With a passion for voice research, Lisa Popeil, one of America’s top voice experts, has conducted numerous scientific studies over the past 20 years, often using technology such as MRI scanners to observe the detailed workings of her own voice. The LA-based vocal coach spoke to iSing Magazine about the joys and importance of research for the voice.
iSing: What does singing voice research involve?
Lisa Popeil: Attempts to visualise the vocal folds began in 1807 with mirrors and sunlight and later with magnified candlelight. Contemporary research uses all sorts of interesting equipment such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), video-fluoroscopy (video X-rays), high-speed videos, stroboscopy (which uses flashing light to see the vocal folds once per second), ultrasound, and EMG (electro-myography) which uses pads or needles into muscles to determine which muscles are working more or less.
Not all research investigates singing or speaking voice specifically. Some work investigates the biology of various tissues, surgical techniques or compares healthcare approaches to medical problems.
Those of us interested in singing look at how the different parts of the vocal mechanism move. This includes the larynx (voice box), the vocal folds and the vocal tract, the spaces above the larynx like the throat, nose and mouth.
iSing: What research have you done to date?
LP: I’ve been interested in voice science since 1977 when I first got to see my vocal folds and started finding collaborators in 1995. Since then, I’ve been able to analyse the patterns of my vocal folds using high speed videos. I’ve compared frequencies in different styles like pop, rock, opera and soul. I’ve seen my insides while singing (great for Halloween) and have been able to share ideas and talk shop with some of the greatest minds in the voice community. I still have many questions though.
iSing: What has surprised you the most in your findings?
LP: In voice research, one hopes to validate what one feels or imagines is going on. And that’s not always the case. Sometimes we’re surprised at what shows up in the videos. For instance, I had no idea that my hyoid bone (the little horseshoe-shaped bone at the very top of the neck) was such an active little bugger. Back in 2006, I spent a couple of days in an MRI in Osaka, Japan, comparing classical versus belting voice production. It turns out that in the belting mode, my hyoid bone was higher and, most importantly, more forward than I had imagined. Once I could see that, then I could easily feel that motion with my finger against the hyoid bone.
When singing with vibrato, almost all the tissue from my jawbone to my collarbone undulates along with laryngeal up-and-down wiggling. Who knew?
Another surprise was how much the larynx moves with every pitch (up for higher pitches, down for lower pitches). So even when your larynx feels stable, it’s still actually moving.
iSing: What are the advantages of voice research?
LP: Learning about the voice through research is an honour and I take it very seriously. The questions we singers and teachers have asked for centuries are finally being answered but, in terms of our knowledge, it’s still early days. There’s so much more to investigate.
In the past, the teaching of singing has been based mostly on imagery, “placement” and guesswork. As we learn more, we may need to rethink all our preconceptions and terminology when teaching people to sing.
iSing: What are the limitations of the research that has been conducted?
LP: Most of the singers who participate in voice research projects are classical singers, meaning they’ve studied and perform in an operatic style. For women, that means they’re singing in “head voice”. Very little research has been done on commercial singers – those who sing pop, rock, R&B, jazz, country and musical theatre belting. That’s a problem.
Also, for a study to have scientific validity, every project must include a large number of participants. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to be published at all, as a one-person study is generally not considered good science.
Finally, we don’t yet have the perfect equipment to visualise everything in a safe way. I’ve been exposed to a lot of radiation and my European colleagues have made me promise not do any more radiation projects.
iSing: Has voice research affected your singing?
LP: Strangely, none of the research has made a difference to how I sing, but it’s made me so much more confident in my teaching since I know more about what’s going on underneath the hood (a.k.a. the bonnet).
iSing: What areas of the singing voice require further study?
LP: More needs to be learned about vibrato, vocal registers (chest voice, head voice and whistle register) and the mechanics of “belting”. These are relevant and useful topics which impact millions of singers and we are only beginning to understand the mechanisms.
iSing: How can vocalists sing with longevity and health?
- Don’t ignore where the action is: your vocal folds. Learn to “feel” your vocal folds so you can protect them from harm.
- Precise abdominal support (upper belly out, lower belly in) is the best way to control the closure and steady vibration of your vocal folds.
- Vibrato is a laryngeal mechanism, not an accident. Choose when to use vibrato rather than just letting it happen.
- Don’t push through vocal fatigue. Swollen vocal folds are a sign to stop singing and speaking. If you sing a lot, you’ll need to rest your voice a lot.
Lisa Popeil, creator of Voiceworks® Method is based in Los Angeles and offers private lessons in-person and via Skype. She is an expert in commercial voice technique and performance.
For free vocal tip videos, visit her YouTube channel.