This continued conversation with Laurel Irene and David Harris of Voice Science Works delves into judgment culture, the emotion of singing, as well as our evolving understanding of vocal registers.


Voice Science Works

Vocal Registers

Episode Transcript

Episode 106 – Voice Science Works Part 2

John: Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Okay, today is part two of my interview with Laurel Irene and David Harris of Voice Science Works and part one has gotten some pretty good response. Laurel and David have a beautiful way of marrying science and the art of singing and the emotional context of singing. And you really do need to spend some time at their website Voice Science Works. If you go to for episode 106, I’ll put the link to their site as well as to a specific page that they get into in this episode which is that the language of vocal registers and understanding vocal registers and they really do take a beautiful look at how we negotiate these ideas of chest voice and head voice and what they really mean.

It’s really worth a read. And speaking of science, my own course, the New Science of Singing is going to be having an update coming up very, very soon. I’m in the midst of recording and editing videos and I go into some newer scientific concepts that I think are very useful. So if you already have the course, not to worry, you will get those updates automatically free of charge. They will just, I will announce it and they’ll be there in the course for you. And if you don’t have the course, stay tuned for these major updates. I’m pretty excited. And without further ado, here is part two of my interview with Voice Science Works. I am back with Laurel Irene and David Harris, and Voice Science Works. Thank you again for joining me.

Laurel: Glad to be back.

John: Well, I want to continue this fascinating conversation on voice science. And you know, I have to say that the thing that’s really, I wouldn’t say surprising but just really pleases me, is how much you focus on the neuroscience. And it’s not just hard numbers and it’s not just looking at the voice through spectrograms and all of those things, but really understanding how it functions within the singer because you’re both performers, you’re both singers and we’re both active choir director, etcetera. So you have your feet in both trenches. Actually teacher, performer and science.

Laurel: And that’s then a conversation that’s really interesting to us lately is, you know, the number of practitioners that voice is their world, and they want to talk about the voice and helping their voices, and go so deep into this field, but have maybe stopped singing themselves or don’t find that joy, wouldn’t even define themselves as a singer. And that’s also not a one definition word. But that’s something actually we just even threw up on Facebook a couple of weeks ago and we’re really interested in all the responses from fellow practitioners who kind of were just exploring, why don’t I sing anymore.

David: It was very emotional. I felt kind of like I’ve been given this gift to walk into these very vulnerable places with many people I knew, some I didn’t, kind of around the world who had intense, crisp stories about, this used to be my world and I quit and here’s why. And, some said, and now I’ve been trying to figure out how to walk back into it and thanked me for asking the question. And some said, I don’t know what this means anymore. I have to walk away, or I’m gonna like lose myself. You know and why, I mean, many of these people have we’ve heard them, we’ve been blessed by the gift of their voice. And that’s kinda why I asked too, is like, it feels like a burden to me as someone who regularly encourages people to explore their voice, to feel like there’s a wall up with these gorgeous gifts that there’s no way in, and I know that’s a lot of my own psychology, but you know, that’s what I was asking why and it is a heavy thing and that’s all in the brain and it’s all in how we process experience and what we went through as vocalists, all that stuff. But it is massive in our community to think about as important.

John: Well, think about it once you start teaching, once you say, I’m a voice teacher, now suddenly everything that emanates from you, there’s an expectation of– And so, you know, in voice teachers, anytime you’re teaching or they get up to sing in front of others, there’s almost this apology that they feel they need to beforehand. It’s just people you feel, whether it’s in your own head or how true it is that you’re being looked at in a different way, judged in a different way and it’s no longer just expression.

Laurel: I mean that’s like so many auditions to get a collegiate position. You give a 30-minute concert and then 30-minute masterclass. And to me that’s always looked like the most terrifying combination of like, first I’m going to prove I can do it and then I can earn the right to tell you you aren’t doing it. But I think the word you use judgment is actually the problem. That’s kind of the source of all this is once you bring it into the room, it could apply to anyone.

David: Even if it’s a positive judgment, even if you’re great is what you say.

Laurel: Yeah. Like if I’m putting that on someone else, as a course could come back to me cause it’s, it doesn’t discern it. Judgement’s there, it can hit any target. I think I was thinking of example of, growing up female with, if your mom or other kind of role model women in your lives start degrading their body shape. It’s not about them. It’s that you now know, Oh, that could hit me at any point. Even if she told me I’m beautiful right now. What if I ever am not this shape then, you know, she’s introduced these judgement words and therefore, I have to be on the lookout for them at all times. And I think that goes with the way we judge others voices. And then therefore that judgment could at any point reflect back on ourselves. And of course it does.

David: I’m just pausing to take that in, like what Laurel’s story– That’s really heavy, that– being in and around a space where this thing that you identify with, that you love and care about is constantly under scrutiny in this weighted way. And that we see that as the portal to progress it. Of course, it waves everybody down and you know, that’s one of the reasons we liked the idea of curiosity. And you know, the scientific method is nonjudgmental. It’s, I don’t know, let’s throw it against the wall and see if it sticks in this order. And that gives us the chance to say, you don’t have to be perfect. In fact, perfection doesn’t exist. Let’s try this. And it’s not like it’s a random, because we’re trying this in an ordered fashion and looking for measurables. But that’s so much more effacing and refreshing and connecting than just hearing good, bad, ugly all the time.

And it’s, yeah, I mean it’s really a deep personal question, not a methodological question. I want to exist in a space where I feel free to explore and where I can be vulnerable in front of the people that I’m creating with. And if I want that, then how do I create a space where I can trust myself, I can trust others and they can trust me and each other? That’s where it all starts. And, then, all of the things we explore serve that goal and the goal of our own personal like desire to see what we can do. You know well, I want to be able to do that. I wonder how I get there. Let’s start.

John: And so science is only the tool. It’s the tool. Because I’ve heard criticisms where someone will say, you, if you read a science book that you’re not going to learn to sing. I was like, okay, that’s true. But what tools are in there that can help me sing, that can help me understand?

David: And it’s also that, you know, each of those tools, the books, the videos, the lessons, all those tools are also inundated with the same judgment culture. And so it’s not that we’re not suggesting we get rid of the entire vocal world, but that we acknowledge that we have inherited a world that is steeped in judgment. And that wasn’t done maliciously. It makes sense. It was an honest build because what we had as access was our ears. And our conscious mind, and we didn’t have a whole lot of other stuff to help guide us, but the void science revolution, the neuroscience revolution, the sports science and body science revolutions that have occurred in the last 20, 30 years have changed the paradigm for us so that we can practice in a healthy way.

And I say that emotionally, physically, mentally healthy way that allows us to identify with this key element of our identity, which is our voice. And it allows us to take the kind of, you know, Oh, that person thinks I don’t off the table, our voices work. How do you want to coordinate it? And then we can use the tools that we want, recognizing that a lot of those are going to still have that judgment language around them and we’re going to have to read through it. And that’s going to be okay because that’s still where we inherited.

John: It’s kind of like that idea of we threw the dart against the side of the barn and then painted the bullseye. And so we’ve had this ideal, and what science does, it goes, Hey, there’s a whole side of the barn here. The dart can land in other places and let’s see. And with that understanding how far we can push this and okay, it, will they start to cause physical damage. Why is this version of it causing damage and this not, are there voices that can handle this and other voices that can not, you know. And I think that to me dropping that aspect of judgement certainly there are musical styles that have certain aesthetics that you have to maintain, but there are other styles are being invented and opened up all the time.

David:  Well, and you know, going back to the brain, we talk a lot about emotion and the limbic system, that’s the emotion center of the brain. And it’s influence on the voice cause it’s direct. And that you actually, we had this discussion, Atlanta, you know, no matter what the style is, no matter what the era, I think every person on the planet who’s paid attention to a voice user, a speaker, an actor, a singer, has seen someone with what you might call perfect technique and been impressed by their technical prowess but not necessarily moved. And we’ve seen someone who was sloppy and you know, technically all over the place and just couldn’t quit crying, you know, and that says something about us and it says something about them and that’s just a reality of the experience. And it’s because technique isn’t just about coordinating the vocal folds, it’s about the whole system and it’s about communication and it’s about sharing and those things go way deeper than the TA muscles.

Laurel: Yeah, yeah,

John: Yeah. This is good stuff. I’m often struck when I’m teaching, there are times when when somebody start working material and they just connect to it in a way that I find myself no longer teaching. My brain now is in a completely different place. And I’m just being communicated to. You know, and it becomes a struggle of, I can’t start crying. This person’s paying for my time. But you could even, with the vocal faults and maybe there’s things that need to be adjusted or they’re struggling with and it’s like, yeah, but man, you’re making me feel some kind of way.

Laurel: And we talked a lot about exploring different styles of singing and the idea of feeling like authentic in them. Like I’m someone who, if I’m making fun or like playing around with other styles, I’ve actually can sound pretty convincing in them. But if I tell myself, Laurel, you must belt. I like kinda shut down. But if I’m, you know, making fun of someone who’s doing a different style than I’m used to, I can physically do it. But so that’s telling me that it’s not about like my biology cannot sing in this style. It tells me I’m not like really relating which may be the emotional motivation that goes into the sounds of that style. And so it doesn’t feel “authentic” to me in that moment. And so I have to do it in the form of play or pretending to be someone else.

David: Until you get to a where you feel like, okay, now I’m starting to understand why this sound makes sense. Playing with it at first gives us a space to kind of be silly until it starts to make sense to us emotionally and physically.

Laurel: But just that idea of the motivation that got people into making those sounds, past the part of it or else you are just, it’s not just the physical coordination.

David:  And I just read in again, the body keeps score and felt really vindicated because, Laurel and I, one of the things we do a lot of time is after, you know, some singing happens, we’ll ask people to breathe and just notice their breath for a second before we start talking and then ask, what did you notice and medical, it says, you know, in therapy there were really two questions. What did you notice? And where will you take that? And I thought, that’s the voice world. That’s the voice where I want to live in. And what did you notice? And what are you going to do with it? And because that, you know, then it’s off of us and you can cry all you want and you can show that vulnerability and that emotion say, you know, right there in that moment I was so moved.

Thank you for that. What did you notice? And after they respond to, you know, what are we going to do with that? How are we going to see if that can happen again? You know, and if they say, you know, well, I really, when I noticed that a lot of people say, well, you know, I really didn’t hit that high note. Say, okay, we noticed that. What else You know, and let that be part of a larger conversation and then moved back around with let’s play with something that might help with that high note for next time, but we don’t want to lose that emotional thing that you saw by drilling the F-sharp over and over again.

John: Right. So taking this idea of people who are stressing out, they’re thinking about their goals, career, what they want to achieve, their lessons, trying to understand the science but that idea of it has to stay fun. There has to be joy within that. I love that jumping over to voice terminology and just one of a quote I love that I kind of paraphrase is a Frank Zappa and he said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I find that within teaching voice and discussing voice vocal terms and just the debate, even just words like belts or words like mix. It means different things to different people. Where do you see this going to where, you know, now we start to have scientific terms of, you know, M1, M2 replacing such terms as chest and head and where do you think this is all going to land so that we can all communicate more effectively.

Laurel: I think, as the, as the topic we’ve been discussing a lot actually, and again, I think the first step is to not use new information to validate an old way of thinking. So now we’re like, well, I’ve got these new words. Yeah, M1, M2, TA dominant, CT dominant. I will now just copy and paste them over my concepts of how to jazz. And I’ve now progressed but there was a problem with head and chest that wasn’t the words, it was the way of thinking that got us into a place where we believe that there’s only two chambers that exist in the voice and that exists on this line. And if I’m more head, I’m less chest and these either or, and if something comes along, it must exist upon this invisible line that I treated between these two concepts of timbre.

David: Except there’s an escape bubble that we’ll call mix. But that’s everything else. Let’s go back to head and chest.

Laurel: I’m less interested in the word itself, but what the word, what kind of belief or thinking does that word imply. And to me, so many of the words that we have inherited around the voice imply polarity and either or, and when we actually look at sound, we see that sound is both and sound is both dark and bright at the same time. It’s loud and soft. It’s a forward and back. Any word, any polarity word become up with that we’ve used to describe the voice they’re all existing at once. And so, no matter if we’re using new scientific terms and they fit into that old paradigm of I have to check a box, it’s this or that, and then that’s the only thing I’m ever going to listen for. And therefore the only thing I’m ever going to be able to kind of create an only listening for this or that, I can’t actually ever hear the full complexity. That’s kind of the conversation I’d want to address first besides rather than, Oh yeah, what are we going to call it? What even is it?

David: Well, we actually, it took us, when Laurel and I first met, we were in Salt Lake city working with Ingo Titze, at the National Center of Voice and Speech. And, but then a couple of days we had a conversation about creating a website, the website that eventually became Voice Science Works, and the first thing I was excited about was this question, how do we let the world kind of open into the idea of, you know, head voice and chest voice don’t have to exist necessarily. And if they do, they don’t have to have the weight that they do. But it took us four years to actually write the page because we kept bumping up into something that sounded punitive and that sounded like we were attacking people’s language choices, which is, you know, people have language. And it’s important because that’s what has allowed us, as Stephen Hawking said, to evolve much faster than our DNA is our ability to communicate with language and it’s better or worse.

But the, well, our page and we actually pages about more about language than anything, but we use vocal registration as a metaphor. We use the metaphor of vocal registration as a conduit to discuss language. And, one of the parts of that page is, addresses the idea of TDP and CDP, which are, I think I put those, that acronym in the wrong order, but you get the idea. It’s just another like in M1 M and M2, whatever I know acronym to replace head voice, chest voice, and what we’ve heard.  

John: We should probably explain what M1 and M2 for listeners since I threw it out there without any context. 

David: Since advanced laryngoscopy and the work of people like Titze and Brad Story have advanced to a level that we all kind of access to it, people started to realize that, there was a moment in vocalizing when more of the vocal folds were in contact, and a moment in vocalizing when less of the vocal folds were in contact. This is kind of the simplest way of talking about it. And, there had already been an understanding, or the metaphor of head voice and chest voice existed, and chest voice carried connotations of heavier, weightier, thicker and this kind of thing. And head voice was lighter, flutier, those kind of things. And so when we could see with the laryngoscopy that there’s more, that vocal folds actually look thicker in what we would call chest voice. And they actually looked thinner in what we call head voice. People are like, yeah, that’s it. That does it. Well then some people were like, yeah, but there’s gotta be more there.

It’s, yeah, we understand this registration thing’s important, but we need to call it something more scientific so we can really get to the heart of it. So then they started replacing head voice, chest voice with things that sounded scientific like mode and, again, you can read through. We actually go through a history of that on that page so basically it’s scientific, like Laurel was saying, scientific replacement or replacement of an old metaphor with a new scientific term is what kind of happened. 

John: Which makes sense. But from the researcher’s standpoint, they can’t use term chest and head that came back for do either the folds, but is it more the acoustics or is it the singer sensation like what does it mean? 

David: And to Laurel’s point, one of the things that I find most fascinating, a very new research document was put out I think last year, maybe a couple of years ago, that plus the document that I mentioned in our last session together. The story and article show that actually the way we’ve noticed most people using the CT and TA idea – mode one, mode two – is that when the TA muscle, which is the muscle that thickens and shortens the vocal folds, when it’s engaged, the CT muscle is unengaged. That’s how people tend to have thought about it, we’ve noticed. Kind of like, they think of it like a bicep tricep — use your biceps, your triceps relax; use your tricep, your biceps relax. But with the CT-TA antagonism, it’s constant. It’s going back and forth all the time. And what this one researcher discovered is that actually the CT muscle is more engaged for almost all vocalizations than the TA muscle. There’s just more of it in play at all times. And so just like I was saying, the binary–

John: Even on the lowest notes?

David: Every now and again you’ll get TA.

And then there are times like at the bottom of your range, what Story, and I emailed Brad to ask him, I was like, am I reading your research right, that there are times when CT and TA kind of quit, and he said, yeah, and you can still keep phonating down below that because you’re using the arytenoid muscles and other coordinations, because that antagonism doesn’t function like that at some point.

John: I’m sorry. And for the listener, just so you know, so the TA muscle is the muscle within the folds themselves. They shorten and thicken and make them fatter, and then the CT are the ones that thin and stretch.

David: And they’re outside of the voice box. And it’s miraculous that that stuff happens. Anyway, but I guess to the point of language.

Laurel: It’s so complex. The muscle interaction is complex. Even if you kind of simplify it as a visual for yourself, but then you read more research about what it’s actually doing and realize, wow, it’s not a 50-50 trade off and then 70-30 like it’s, everything’s doing everything all at once and it’s just amazing that it stretches and thickens the little folds into different configurations that we can sing, you know, five plus octaves and six different genres and then all these crazy sounds. Like it just– when I listened to someone’s voice and play around with all the sounds I can make, there are not two boxes and there’s not two categories and there’s not even two muscle groups. There are five. So the fact that with this new information, we’re still wanting to fit it in to the two categories, that tells me that we’re stuck on that idea and we’re not actually listening to all the sound possibilities. And then we’re not actually looking at all the muscular and acoustic combinations that there are. Cause there’s just not two.

David: But to go back to a question you had before, which was, about what do you pay attention to? If we just rob people of their language, we’d leave them incredibly vulnerable and afraid because, you know, we’re not just taking language away, but what Laurel was saying is we look for ways to create experiences so that people can do something that they can then we can ask the question, what did you notice? They can talk about that if we want to guide them toward noticing other things, like with listening, focusing on certain harmonics, et cetera, then we let them give that language. We give language to that experience so that they have terminology that makes sense to them. And if it happens to be something that’s more traditional, then we’ll just talk about, what all does that mean to you?

If they say, well, that was my chest voice. Okay. What does that mean to you because that’s a pretty broad term and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people then if it’s a new term. But that was like my bubble comes down. Cool. Can you describe that a little more? Just so that we understand it and we can use it with them. And that helps people to start to recognize that language isn’t an iron box that you can’t get out of, but it’s a tool that we can develop and craft and even let go. There are words that we used to use. We don’t use it anymore. That’s okay.

John: So talking about research and where it’s going, what I find fascinating is when I was first looking into vocal science, and I mainly work with contemporary singers, contemporary music, all the research seemed to be on classical, especially for female singers. And I’m looking into more intense contemporary styles or you’re looking into screaming, there was really nothing that seems to be changing and a really good                 way, where do you see, do you see the research just continuing to open up to more and more styles and types of singing?

Laurel: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s really helping, the medical field too, cause I think the word healthy has been kind of co-opted by a single style, which would be, you know, Western classical. And that we, yeah, often the aesthetic that goes– the aesthetic preference that goes with that is, just said that’s good, that’s good technique, that’s healthy, that’s how you preserve your voice. So I think, yeah, definitely opening up that word and, kind of the rubric, maybe the medical field would use for “healthy” is very helpful. And I think just with music in general, so much genre bending and combining and, that there’s not just one aesthetic for jazz or opera or, you know, there’s, new contemporary gospel opera and music is something we’re very interested in, as composers and as performers. And that’s all about, you know, combining lots of different sounds. There’s no longer just one aesthetic that is looked for. So I think the research and the science is kind of following those trends as well.

David: And I would say historically speaking, it was voice science that really opened the door for contemporary vocal instruction to even exist. I mean, it is true that much of the research still coming out of academic institutions is still focused on classical singing because there’s still a tradition there. But as you notice, there are institutions that are dedicating resources toward what other sounds can happen. There are, you know, plenty of belting studies. There are a lot of that came because in the 80s when– once Ingo and others put out pictures of the vocal folds and said, here are the mechanics. This is what’s happening. People like Jo Estill and Seth Riggs and Jeanie LoVetri and who were all like looking for a way to say, well, I know this stuff works, all of a sudden had a little bit of science to stand on and they just took it to the back.

And that opened the world to what was already a massive industry, but it made it more valid in the academic world and kind of leveled the playing field that had been stacked against contemporary vocalists since, you know, long before recording existed. So, and there were lots of sociological things that kind of work into that, but I see voice sciences, historically it’s a space where the opportunity for making different sounds really opened to more people who are interested in applying it. And I think we’ve just seen that continue to grow. And people like ourselves and like yourself who’s saying, yeah, the sounds are out there, let’s go find them for you if you want them and then other people who specialize just to making one sound and you know, but who are acknowledging this is the sound that I make and this is the sound that I teach maybe. I’ll hook you up with a friend who does this other thing. If you want to learn that that exists a lot too. Just that dialogue feels like a very different world than the one I grew up in.

John: I agree. I was, I’m just talking on a previous podcast, about the conference I spoke at, but it seems to be now the idea of science and science seems to be, it’s like Switzerland for voice teachers, where the cans can kind of come to this neutral, nonjudgmental place where there just exists knowledge as we currently understand it. And then just, okay, so how do I fit in with that and how do you, and then it’s no longer defending my term or defending my technique or style or that’s unhealthy. Yeah. It’s just there’s something new happening and there’s something happening even though you still see the squabbles the voice teacher forms, et cetera. But I also think that’s just passionate people that really want to help others. And it comes from a good place, but they’re very, you know, we’re performers. We’re excitable.

Laurel: Yeah. And yeah, the form of Facebook comments is, you know, yeah.

John: Well there’s a whole nother thing about neuroscience and social media and the hacking of the brain and, and the horrible stuff that’s going on there for another day. I want to thank you both so much for coming on. Is there anything that you would like my listeners to go check out? Any workshops you have upcoming or, I know we talked about your… is it–

David: Listen Up.

Laurel: Yeah. Listen Up package, you can email us directly about that. is our site with tons of resources, articles, videos. One big goal is just to drive people to all the other resources out there. And we’ve got a whole section on who else is doing what other conferences, courses across the world. And then all of the free information that we were constantly updating.

David: We do a, what we call it, voice science crash course. we do it a couple times a year. We’ll do it in the fall.

John: You do those live, right? Video plus live.

David: Yeah. Then do a lot of the work. It’s a reverse classroom and then we do a live, we do live sessions where we play with it and kind of get into a lot of the things we’ve talked about. 

John: So people should get on your mailing list then. 

David: If they want to see that we do a curated newsletter once a month, an amazing job kind of saying, well, the new hot things in voice science, it’s really beautiful to look at and fun to click through.

Laurel: And then if you want to come sing in LA, we’re putting on a 10 day festival. It’s really focused around making and creating the music on top of exploring these topics on what’s called the Neo voice festival, new explorative oratorio. And so it’s for composers and vocalists and the composers are all coming and they’re writing, a new movement of a mass work in oratorio and we’re going to explore what it’s like to do quote unquote extended techniques and explore these new genres and music, working with composers, working and creativity and then how to apply voice science, as a singer and then as a composer. 

John: And you also just get to hang out with likeminded people.

Laurel: International community that’s all going to be in LA in August. Yeah.

David: And they are all awesome people, so it’s going to be a good time

John: All right, well thank you again

David: Thank you, John. Always a pleasure.

John: If you find this podcast helpful, I’d love for you to help spread the word, share it with your friends, share it on social media. Just get out there and talk about it. I love seeing the audience grow. I love getting this information out there. You can also review it on wherever you subscribe, iTunes, Stitcher, etc. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye. Bye