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Preventive acoustic screening of amateur choral singers - University of York 2013 - 2015

This research programme has the following aims:

  • To conclusively investigate the vocal health of amateur choral singers
  • To evaluate the acoustic and physiological efficiency of vocal production in amateur choral singers

The research will advance innovation in the world of choral music by promoting life‐long learning and life‐long use of the voice, improving the health of vocalists, implementing preventive health measures, and improving the quality of vocal music.

 

http://www.elec.york.ac.uk/staff/dmh8.html

How healthy are choral singers’ voices?

This report gives initial findings into an ongoing study of amateur choral singers in the UK. Choral singing is an integral part of our history and culture. Participation in group-singing is an activity probably dating back about half a million years. We have a wealth of evidence from research to show that singing is beneficial to our overall health and welfare. This project is the first to look at the health of the voice in such detail.

Vocal Health?

Vocal health is in essence the health of the larynx or voicebox. The larynx contains the vocal folds: two tiny muscles covered in a complex layer of tissue. These beat together in the airstream provided by the lungs in order to generate sound. The sound is then converted to speech or song by the actions of the throat and mouth. The vocal folds are small, vulnerable, and essential for voice. If, for any reason, they are unhealthy, the voice will not be clear, loud or with an adequate pitch range.

 

What impacts vocal healfh?

Issues that are currently thought to have a possible impact on vocal health in choral singers are:

  • lack of training

  • inappropriate assignment (or self-selection) of choral part

  • and whether or not the choir warms up before rehearsal.

The majority of amateur choral singers do not have singing lessons and are therefore dependent on the leadership and skill of their conductors in guiding them towards an appropriate choral part and in use of voice during rehearsal so that they do not become vocally fatigued. We know that those who engage in choral singing are likely to do so for many years of their adult life, also that life expectancy worldwide is currently increasing. So an understanding of factors that contribute to vocal fatigue in choral singing will be of benefit, both socially and culturally.

 

 The research

This research project used a pyramid structure of evaluation; there were numerous different groups and a wide range of assessment.

 

An online questionnaire

At the most basic level, the project set up an online questionnaire, which had over 1150 replies.

The questions concerned the type of repertoire sung, the structure of rehearsals and the allocation of which voice part the singer was assigned. There were also questions about the health of the singing and the speaking voice both in and out of rehearsal.

 An assesment of two choirs

At the next level were assessments made of 120 singers’ voices in two choirs: one large traditional choral society and one smaller workplace community choir.

Audition requirements for these two choirs were different: for the more traditional choir, singers were expected to have some ability to read music and to be able to learn their parts quite quickly. For the workplace choir, the emphasis was more on enjoyment, and singers were only required to demonstrate a basic ability to ‘carry a tune’. All the choir singers filled in a detailed questionnaire and were recorded singing and speaking. At the most detailed level were 24 singers of all voice types. These singers were individually recorded throughout an entire rehearsal, and were also taken to a hospital voice clinic to have their larynx filmed to look at vocal health and behaviour.

 

The study has included five different types of assessment as devised by the Committee on Phoniatrics of the European Laryngological Society. These are:

  1. Perceptual: This evaluation of voice use is through listening, with the expert ears of a trained speech and language therapist. The voices are graded according to accepted levels of health and function.
  2. Physiological: High-definition stroboscopic filming of the vocal folds in action gives the most reliable method of assessing vocal health. The singers also had electroglottographic recordings of their larynx activity; this measures the behaviour of the vocal folds using small, low-voltage electrodes placed on the skin either side of the larynx.
  3. Acoustic Two acoustic evaluations were used: the first was the Voice Range Profile (VRP). The output from a voice range profile is presented as a phonetogram, which plots the singer’s dynamic range as a function of frequency. The phonetogram is widely regarding as giving a valid, reliable profile of an individual’s vocal capabilities in terms of control of pitch range (fundamental frequency) and loudness (intensity). The second measure used is a standard evaluation known as the Dysphonia Severity Index. This uses the information from the VRP in a calculation to give a single numerical figure to represent the singer’s vocal health.
  4. Aerodynamic efficiency: This assessment is simply the maximum time for which the singer can sustain a note.
  5. Subjective rating by the individual singer: The rating used was the Singer’s Vocal Health Index 10. This is a series of ten questions designed to evaluate the vocal health of the singer according to their own experience.

 

 

Applications for choral directors and singers…

 

The survey confirmed that the majority of choral singers do not take regular singing lessons. Therefore it is essential that conductors learn for themselves the basics of healthy singing voice, so that they can model effectively for their choirs and understand the challenges that their singers face during rehearsal. If this is not possible, regular workshops with singing voice professionals, (preferably those who are experienced at working with choral groups) is recommended.

 

The results of the survey demonstrated a significant level of association between wanting to change choral part and vocal fatigue. It is recommended that conductors and choral leaders pay attention to choir members who indicate that they are unhappy in their choral part (whether assigned or self-selected). Although our survey is not able to demonstrate a link between singer fatigue, age and choral part, the literature indicates that singers may need to change choral part as they get older #[1]#.

 

From the results of the survey it appears that more singers are engaged in singing classical music than in rock, pop and commercial styles. However, our results found no link between vocal fatigue and style of repertoire. This is good news for those singers who are not interested in singing classical music, since it supports the hypothesis that no one type of singing is more healthy than another.

 

The results of the survey indicated a significant level of association between speaking voice fatigue and singing voice fatigue. This is important information for both conductors and singers of choral music. It would be useful for choirs to have information sheets available on voice care and common voice problems such as those provided by the British Voice Association and similar organisations. These should be available for all choir members. Conductors should also listen to singers’ speaking voices for any underlying huskiness, creakiness or inability to project effectively, as these might be indicators of a tired speaking voice. Choral singers who do experience these are advised to practise a simple warm-up for speaking voice or to seek advice from a voice expert, particularly if they experience vocal fatigue regularly during or after choir rehearsals.

 

Professor David Howard, Dr Gillyanne Kayes, Dr Jenevora Williams and Dr Christian Herbst

 

 

 

#1. Smith, B. and R. Sataloff, Choral Pedagogy and the Older Singer2012: Plural Publishing Inc.#

 

 

 

The distribution of ages in the singers
The distribution of ages in the singers
The distribution of musical styles sung by the choirs in the survey
The distribution of musical styles sung by the choirs in the survey
The nature of the warm-up at the start of rehearsal
The nature of the warm-up at the start of rehearsal

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