James Rodriguez is analyzing the factors of optimal and sustainable vocal health.
Hitting the correct notes is paramount, but an accurate rendition of do-re-mi-fa-so- la-ti-do is not a perfect indicator of a singer’s vocal health.
When singers feel fine after going up and down scales and sustaining notes, they may think their voice is perfectly healthy. But veteran baritone James D. Rodriguez knows that problems can begin before audible signs of poor vocal health emerge.
Rodriguez, assistant professor of voice and voice pedagogy in TCU’s School of Music, surveyed opera and musical theatre students at TCU in a pilot study as they practiced for performances. His foundational question was straightforward: How does data taken through vocal measurements correspond to a singer’s feeling of health?
“The point of the study is to see where students feel they are vocally versus what science tells us,” Rodriguez said. “Young singers are still becoming aware of their instrument — their body. Singing is our body and can definitely be an Olympic sport.”
The certified vocologist met with the students in the study at three points before a performance: the start of the semester after a restful break, midway through the semester in the throes of rehearsals and the week of opening night.
He asked them questions about age, warmup routines, role details (single or double cast), sleep patterns and water intake.
Rodriguez then recorded them performing a series of vocal exercises.
To determine the s/z ratio — a measure of vocal function — students took a deep breath and made the “s” and “z” sounds as long as they could. They also read “The Rainbow Passage,” a voice and articulation drill published in 1960 that samples the variety of sounds and mouth movements used in everyday speech. They finished by softly singing a high note, repeated in sets of three.
Rodriguez ran the recordings through VoceVista, software that produces spectrograms, or voiceprints. He could compare measurements taken at different times during the rehearsal process to note changes in vibrato and formants, which indicate the shape of the vocal tract.
Rodriguez said vocalists could have the false impression that pushing the voice through hours of rehearsals is fine if they feel OK. The professor, an active performer who has garnered many professional operatic credits, including the title role in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, said he wanted to confirm or disprove singers’ intuition with data.
“The prolonged misuse of the voice is going to lead to bigger issues,” he said. “To me, it was very important to find a way to help students address that.”
In a future phase of the study, Rodriguez plans to include visual snapshots of the vocal folds in the larynx, taken with scoping equipment to see the voice in action.
For now, Rodriguez is intrigued by what the study reveals about the culture of vocal performance at TCU. In his one-on-one lessons with students, he noticed they would sometimes cancel a lesson or complain about a tired, dysfunctional voice.
“It became alarming to me,” he said. “How are we equipping these young people to find success?”
He said students sometimes don’t consider voice preservation until the week of the performance, and by then it could be too late to give the vocal folds sufficient rest.
“I think part of the whole reason why students should be here, some portion of it should be vocal health and vocal longevity,” he said. “We all have a part to play in the student’s development.”
Jesus De Hoyos Jr., a doctoral student in voice pedagogy who helped Rodriguez collect data for the study, agreed. The study “allows us to best understand ways to go about teaching students and more information about understanding what they need to be successful.”
De Hoyos said he understands how the pressures of singing for hours every day can be amplified by the stress of being a college student. And sometimes the surge of adrenaline that comes with a performance can distort feelings of vocal health.
Though voice instructors advise students to hydrate and sleep eight hours a night so vocal folds can rest, the risks of disregarding this advice haven’t been quantified.
Rodriguez’s research can show students how much their voice will suffer or improve based on hours slept or liters of water consumed.
“In music, we delve into so many nebulous and subjective terms,” De Hoyos said. “We need something that is more concrete, more measured. If your voice is tired, what does that mean exactly? There is a way we can actually quantify when a person is tired or dehydrated.”
WATCH A VIDEO with James D. Rodriguez
BY TRISHA SPENCE