Listening with Mary McDonald Klimek

As spring arrives here on the coast of Maine, I am opening my ears (but not my windows) for any sign that winter is really on its way out! I long to hear the “peeper frogs” and my new friend, the Hermit Thrush, who sings a hauntingly beautiful evensong that reminds me of nightingales in London and the pan-pipe songs of what might have been of magpies in Australia! I am no authority on birds, but I love their songs!

And why am I talking about birds on World Voice Day? Choirs of birds, choirs of humans – what do we hear as we listen?

This article arises from two projects that have demanded my attention lately: the new Estill Voiceprint Plus 7, and the 2-day diction course running on 7-8, August, just before the Estill World Voice Symposium in London. These projects are connected – by LISTENING.

About birds and other creatures…

One summer in Mars Hill, North Carolina, with Jo Estill, I was introduced to Bill Staines’ “All God’s Critters” (aka “A Place in the Choir”). If you are not familiar, go check out the lyrics on the web or explore recordings on YouTube! One line, “some sing out loud on the telephone wire”, connects to my birds; another line, “some sing low, some sing higher”, connects our Estill Certification Voiceprint Testing Protocols. There are new “Voice Example Inventories” in EVPP 7. Some are sung “low” and others “higher”. When people prepare for their “Voiceprint Exams”, they get to choose pitches that are “low” or “higher”. Why is this of interest?

Together, we humans create our species’ pitch range. Safe to say it spans 10 octaves or so, which happens to correspond both to frequency range of human hearing, 20 – 20,000 Hz, and a Guinness World Record from 2008. Just like the “critters”, each of our voices occupy a portion of that range, with some overlap and some change as time passes. Music composers and arrangers learn about these overlaps when asked to write “SATB” 4-part harmony. Voice therapists learn about the changes over time when surveying the normative data for average speaking frequency from early childhood to advanced age.

At any time in our lives as human beings, we have access to “the key of us”. I owe my EMT colleague, Jeremy Mossman, for that lovely phase. And, when we speak or sing in those different “keys of us”, the characteristics of the sounds we make change as well. From an Estill Voice Training® perspective, my Thick folds (aka “modal”, “chest”, “heavy registration”) at a high pitch will not sound like my Thick folds at a low pitch. And, if I could borrow him now for a demonstration, Jeremy’s Thick folds would not sound like mine, even if we were at exactly the same frequency, the same pitch. What makes those two very different sounds both Thick folds? If I said “listening”, would you believe me?

Diabolical Complexity

We humans are very complex biological life-forms. Like our critter friends, we need to be able to hear and process the signals we are receiving from our own kind. I frequently remind my students that we are simply vertebrates. Like our vertebrate companions here on planet Earth, we signal our affective states (our levels of awareness to arousal, our emotions) by our body language, facial expressions, and the sounds that we make. From moment to moment, we are reacting to changes inside and outside of our bodies. Jo Estill advised us to “override the natural triggers associated with False Vocal Fold Constriction” in natural functions of the larynx and in musical performance. Many of the triggers she identified tie into the Freeze-Fight-Flight Response. We are exquisitely reactive. Sometimes I tell my students we are a lot like worms.  Forget the spine! Poke us and we react.

Change is permanent; we cannot stay the same from moment to moment. Each new breath is a new lease on life. Each time we say, “Hi!” the friends and family members who listen hear a universe of information in that single syllable.

When Jo Estill set out to study voice quality, she found that she had to consider different categories or domains of “voice quality”. The vocal timbre by which we are recognized as individuals; the overlay of shifts in tone that signal our physical or affective state (sick/healthy, sad/happy); the changes in voice quality associated with the speech sounds we are using in language. Jo considered every vowel as a different voice quality. But the voice quality of a vowel changes as the tongue moves in and out of its position for consonants. As we listen, we predict both consonants and vowels through these transitions. How impressive is that! Change is informative. Shall we add what happens as we listen to an accent? Let us ask our heroine (me) to describe how exhausted she is after writing her E-News article, in an Estill Sob Quality while speaking with a “Down East” Maine accent! “Caynt get thayuh from heeyuh!” (I’d rather share my imitation of an Atlantic Raven!)

We are lucky that our brains process sound on so many different levels! Like the old “layers of an onion”, right? Our course, our hearing and processing of sound is subject to the same rules of moment-to-moment change as our voices. We listen anew from moment-to-moment, too!

Sound analysis and Estill Voice Training®

I hope you have enjoyed reading to this point. Only a few more quirky connections.

Have you ever come upon what looked like a voiceprint spectrogram popping up in a strange place, like a bird song recording? (And you thought I had abandoned my feathered friends!) Richard Horne, the software engineer who created Estill Voiceprint Plus, developed the ‘innards’ of the program for a friend who wanted to record, study, and share bird songs. Fact.

As I have mentioned in past E-News Articles, working with Estill Voiceprint Plus has changed the way I listen. Listening is an active process, not just a passive “hearing” something. My listening is better now than it was when I first started working with Jo Estill. In Figures for Voice Control, aspiring to a level of mastery just beyond our current ability makes us grow as speakers and singers. Working with Estill Voiceprint Plus to see the things we may not yet hear will make us grow as listeners, too. I predict that we will be doing a lot of listening to each other as we move through the launch of Estill Voiceprint Plus 7 and gather for the Power of Diction* and the 9th Estill World Voice Symposium.

*Oh no!   Did I just reveal the new name of Diction for Performers?