There is no doubt that Johan Sundberg's "The Science Of The Singing Voice" stands out as among vocology texts. Sundberg brought us, in a particularly important moment in the development of the field, new clarity, a greater collection of studies, cunning insights, and a litany of new and newly-phrased questions that opened doors for countless explorations, many of which have played out over the thirty years since its publication. Reading it again recently I was struck by how this text did what a science text wants to do, in that it gave us the best understanding at the time, inspired new questions, and eventually became less current due to new discoveries that answered the questions it asks. In the decades since its publication, institutional bias has begun to shift, opening our imagination to the great wealth of vocal opportunities available to us. More and more people have taken up the vocology challenge, and put Sundberg's ideas to the test. Some of his assertions have stood up, and others haven't, but with his good natured approach and curiosity-focused book, he created a catalyst that inspired a new generation of vocalists to want to know more.
To the seemingly endless contention around breathing for voice users, Hixon brings a lifetime of research and significant informational girth. This book is certainly an important step in the respiration debate, if only to set a bar for technical discussion. Though interpretations will certainly abound, Hixon offers enough critical data to help settle some questions. Still, his viewpoint is decidedly of the twentieth century. As such, some of the contextualizing language (e.g. "control", "hold", "fix"), and even some of the driving questions (e.g. "how much should the rib cage expand"), beg to be reborn in a twenty-first century paradigm that includes significant laryngeal, acoustic, neurological, physiological and body mapping research and experience. In a concise document, Hixon has summed up the breadth of understanding of a century or more of “breath wars” among well-meaning pedagogues and practitioners by offering decades of research data to support and refute the principal claims that drove those conflicts. It has also opened a door for refreshed thinking on the topic of respiration, and more user friendly, community-supported consensus on the topic.
Although His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu don't cover vocology in The Book of Joy, it has significant interest to vocolgy enthusiasts. The book, dedicated to exploring “the goal of avoiding suffering and discovering happiness”, frequently references scientific research on the topic. Alongside the sage wisdom of the combined 165 years of spiritual leadership that these two men bring to the conversation, collaborating author Douglas Abrams helps to guide the reader’s experience by including contemporary neuroscience’s understanding of emotion, spirituality, and human interaction. The book reads like advice from the best friend that we all wish we had, and each page is notable and quote worthy.
In a field populated by avid researchers and skilled practitioners, the most common academic contributions tend to be those that advance the field in baby steps, offering a little more clarity to well-trodden paths. It is rare to find a radical shift in thought, one that opens considerably new opportunities for everyone. Ian Howell’s “Parsing the Spectral Envelope” is just such a work, however. Howell has tackled one of the longest-held, and most unsatisfying, concepts in musical science, namely, that sound is a combination of loudness, pitch, and timbre, with timbre being “everything else”. Not only has he tackled it, he’s given us definitions to work with that astound the imagination, and charts, graphs, and videos that so easily bring us into these new definitions that, after working with them for a few minutes, it’s hard to imagine how we’ve functioned without them until now. At VoiceScienceWorks, we’ve been using several of his definitions for almost a year, having been privy to his thought process in development, and they have profoundly altered the ways that we explain singing. Ian has opened the doors, now we all have the joy of walking through them to see what brilliant discoveries await. This relatively short piece may have just changed the way we understand the voice, forever. We can all be pleased to have lived to see such a moment.
For now, at least, you can download it for free (video links are listed in the body of the paper) here.
This is an important book. Although I disagree with Olson some of the time, she has organized her writing in a way that brings clarity and focus to the great choral director/singing instructor divide that has so plagued the voice habilitation world for all of my life, and presumably for long before. The conflict that she exposes creates a wonderful conversation for choral practitioners and voice teachers alike. Her attention to voice science and its role in helping to create options for singers can not be underscored enough. So much of the perceived need of the soloist community to define boundaries around their choral experiences comes directly from the actions of choral practitioners who, though they mean well and know much about their craft, continue to operate without requisite knowledge of the vocal instrument. They, therefore, create expectations on singers that force them to compromise their own understanding of their voices, or worse, to make unknown adjustments that habituate unpredictable patterns.