Voice pedagogy 2050

15 May 2018

Dear Professor, 

I write this letter as I prepare to travel to Los Angeles for a symposium celebrating the legacy of William Vennard. His book, Singing: The mechanism and the technic, already in its fifth edition in the late 1960s, influenced generations of voice teachers and researchers. I wouldn't use it as a voice science text book today; it is too behind current thinking on a number of subjects and does not incorporate significant technological advances. However, it remains important for many reasons. Chief among them for me is this: Vennard was willing to bring up ideas that he knew he did not yet fully understand. He challenges us to think about the benefits of pondering aspects of science that are at the edge of what is known, rather than known to be practically applicable to voice teaching. From acoustics, to timbre, to the nature of the larynx itself, he shines a light on what his time did not yet understand and only then moves along to more practical information. His book is not a concise instruction manual. He purposely points out how exciting the limits of knowledge are. His legacy may well be that he inculcated generations of teachers with a robust imagination and a sense of wonder about the study of the voice.

If this symposium in 2018 is an opportunity to reflect on the lasting power of Vennard's work, one has to wonder what our current interesting, yet unanswered questions are. What are the problems that we need this current generation of students to figure out on the time scale of their own lives, because we older teachers are only capable of noticing that there's a problem. This has me thinking of a similar symposium in the year 2050, and how attendees will reflect then on the elegant solutions and better fleshed out teaching models they take for granted. To this end, I want to suggest a few problems that we have yet to resolve across our community, and encourage anyone reading this to take them up in time for that meeting. 

  1. We need to recognize that voice pedagogy is a field made up of interdisciplinary areas of study. This raises two critical issues. First, if we are going to do interdisciplinary work, we need people who are actually educated in multiple fields. This points to the need for interdisciplinary degrees, or perhaps the creation of post doctoral fellowships in the sciences for singers with DMAs. We may not cherry pick ideas from other disciplines simply because they confirm what we already believe about the voice. We need to understand both bodies of knowledge as a native would. Second, singers use the body and mind in ways different from non-singers. We must celebrate that the singing voice offers a different lens through which to view a body of research. This means that our scholars need to be capable of discerning  whether an outside field challenges what we hold true about singing, or whether singing challenges what experts in an outside field claim.
  2. As significant as the study of acoustics, and especially the research that came out of Bell labs, has been for our understanding of speech and language comprehension, we need to incorporate the study of psychoacoustics coequally into our understanding of the sound of a singing voice. This has at least a few major implications, some of which follow:
    1. Many of the assumptions governing the way we teach the sonic properties of sung sounds are based on research that explored the minimum frequency bandwidth required to preserve intelligibility of speech when transmitted over a copper telephone wire. These studies were aimed at cutting out unnecessary spectral information rather than describing everything present. We would never begin the study of the acoustics of another instrument with this limitation. It would be as nonsensical as suggesting, "well... I'd like to understand the use of timbre in the cello, but I'm going to first limit my view to the part of the spectrum that I can transmit through this block of tofu." We need to begin with the audible spectrum. If something can be heard, we must incorporate it into our model of the sound of a singer. Intelligibility is interesting and certainly important, but the human singing voice is as much an instrument of non-linguistic sounds as that cello. Just because a part of the sound fails to differentiate two vowels in speech does not mean it is unimportant. In fact, those extra-linguistic  elements of timbre can be important in distinguishing one singer (even one genre of singing) from another. 
    2. Spectrograms and similar visual representations of sound do not capture the way that humans perceive sound. Hopefully by 2050 we will have different basic models; however, at a minimum we need to overcome the fact that spectrograms do not show us how pitch resolves, where auditory roughness occurs, how the brain separates sounds from multiple sources sounding simultaneously, and how spectral fluctuations represent changes in specific aspects of tone color. These are big gaps, and if the models do not show these elements, we need to train our voice pedagogy students to do this on sight. 
    3. Big ideas from voice science must be made as sensuous as possible for voice pedagogy students, which means developing technologies and teaching models to best convey what voice science tells us is true. As powerful as graphs are for summarizing data, everything related to the sound of the voice must also be demonstrated aurally. E.g. Don't talk about formants and harmonics unless you can back it up with sound. Never explain that [i] has a low first formant without playing your students an [i] and applying a pass filter to only that first formant. This is true for resonance tuning strategies, phonation qualities, spectral tilts, etc. We need to figure out how to make demonstrating these ideas cheap and easy. 
  3. Voice pedagogy degrees belong in top conservatories too. Currently most voice pedagogy programs are housed in research universities. While this may be for many reasons, it is not because conservatory students are uninterested in voice pedagogy. Our experiment in offering a robust voice pedagogy program at NEC, supported by a voice analysis laboratory and TA positions teaching non majors, has been met with incredible student interest. Often times it is the performance majors filling up the pedagogy courses. If teachers at conservatories think that their students are not interested in learning about this field, I think they are wrong. Perhaps Curtis will never have a voice pedagogy program due to it's size, but I think we need to behave as though Juilliard will. And Juilliard will once the voice pedagogy community figures out how to explain both why it matters, and also that modern voice pedagogy is not fundamentally opposed to pre-scientific approaches to voice training. This last point is important for our community to contemplate, as we need to come to grips with the reasons that the top tier performance institutions are frequently underrepresented in organizations like NATS, the Voice Foundation, and PAVA.
  4. Motor learning theory is perhaps the most important addition to a voice teacher's tool kit in the past 100 years. We spend a lot of time defending the past, as though every new piece of information we learn about the voice merely confirms what great voice teachers were doing anyway. This material is not that. In many ways it shows us how much time great teachers have been wasting and mismanaging. It needs to be widely disseminated and taught in every school.
  5. At least as much time in a voice pedagogy class needs to be spent on phonation qualities, trans-glottal airflow, registration, dynamic posture and breathing, and brain/body connections as is spent on voice acoustics, laryngeal registers, and anatomy. We need simple teaching models for each of these ideas. This really speaks to a shift in priorities for how voice pedagogy is taught: away from just what is true, toward how it is created, used, and sounds.

I am sure you can come up with even more unresolved questions in our field, and I'm especially excited for the questions that we are not yet aware of. What do you think? Do you like our chances?


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