Science of Singing
“The most enigmatic organ in the human body.” That’s how Professor Martin Birchall, a leading laryngologist, describes the larynx, the main function of which is to stop us drowning on our own saliva or food, but which also makes it possible for us to speak and sing.
Professor Birchall was speaking in Cardiff last week at ‘The Science of Singing’, the first in a series of events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Wellcome Trust. It coincided with the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition at St David’s Hall, and explored the science behind music and singing.
A special exhibit at St David’s Hall all week gave visitors the chance to ‘auto-tune’ their voice, test their musical perception and discover techniques and remedies used by famous singers to maintain their voices over the past 75 years. On Saturday, consultant laryngologist Tom Harris presented video footage of the vocal folds in action.
Also on Saturday was a vocal masterclass at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama led by renowned Welsh soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones. It was introduced with a short talk from Professor Birchall on the biomechanics of vocal health. He described how 16 years of research, supported by the Wellcome Trust, had led to breakthroughs in restoring laryngeal function through transplants.
People whose larynx fails, after a stroke or cancer, for example, are left unable to speak, sing, swallow, sniff, taste, smell and even kiss – some of the most basic of human social interactions. In 2010, together with surgeons from Italy and the USA, Professor Birchall performed the world’s second-ever laryngeal transplant. In his talk, Professor Birchall repeated the emotional words of his patient at the press conference that followed the operation: “I do not know what the future might bring, but it sure is better than what I left behind.”
Professor Birchall said the larynx is precious and needs looking after just as much as other parts of the body, especially if you want to sing like Dame Gwyneth.
At the masterclass that followed, 140 people got tips and advice from Dame Gwyneth, who is also celebrating her 75th birthday this year. She said understanding how the voice works had really helped her look after her voice for so long – she is still an incredibly active professional singer. Dame Gwyneth has in the past had a camera put down her throat to look at her vocal chords: she said they look very similar to another part of a woman’s anatomy. But she added that you have to stop thinking about your voice box when actually singing, otherwise your voice gets “squished”.
Later in the day, there were performances from Solid Harmony, a 20-piece choir from Newham, who sang classics made famous by singers born 75 years ago – Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Shirley Bassey – and songs with more than a little science in their soul created especially for the Wellcome Trust.
You can see a short video of highlights from the event on the Wellcome Trust website.