Faculty concert on Tuesday, October 23, at 8 p.m. the Tsai Performance Center, featuring the world premiere of Dialogues III, Op. 37

Vol. V No. 10   ·   19 October 2001 


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If everyone has the ability to sing, then why doesn't everyone sing well?

"As someone who studies speech as a category of learned movement, it strikes me that one could ask the same question about running, dancing, or skating," says Margaret Denny, a SAR assistant professor in the department of communication disorders. She is teaching Anatomy and Physiology of the Speech Mechanism and Physiology, Acoustics, and the Perception of Speech this semester and will teach an Introduction to Speech Acoustics in the spring. "Most of us who can do these things just fine for everyday purposes don't perform them at an elite level. There's a tremendous range in performance.

"Perhaps the first question to consider is, who wants to sing well? Singing, like any skill, will improve with practice and study. I would speculate that people who have enjoyed singing from childhood will tend to be among the better singers because they have worked at it -- whether or not it feels like work to them.

"Given that people enjoy singing, and sing often, what else helps? Singers will tell you that the voice is an instrument. Just as a violin or oboe must be built to precisely the right proportions, and of the best materials, the larnyx (also known as the voice box), which is made of cartilage, muscles, and membranes, must be just right. The vocal cords themselves are primarily composed of muscle and membrane. Their size and shape strongly affect the quality of both the singing and the speaking voice. And just like musical instruments, they need proper care. This includes drinking plenty of water and avoiding dry, smoky air and overuse.

"Singers are the players as well as the instruments. A tremendous number of muscles must be coordinated, including the thorax and abdomen as well as the larynx and vocal tract. Posture, breathing, control of pitch, and loudness are all essential. A good singer needs an athlete's coordination as well as a musician's ear.

"So there's no single, simple answer to this question, but multiple factors that affect how well each person sings. We each have our own blend of motivation, vocal physique, and experience."

Denny is currently establishing the Speech Physiology Laboratory at Sargent and working on a project entitled Dynamic Aspects of Respiratory Control in Stuttering.

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19 October 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations