Voice research: The latest from Voice Geek Conference 2019

From tongue tension and allergies to menopause and musical theatre training, the Voice Geek Conference in Colchester examined the latest in voice research. iSingmag’s founder LINE HILTON reports.

The Voice Geek Conference – two days of non-stop talk about all things voice-related – was a brilliant opportunity for vocal nerds like me to catch up on all the latest pedagogical research.

Put on by the good people at Voice Workshop, the conference provided a platform for researchers to discuss the findings of their work. Here’s a rundown of some of the interesting stuff that was presented.

Tongue root tension

US-based speech and language pathologist Kerrie B Obert thinks that tongue tension isn’t always the vocal villain that we assume it to be. And Obert knows her stuff: this is a woman who has conducted 15,000 to 20,000 laryngeal examinations.

Obert believes that we don’t give as much credit as we should to tongue movement and control, and the important part it plays in articulation and vocal quality.

She says that when we belt, something quite important happens at the base of the tongue – a slight contraction that creates a space. Here’s a YouTube clip from Tyler Ross that shows what she’s talking about.

Watch what happens when the singer performs a classical song; the base of the tongue is quite rounded. Compare this to the change when the singer shifts to a rockier sound.

Obert’s theory is that if the tongue is overly relaxed, the singer will not be as able to create a rocky, belty sound. Tongue tension that restricts movement – or causes any form of pain – is bad, but energy in that area is important. If it’s not impeding diction, we shouldn’t immediately dismiss tension or try to get to rid of it.

Tip for teachers: Give students tongue exercises so they can experiment with different sounds and learn how to use the tongue more actively. Play around with pulling the tongue back and forward. Push the tongue against the back of the bottom teeth when singing to maintain a more forward tongue.

How do you know if a tongue is too tense? Rely on what you hear – avoid what Obert refers to as the Kermit sound.

Function or fancy – the best way to teach singing

Dr Jenevora Williams talked about motor learning and the many neurological pathways available to help us teach students. Her conclusion? Connecting someone emotionally to the learning process improves the effectiveness of their learning.

The power of practice

Professor Carolyn McGettigan’s research examined what happens in the brain when we sing, by comparing the neural pathway changes of trained singers and amateurs. She found that professional singers engage a different part of their brain when they sing compared to amateurs. In other words, practice teaches us to use our brains more efficiently. (So the old saying practice makes perfect wasn’t far off!)

Other interesting topics discussed (and which I will explore in more depth in iSingmag in the near future, watch this space) included:

Singing and brain injury: Sophie Garner talked about her work using singing to help patients with brain injury improve their communication skills.

Vocal distortion: Nicole Gill investigated the extreme vocal effects used in heavy metal and how these can be achieved safely and efficiently.

The mature female voice: Rebecca Moseley-Morgan discussed pedagogy for the mature female voice and detailed a model to improve function and engagement for older female singers.

Singing with emotion: Juliet Russell talked about how to use our consonants and vowels to help with diction and ultimately the emotional delivery of a song in a choir setting.

Best practice in musical theatre training: Racheal Owens researched musical theatre training and asked if it delivered what students needed to succeed in the industry. Her research found singers wanted more advice on safe practice, vocal style and troubleshooting.

The impact of vocal injury: Pippa Anderson looked at the impact on singers of losing a critical gig due to vocal injury.

Social class and singing: Blair Kelly examined how social class influenced students’ perceptions of their vocal abilities.

Allergies and the singer: Kate Cubley examined the impact of allergies on singers and how to better manage them. She came up with this nifty acronym: FLASHERS. Relax, you can keep your clothes on. FLASHERS stands for: Food, Living Choices, Awareness, Steam, Hydrate, Exercise, Respiratory and Sleep.

Children and musical theatre: Amelia Carr looked at the impact of MT culture on young performers and explored ways to enhance their performance without causing anxiety.

Introducing vocal impro to students: Jazz virtuoso (and iSingmag contributor) Antonio De Lillis explored how to introduce improvisation to singing students.

Treating injured singers: Sharon Mari (another iSingmag contributor) looked at strategies for the treatment of injured singers from the perspective of a vocal rehab coach.

Depression and the singer: Maia Hendrickx looked at the link between mental health and voice quality.

My takeaway

Conferences like these are so important if we are to progress vocal pedagogy and the experience of singing students.

The over-riding lesson I came away with was this: we as singing teachers need to constantly ask ourselves why we teach what we teach.

Are we teaching something because we know it’s true? Is there evidence to show it works? Or are we repeating and reinforcing ideas because that’s what we were taught or that was our own personal experience?

What some of the research at the conference highlighted was that some things singers are taught don’t really stack up to scientific scrutiny. It’s up to us to challenge, explore and innovate.