What exactly is voice research?
How does voice research fit with voice training, and how do we know whether it’s relevant or not? The answer is to VET it – using Validation, Extrapolation and Triangulation
Let’s start by looking at voice training
Voice training is by its very nature experiential. You can of course read all about voice training in books and by going to lectures, but you will end up with a head full of theories and no practical application. You can’t learn to sing without singing.
In the 19th and early 20th Centuries the model for voice training was Master-Apprentice: you worked with the same teacher copying their singing or repeating their vocal exercise regime, often for more than a decade before being allowed to perform in public.
Today vocal technique information is everywhere, and there has been an explosion of interest in voice research. We’ve moved from pedagogy through andragogy to heutagogy and self-directed learning.
This article gives you three straightforward ways to VET voice research.
Defining the word “Research”
The simplest definition of research is “to investigate systematically”.
The difficulty is in the use of the word. “According to my research…” can mean any of the following:
- I did a google search this morning and Wikipedia says…
- I’ve been reading a few books by singing practitioners and they seem to agree that…
- I’ve read several papers in Journal of Voice and…
- I gave a paper at an in-house conference and…
- I gave a paper at an industry-recognised conference
- I had a peer-reviewed paper published in Journal of Voice
- My PhD was on this voice-related topic
- I’m part of a university/laboratory team researching into…
- I’m leading government-funded research into…
I divided the above list into 3 sections that build. Section 1 is collecting data, from the random to the targeted. Section 2 is reporting on research, from simple unvalidated presentations to a lengthy validated qualification. Section 3 concerns the professional researcher connected to a funded research body which involves peer-reviewing and validation from start to finish. How seriously you take the phrase “according to my research” depends on the speaker’s position on that list (which section, and where they lie within that section).
This is where the ability to VET is useful. VET stands for VALIDATION, EXTRAPOLATION and TRIANGULATION.
Let’s discuss VALIDATION first. Anyone can gather together ‘facts’ and present them in a compelling argument – the current American president is an expert at presenting ‘facts’ in a way that allows millions to believe him.
But for research to be meaningful and valuable, the researcher needs to demonstrate that the methods of fact collection and analysis are valid and potentially repeatable. Voice science research is built on decades of previous findings, and the current researcher needs to demonstrate that they have read and understood the historical context of their current situation. It’s why papers cite so many references, so that anyone can see where the ideas have come from, and what the history of the topic includes.
Voice research data collection
Validation also means that your methods of data collection are examined in detail before publication. It implies that your work has ethical approval and all the appropriate permissions for data collection and usage. It also means that your methods of analysis are scrutinised. You have to demonstrate that the results you claim are due to standard processes that are repeatable by someone outside the project. Or (as in the case of Gillyanne’s PhD) if you create a new method of data analysis, you explain how and why it was necessary, and how any other researcher can copy it in the future.
Voice research and peer-reviewing
One part of validation is to have your work peer-reviewed. Peer-reviewed research does not mean your friends and in-house colleagues have read it and enjoyed it. It means that experts in your field but outside your own sphere of influence have studied it, critiqued it and suggested changes that will be monitored for implementation or explanation. Usually in published research those experts remain anonymous and are chosen by a third party (such as the journal publisher). The exception to this is the PhD where the reviewers interview the PhD candidate who has to defend their work face-to-face.
So given that the research you’re reading has been externally validated and the methodology is sound, how do we know if it’s relevant to our singing or teaching practice?
This is where EXTRAPOLATION comes in, and it’s used as a filter or a warning!
Peer reviewed and validated research papers usually contain careful summaries and suggestions for further study. So it’s unfortunate that singing teachers can read a single sentence in a research paper and extrapolate something completely different. For example, a paper might say “when three Japanese men spoke in Japanese on a low pitch we saw this laryngeal movement”.
What does this mean?
It means that when three Japanese men speaking Japanese on a low pitch (compared to a higher pitch) they showed a tendency to make the same or similar movements in the larynx.
What doesn’t this mean?
It doesn’t mean that all men make that movement, or that men speaking in a language other than Japanese make it. It also doesn’t mean that any or all women make the movement, that men or women singing (sustaining) on a low pitch make it, or that men or women singing on a high pitch make it.
In fact, NONE of the above can be extrapolated from this research.
And unless the research paper states how the movement was made, you cannot even extrapolate whether the movement is an active movement – it could be a passive result of other things happening. If the n (number of participants) is a low number (in this case, 3) it is likely that it is only an indication of something that might be happening (conjecture based on visual analysis) and bears further study with a larger n.
How to check Extrapolation
To check Extrapolation, go back to the original piece of research that is being cited and check what the researcher actually claimed, how many people were studied and what their demographic was, and whether the claims in the paper are realistically relevant to you and your peer group.
As Gillyanne says, observation is not causation. You can see something happen but without further evidence (and triangulation), any guesses you make are exactly that – guesses.
How do you put your thoughts (and the research in question) into a bigger context? The answer is in TRIANGULATION
Triangulation in its broadest sense means to view something from more than one point. Surveyors use triangulation to determine the positioning of a point from its relation to two other known points. Singers and teachers use informal triangulation by checking for other viewpoints on a topic to see whether a piece of information fits into the already validated knowledge or whether it’s contradictory or just plain ‘far out’. While information that is outside current knowledge can be exciting, it needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt until validated.
Triangulation is also useful to determine hidden agendas – what measures has the researcher taken to triangulate? If they’ve claimed something as “research-based” but have ignored or dismissed current knowledge, or based their opinions on a single piece of research, you need to ask why and pay attention to the answer (or lack of it).
Practitioner-based voice research
Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with practitioner experience as research. Master teachers will say “I’ve been teaching for 20 years and I noticed that many of my singers do…”
This version of research is practitioner-based and can lead either to papers/presentations at conferences, or simply to public masterclasses. Nevertheless, in the voice science world this represents unvalidated data and remains the practitioner’s opinion. And in the singing world, ask yourself how expert this person is in the specific field they are talking about? They might be an excellent classical teacher but have very little experience in the R&B world. Any claims that “all voices do this” need careful consideration (and a pot of salt).
Trends in voice research and vocal teaching
It’s also useful to be aware of trends in teaching and knowledge-seeking. 20 years ago it was belting as a viable healthy option for singers. Five years ago it was micro-movements of the larynx. This year’s peak interest seems to be brain function for singers. While there is a lot of useful information to be gleaned, the difficulty with these trends is they become ‘bandwagons’ for people to jump on. We have heard some genuinely ridiculous claims about vocal physiology in the last few years, and I’m sure we’re set for claims on how “you can control brain function and the autonomic system if you follow my paid singing method”.
Six questions to ask about voice research
So before we point the finger of scoff (my favourite Terry Pratchett phrase), when someone talks about their research, here are six questions to ask yourself and the speaker that will help you VET the research. Thanks to Stella Collins and the excellent Neuroscience for Learning and Development book for these:
- Who did the research?
- What’s on their agenda?
- Where was it published first?
- When was it published and when else? (Has it been updated or how many times has it been cited in other papers)
- How was the science done?
- What are the results saying?
Any good researcher will happily answer questions on their research, so pay attention to evasion or stonewalling!
Do you have anything to add to this article? Send us your thoughts.
PS if you want to experience singing teaching and VET in action, join us on “Joining The Dots”, our new London course in October, or the Singing Teacher Training Intensives in Leeds (October) and in Melbourne (May 2020), where validation, extrapolation and particularly triangulation are built into the course.