Some initial thoughts on considering studio applications of voice science studies

8 March 2018

Dear Professor Winslow,

Every few months, I feel conversations with my colleagues return to the same big issues in pedagogy. The question of being a "science-based" versus "not science-based" teacher came up recently regarding understanding how the diaphragm may or may not function in singing. More on that later.

I understand that this is a big, loose community, and that we all come from different points of view. Some see the value in discussing big ideas in the abstract. Others only want to discuss practical application. Some only want to discuss practical application in the specific approach to singing they teach. That's all fine, of course. This isn't a community that is "on the same page," and probably never will be, and we're probably stronger for that. 

Still though, I wonder at what point discussing the pedagogy of the voice through the lens of recent research studies becomes the same dogma with a different name? Not studying the voice scientifically, mind you. I mean teachers discussing it in terms of the immediate practical application of current scientific research. Scientists are skeptical and curious by default. The result of their work is always open for revision, and any given study or idea has to be understood through its own (often severe) limitations. The confidence level for most of what we read in the voice literature falls somewhere between anecdotal and good. A voice teacher should be as wary of generalizing from a study as they are of dismissing one for methodoligcal issues. When we import external information into voice pedagogy, I think it’s important to ask a few basic questions regarding how the info was gathered so that we may understand whether the researchers themselves are qualifying their conclusions  

Our community is clearly hungry for reliable information, in no small part this is because people have been physically and professionally damaged by bad information. How do you ensure that you don’t place faith in an equally problematic construct derived from a limited understanding of limited scientific studies (e.g. the mechanics of tidal breathing, the TA/CT dichotomy, the primacy of a certain laryngeal position)? 

I know you don't need to be reminded, but I'm not anti-science at all. Furthest thing from it. I think that I respect it too much to use it like a clinical bludgeon.


Dr. Ian Howell
Voice Faculty
Vocal Pedagogy Director
The New England Conservatory of Music