The voice box is a complex, and vital organ in the human body. It allows air to reach the lungs, protects the windpipe from food and liquid contents, allows us to cough up foreign objects and sputum from the lungs, and perhaps above all produce a voice.
Producing a voice efficiently for the function of communication and singing is especially important for music students with the voice as their primary instrument. Essentially vocal athletes, these students’ academics and future careers are dependent on their ability to study and perform challenging musical literature which requires dedication to their craft and a lot of time in the practice rooms.
Unfortunately, like any athlete, getting hurt is sometimes part of the journey of becoming a professional singer. Like other injuries to the body, vocal injuries require proper rehabilitation and care just like a broken bone or torn ACL.
Dr. Micheal Hammer at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders has been seeing patients with a range of vocal health issues raning from neurological voice disorders to cancer.
“All throughout school I loved music and I love science. In undergrad I double majored in voice performance and biology,” says Hammer. “What I realized I wanted to do is learn as much as I could about vocal performance and music technique because I didn’t know if that was going to be the next stage of my career.”
Hammer’s academic journey went from thinking about a career in the performing arts to a career in healthcare – specifically in caring for those who struggled with vocal health. As he went through his undergraduate degree, he continued the love of being a vocal performance major at the conservatory in Kansas City, however, his passion for science did not cease.
“Where I went to school at the conservatory in Kansas city it also had a neighboring medical school, so most of my friends in the dormitory were either music majors or medical students,” he says. “I remember some of the medical books my friends would have that I would actually borrow from them to read more while I was also learning languages and diction.”
Despite this desire to study science, he put it on the back burner to continue the pursuit of his vocal performance degree, but later on in his undergraduate years still gravitated toward the physiology of the larynx and its mechanism. Many years later he is now a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders here at UW-Whitewater.
“Dr. Hammer reached out to the voice area when he first joined the faculty at UW-Whitewater and we’ve collaborated on a number of projects each year since then. For the past several years we’ve held combined workshops for World Voice Day on April 16. It’s a day of international celebration of the artistry, pedagogy, and health of the human voice,” says voice area assistant professor and Voice Academy Director Rachel Wood. “These collaborations bring together our voice students and graduate students in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department. Graduate students interview and provide vocal health strategies for the voice students, and the voice students share vocal warm-ups and singing voice exercises with the COMDIS students. It’s a wonderful learning experience all around: the voice students have an opportunity to explain more fully their daily singing routines, share vocal concerns, and pose questions about vocal anatomy and function to the COMDIS students. The COMDIS students, in turn, answer their questions and address concerns.”
The term “vocal athletes” is something you will hear in Dr. Wood’s studio quite a bit and among those with experience in singing like Dr. Hammer. The analogy is most often used to refer to professional voice users who use their voices extensively or who need highly detailed or exacting sounds. These activities place demands on their voice the same way as athletes place demands on their bodies to achieve athletic success.
“The concept of vocal athletes is very important because, for instance, I do a lot of serious kayaking and if I expect to just go out this afternoon and I haven’t done any exercise for a while that’s probably a risk factor that I might get injured,” says Hammer. “First, I probably need to work on things like flexibility and strength and technique and those kinds of things physically before I go run a marathon.”
He also recommends that it is important for young singers to not only practice a lot, but practice smarter, focusing on your diet, what irritates the voice, and getting to know and experiment with your instrument.
“Something that a lot of instrumentalists don’t understand is that you can’t pack up your instrument into a nice case and leave it at home,” he says. “When you are a vocalist your instrument goes wherever you go and is exposed to the same elements that you are exposed to so we have to take extra care when taking care of our instrument.”
Those who have a background in voice all agree that having a holistic approach to singing and caring for the voice. Because the voice is a part of the body every part of the body affects the effectiveness of the voice’s performance.
“When I work with my students, I’m observing not just how they use their singing voices, but I’m also listening for the health and resonance of the speaking voice, observing how they breathe, how they carry themselves, etc. If they’re tired, stressed, upset, in a good head space—all of this impacts how they sing,” says Wood.
Whether young or old, the voice is an extremely important part of the human body that allows humans to do a multitude of activities everyday, which can be as difficult as serenading an audience with the Arias of Mozart or uttering the words “I love you” to friends and family. In any case, it is important for all to take care of their vocal life so that the simple joys of hearing one’s own voice and the voices of loved ones is never compromised.
To learn more about the work of both the UW- Whitewater Department of Sciences and Disorders and UW-Whitewater Music Department’s Voice Area visit https://www.uww.edu/coeps/comdis and https://www.uww.edu/coac/academics/music.