Friday, May 2, 2008

The "Visible" Voice: Why are teachers not making use of this

In June of 2005 I was singing a recital in Montreal, Canada when a colleague with whom I had an Internet correspondence over the years invited me to his home in Montreal to meet someone he thought I might enjoy knowing. The deep bass-baritone with the Leprechaun smile was Donald Miller (no relation to the other vocal science guru, Richard Miller), the developer of Voce Vista (literally 'the voice seen'), a very advanced piece of software that allows a science-savvy voice professional to monitor both the muscular and acoustic information produced by the glottis and the vocal tract. The total costs of the very portable equipment (I carry my own kit in a small zip-up bag, that fits easily in my laptop bag) is about 1000.00 USD. Only three years before, the music department of the University where I taught voice acquired funding in excess of 10,000 USD for a Kay Elemetrics voice analysis system that does not give any more pertinent information to the singer than does Voce Vista. The reason for this is that the Kay Elemetrics system was developed for the monitoring of vocal disorders, and at a time when the average computer processor was too slow for accurate sound processing. With the increasing speed of personal computer processors, the most important obstacle to sound analysis was eliminated. A special PC was no longer necessary as it had been for the Kay system. Now accurate voice analysis is no longer cost prohibitive.

Despite the removal of technological and financial obstacles, vocal pedagogy is still stuck in the dark ages. It is a relatively small group of people among the thousand of vocal instructors worldwide who make the effort to keep up with the available scientific information enough for the information to be useful. It is not enough to know what muscle does what. What is important is the basic principle of source-filter theory--that the vocal product that the audience hears is based upon 1) the way the vocal folds come together (source) to create a fundamental frequency and endless overtones and 2) the way the vocal tract space filters out unwanted overtones and focus the vocal energy to a concentrated acoustic area by the way that vowels are adjusted. In principle, this is very much like the way a lens focuses the rays of the sun to a point creating a powerful beam of light that can burn.

Why then isn't every serious teacher taking the time to complement their pedagogy with this invaluable tool? The answers are probably not surprising:

1. Complacency. In my 12 years of active vocal science research, I have seen many teachers who shudder at the idea of scientific analysis of the voice. Many traditional teachers who have had success with proprioceptive methods cannot conceive of the possibility that empirical information could complement or even justify their methods.

2. Fear. There is a genuine fear from some teachers that any objective information might disprove their methods. So they would prefer not to know.

3. Laziness. In some cases teachers do not want to take the time to learn the basic science that is necessary in order to effectively make use of these new technological tools. There is also a fear that the information is too complicated and too difficult to master.

I have remained understanding of teachers who avoid technology over the years, but I have become a little less tolerant, particularly with regards to teachers in the big cities and in conservatories and music schools who are responsible for the development of professionally-minded vocal performers. Many of these teachers charge exorbitant fees per hour. In good conscience they should be informed.

Not unlike the theory of evolution, the fear of the unknown virtues of objective information cause people to find comfort in the mysterious secrets of centuries-old methods. And not unlike the idea of divinely inspired evolution, why could science not help to uncover some of the mysteries of traditional methods? The information is available to us, and no one is saying that science is a Holy Grail of vocal pedagogy. Yet it is an invaluable component which should be part of the conversation that voice teachers and singers worldwide should be having now. Fear of knowledge should not drive the discussion of vocal pedagogy in the 21st century.

One of the hindrances to the popularity of vocal science are those who have superficial information and attempt to make it pass for absolute knowledge. Such teachers are very quickly exposed for the quacks they are, and subsequently those who might want to give science an honest try are discouraged.


The creators of Voce Vista have assembled a very friendly and informed group of users throughout the Unites States and Europe who are eager to train new users.

Several universities offer summer courses in vocology and basic vocal science that would provide enough information for a teacher to begin making use of these tools.

For those who prefer to teach themselves, all the information necessary is on the internet. Enough can be learned to begin to ask important questions.

For those who wish to challenge this post, I welcome an intelligent debate. I will not respond to those who say that vocal science has not yielded any good singers. That is a red herring argument. Most voice teachers have had a basic vocal pedagogy course that informs certain basics about their methods. The argument is that we have a lot more information and access to many more tools than Vennard and Richard Miller had available to them when they began their research. For the sake of our students we have a responsibility to inform ourselves.

Finally, science is not a method. It is simply a source of information. With information a better, more efficient and perhaps more expedient method can be developed that might keep pace with the accelerating speed of life. Although I am one who complains that agents and impresarios and theaters do not allow students time to develop, we teachers cannot make that argument if we are not doing everything possible to expedite the process.

© 05/02/2008

Jean-Ronald LaFond is a user of Voce Vista and offers individual vocal analysis sessions as well as master classes in basic vocal science.


Blue Yonder said...

I sometimes get the sense that at least here in the U.S., there is a general aversion and sense of intimidation in the mainstream culture when it comes to science and related fields and disciplines like math and engineering. I wonder if this isn't reflected just as much, if not more, among the population of "artistic" types such as singers and their teachers. Perhaps this is a factor in the lack of adoption of scientifically-informed methods. You and I may be exceptions to the rule. My early training was in engineering, and I thought you mentioned yours was too? At any rate, I love the way that singing is so cross-disciplinary, covering not only art, history, literature, and languages, but also acoustics, physiology, and your beloved source-filter theory :)

trevaladiva said...

I would definitely fall in the "fear" category. I don't understand most scientific stuff. If somebody could patiently explain it to me, I would gladly attempt to understand!!

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

First to Blue Yonder! It is proven that music and math share a great deal in terms of brain function. It is for that reason that the international discussion over the Mozart Effect Theory became so important. It only makes sense. There is a very mathematical aspect to music, namely theory and interestingly enough it is often the deal breaker for singers at the conservatory level. Many think they do not need it when in fact understanding that language opens the doors to real decision making about interpretation. Some erroneously think that great interpreters like Dieskau and Callas just felt it. They understood it like coaches and conductors do. An example from my undergrad years:

I was singing Fauré Requiem with the Westminster Choir in preparation for a concert with the New York Philharmonic. Our conductor, the amazing Joseph Flummerfelt brought our attention to Fauré's use of a B natural in the context of what appears to be d minor (first movement). Then he had us sing that phrase with a Bb to show how terribly wrong that felt in the context of that Dorian mode segment (not d minor at all). Musicality requires musicianship just as a great vocal method requires a clear understanding of the technical issues.

As for Trevaladiva, if you are in New York or the immediate area, I would meet with you regularly to help you get rid of the fear and learn the basics that would get you on your way information. If not, I could point you to someone in your area with the knowledge to help you. I completely empathize. It is normal to be taking aback by the apparent complexity of this information.