Grappling with Voice Science and Spectrographs in Downtown LA, by Catherine Fahy

In December of last year, Catherine Fahy completed her Researcher Employability Project with in Los Angeles. In this post, she reflects on the work she undertook and the valuable experience she gained from the project.

Catherine Fahy

Department of Music

University of York

Day to day I work on music and psychoanalysis in the works of Samuel Beckett at the University of York, so my choice of partner organisation took me a long way from home in more ways than one! While WRoCAH have offered a number of outstanding pre-designed REPs, I hoped to to use the REP opportunity to explore an area of long-standing personal interest: the human singing voice. I wanted to curate a project that would allow me to bring this interest into play with my development as a researcher and teacher in a music department. My aim was twofold: to really grasp the techniques behind engaging general audiences on specialist topics, and to further efforts to bring singing pedagogy into an academic arena in order to prevent the perpetuation of teaching damaging singing technique. This is an unfortunate but all too frequent occurrence that classical singers encounter. is a voice science accessibility platform in association with the University of Southern California, founded by Laurel Irene and Dr David Harris. Both have studied the scientific underpinnings of voice production with Professor Ingo Titze, the founder of the discipline we now call vocology (which brings together acoustics, phonetics, vocal therapy and singing pedagogy). The aim of the platform is to elucidate the scientific technicalities of the singing voice and make these understandable to non-specialist audiences. They do so though an interactive website, frequent public workshops and their work with a mixed choir of amateurs, enthusiasts and professionals, ran from First Congregational Church in downtown LA.. The voicescienceworks choir is an inspiring social inclusivity endeavour, which brings together a diverse range of individuals of all ages to learn from some of the most highly trained professional singers on the west coast of America. Collectively, they are driven by a commitment to help people better understand vocal technique and to address the inadequacies of singing teaching .

Together we developed and conducted a pilot study: ‘When your voice is the model: The effect of filtered listening of vocalists harmonic output’. I was required to complete a six module USC institutional review board training course and a Voce-Vista software tutorial (a programme that displays a live, fluid picture of the harmonics present in your vocal sound). Between designing the experiment materials and conducting the study with participants, I rehearsed and performed with the choir four days a week during their hectic Christmas schedule. I worked with the co-founders to devise new international content for their public workshops and their website, thereby applying our research in practical settings and bridging the links I have established with vocal pedagogues and coaches here in the UK and Australia. I reviewed Dr Ron Morris’ recent research on the application of accent method speech therapy to breathing technique for singing and interviewed the British vocal coach Dr Charles McDougal to discuss his application of this research when training choir conductors.


I’m pleased to have helped facilitate these connections for my REP partner and I am excited to see what future global collaborations it may give rise to! Each week I also received unparalleled research-accessibility and teacher training from my REP supervisors. We discussed obstacles commonly encountered in making highly technical research tangible for general audiences, and I was introduced to some exceptionally valuable education literature by Professor David Sousa on how the brain learns. It was particularly useful to experiment implementing these teaching techniques through activities and reflection as preparation for using them in a lecture-workshop type format. Other topics included the relationship between concentration, lesson structure and diversity of activities in a session, the components of memory retrieval, divergent and convergent thinking, and the use of ‘chunking’ to aid retrieval and prevent misremembering. During the final sessions we used these techniques to construct a presentation I will deliver at next year’s ‘York Festival of Ideas’ as well as an engagement activity especially for young children that will take place at this summer’s Fringe Festival of Ideas. The aim is to perpetuate the ethos and work of the platform in the UK and to begin introducing new audiences to our findings. Currently we are seeking the help of Dr Helena Daffern, founder of the York Centre for Singing Science at the University of York, who is teaching us how to use the software ‘Madde’ to further interpret our data. It is our aim to eventually publish our findings in ‘Journal of Singing’.

My work with Laurel and David in LA as well as the earlier stages of devising the REP project encouraged me to apply and adapt my PhD research skills. Experience of using archive catalogues during my IPS fellowship enabled me to devise a useful research directory, while my writing and critical reading skills provided a trusty entry point when reviewing publications. However, in this new context I was tasked with writing to entertain and engage a casual audience while maintaining the critical stance I usually prioritise. It was simultaneously challenging and invigorating to watch this synthesis taking place in my writing, especially when considering its outreach potential. As an interdisciplinary researcher I am accustomed to encouraging dialogue between different areas within the Humanities, however, our experiment bridged scientific and performing arts contexts. Consequently, having to imagine the perspective and knowledge base of our different audiences when writing a preliminary literature review was a familiar, but also particularly stretching exercise!

In the first year of my PhD studies I joined the WRoCAH student conference committee. The experience of liaising with members of our cohort from outside of my own field and curating a themed event in response to their work provided a useful context to draw upon when communicating with different voice specialists to investigate how their work might be showcased in new formats for the platform. Each year WRoCAH encourage students to produce a research poster. The emphasis it placed on condensing research into a stimulating visual format was exceptionally valuable in this instance and I found myself reflecting on the experience frequently when considering how to communicate voice science concepts beyond the jargon-laden discourse common to academic articles. I have developed a new respect for the research poster as a pedagogical tool that also encourages us to think about issues of accessibility as researchers. Overall, the opportunity to shadow David and Laurel as they balance running the platform with performance engagements has allowed me to envision ways in which I can amalgamate my singing and research training and put them to professional use in an academic context. I am exceptionally grateful to them for opening ways for people to begin thinking about and approaching singing in such a galvanizing way and for bettering me as a teacher.

Thank you Laurel and David.


You can read more about Catherine’s PhD project on the WRoCAH research pages.