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The 2009 Voice Foundation Conference - a trip report

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The 38th annual symposium on the Care of the Professional Voice took place June 3-7 in Philadelphia. Our hosts were Bob Sataloff , Chairman of the Board, and the staff of the The Voice Foundation. Ray Miller and I spent the evenings with our good friends from Maine who now live on the edges of Fairmount Park in the extreme northwest corner of the city -- a truly beautiful, tranquil place on the banks of the Wissahickon River and the bluffs overlooking the Schuylkill River.

We arrived after our 8-hour drive down from Maine just as the conference opened, with Dr. Sataloff's traditional warm welcoming and his overview of the complex physiology involved in phonation. This background proves essential to understanding and participating in the rest of the week, and establishes a common framework of language and understanding between speakers and listeners.

Christy Ludlow, TMV member Ron Scherer, Rahul Shrivastav, Johan Sundberg and Sten Ternstram followed with a variety show of practical and delightful explanations of how the voice is produced and how we perceive it with our ears and brain. This afternoon session is alone worth a million dollars for the neophyte, and hundreds of people -- PhDs, grad students and men-on-the-street -- learn and share new ideas in the field of voice -- a tiny subsection of overall medicine, but a very personal and important one to those of us who sing or speak for a living, or who have lost our voice at one time or another.

Thursday was an all day sharing of the latest scientific findings presented by the researchers themselves, with a lot of give-and-take and audience questions followed by truly expert answers. This is a pricless opportunity for young researchers to share the limelight with seasoned and recognized experts, and out of it comes entire new ideas for further -- and new -- research.

Midday is an opportunity each year for a major presentation by a keynote speaker presenting extremely current and relevant research findings. This year's speaker was Chuck Larson, who's spent a large part of his career studying the control systems that affect the voice and the laryngeal system as a whole. Through research in monkeys, he's traced the mechanisms of control, from the brain to the larynx, and today he presented all-new work on the role of hearing in pitch control -- an obviously critical aspect of singing.

Needless to say, he went home with a set of HearFones to include in his future studies.

Thursday afternoon is a time for viewing and asking questions about posters representing research from a host of researchers, many of whom could not be afforded the opportunity for live presentations. All sorts of really interesting topics are presented, and the researchers are right there to discuss their work with anyone who drops by. Are all Breathing Strategies Equal? a Field Report on Children's Voices Acoustic and Physiological Properties of Yodeling, One-Year Follow-Up of the LAX-VOX Tube Therapy, What Do Professioanl Voice Users Learn about Vocal Use, and a hundred other topics were presented.

Thursday night was the opportunity to attend a master class given by famous voice teacher and singer John Burrows who's established numerous programs for young professional singers including the Lyric Opera of Dallas. Witnessing how such a person can coach singers of great talent to be even better, right in front of your eyes, is an amazing experience!

Friday opened with an all-morning session on What You Need to Know About Speaking in Public -- an excellent presentation on the psychological as well as physiological factors that affect peoples speaking experience, and Friday afternoon was filled with half-hour workshops over at the Academy of Vocal Arts including master classes, rehabilitation of the injured singing voice, body movement (Alexander technique, etc.) and dozens of other vital topics.

Saturday is a hectic jam session of dozens of 15-minute medical presentations, broken at lunch by a full hour presentation by this year's G. Paul Moore lecturer, who this year was Michael Benninger -- a long-time researcher and currently Chairman of the Head and Neck Institute in Cleveland. Dr. Benninger offered us a priceless inside view of Evidence-Based Medicine including the research and the people who perform it as well as the people who control it. Everyone was rolling in their chairs with laughter as he related the language of PhD-speak and stories of medicine not-so-research based. My favorite was the parachute-use research which, due to the lack of randomized double-blind clinical trials, was deemed inconclusive and thus contraindicated the use of parachutes.

A great citation of this story, extracted from the British Medical Journal, appears at:


After Dr. Benninger's talk, the day continued with similar jam-sessions on Speech-Language and Vocal Pedagogy, including a study from Hong Kong on whether there's any relation between the resonance we feel while singing and any actual vibration that takes place in what music teachers have come to call the mask.

Sunday was a continuation of Saturday afternoon. There was a great session presented by Johan Sundberg together with TMV member Lisa Popeil on analyzing five different musical theater belting styles, giving all kinds of data and examples of these -- heavy, brassy, ringy, nasal and speech-like. Who would have thought it? And who better to explain it -- and demonstrate it -- than Lisa herself with her ear-to-ear, bright-eyed smile?

This group of people is surely among the best, most friendly and welcoming groups in the entire world. Both Ray and I have enjoyed every year we've attended, and learned more than we could have imagined. The recent mutual recognition of this TMV community and the Voice Foundation has tremendous potential for all of us who sing, and who love singing, and we couldn't encourage you each enough to consider joining the Foundation. Their dues for Associate Membership are very reasonable and offer you the opportunity to truly get involved in the world of the vocalist at the highest level.

Pete Mickelson -- 25JUN09


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