’t fully understand artists’ needs and lifestyle, rather than true (specially trained) laryngologists. Lack of health insurance, or lack of good coverage, is only part of the problem. There just seems to be a deep disconnect between what medical voice care can provide, and singers’ ability to find the right specialists, and then to trust them as much as they trust home remedies.

Matt Edwards has lectured on how voice research currently breaks down along fault-lines of race and social class, leaving out 90% of working vocalists; Dr. Ryan Branskii‘s team has begun to investigate the patterns of self-care (or not) among Broadway performers; Dr. Jennie Morton’s new book explains how show-must-go-on psychology increases artists’ risks for injury. These perspectives begin to show us the gaps in care, but not yet how to solve them.

Much more needs to be done to “protect and serve” the hard-working backup singers, voice-actors, worship leaders, and indie-rockers who give so much value to the public but are still treated (and who treat themselves) as disposable and low-class, their vocal problems invisible, mysterious, or an acceptable price-to-pay-for-creativity.More effective, artist-friendly health education and preventive wellness might reach all vocal artists if social values as well as medical care were improved. This intersection of healthcare, economics,  and psycho-social dynamics is what public health experts might offer.

(2) Sociolinguistics /ethnology: helping the different voice professions communicate

As I roam among the worlds of medical care, theater-voice, and 100 styles of singing, I yearn for a battalion of cultural intermediaries to help bridge the gaps in communication and expectation. Narrow-discipline jargon is an obvious problem, but not the only one. I glimpse stereotypes on all sides; differences in formality, technology, and presentation style; and deeply buried archetypes of distrust—all of which interfere with the free flow of simple information about vocal artists’ needs and about the care and training available. I’m sometimes asked to help translate and don’t always succeed. Social scientists who understand how different subcultures interact might be able to help us all communicate, and such input may be necessary to truly move things forward.

(3) Cognitive neuro-science: illuminating the voice-learning brain

How do people learn new skills in a part of the body that can’t be seen and can only be partially felt? Voice teachers and students, and speech therapists and our clients, work in this mystery-zone every day, often creating remarkable changes. But we are far from a clear understanding of how human beings manage to coordinate airway reflexes, sound perception, emotion, body-sensation, and self-image, in order to make a conscious vocal change. What might the new brain-imaging technologies tell us about the process and experience of voice-learning? And—to get the attention of such neuro-science wizards—what might the intersection of body, language, identity, hearing, and communication-to-others, which all seamlessly integrate in the act of phonation, reveal about the brain itself? I can’t be the only one who wants to know.

None of these disciplines yet address voice issues, so as usual, we can only start with calls to attention and advocacy. Why bother? Because of the nature and importance of voice itself!

In yoga philosophy, the throat area is viewed as a power-center characterized by the creative integration of diverse elements. This fits my understanding of the larynx, which sits at a crossroads between body and mind, between eating and breathing, between the internal self and the outer community.

I suggest that the very nature of the vocal instrument requires a broadening view of “science” and a generous outreach to other disciplines. This call-to-integration-across-boundaries may be part of the voice’s own message to us.

As Aldous Huxley wrote, in his 1962 novel Island:

“Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.”

Carry it on—

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3 Responses to The Next “Voice Science”

  1. Kate Peters November 3, 2015 at 6:39 pm #

    Joanna. I am with you one hundred percent. I am fascinated by neuro science and always intrigued when scientists and researchers can validate what I have experienced, either as a singer, speaker or vocal practitioner. But I know there is so much more to the voice than what can be described in a research paper. Art, intuition, science, philosophy, psychology and physiology all play a part in what we call our voices, no matter who we are and even if we aren’t aware of our voices. The importance of an expanded voice science seems obvious to me, yes, but I have learned the odd truth that many people cannot see their voice as something to be studied or trained at all. How many times I have heard someone say, “you are stuck with your voice. You can’t change it.” In fact, I believe we recently heard that from Carly Fiorina. You’d think a high profile leader and speaker would know differently!

    I admire your work and appreciate your thoughts on what a true vocal science might look like. I’m in. Kate

  2. Christina Dahl October 30, 2015 at 1:10 pm #

    Hi Joanna, thankyou for this article. I absolutely share you point of view and really enjoyed how well you describe the many interactions when using the voice.

  3. Kerrie Dolan October 23, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

    hi Joanna: your article was cery intersting & informative! I will pass it on to my co-workers who work with voice clients!

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