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A lesson in voice and anatomy from an opera singer

This past Thursday, I watched an opera singer's throat as he sung. Not the bulging Adam's apple above his shirt collar, but the shiny lumps and taut cartilage of his larynx, the mucus on his vocal folds, all healthy pink and slick and breathing.

It was a curious combination, opera and anatomy, and I didn't know what to expect from this World Voice Day event - "Anatomy of An Opera Singer" - which was offered as a collaboration between the Stanford Medicine Music Network (part of Medicine and the Muse), Stanford Live, and the Department of Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. Surrounded by community members of various ages and people in scrubs, I entered Berg Hall to the sound of Cake's "Opera Singer": I am an Opera Singer, I stand on painted tape; It tells me where I'm going, and where to throw my cape. 

Stanford's C. Kwang Sung, MD, MS, who has a professional background in both singing and otolaryngology, started the evening by performing a song honoring his parents' inspirational role in his life - after which he introduced his parents sitting in the front row! After giving us a basic introduction to throat anatomy, he introduced internationally acclaimed opera singer Eugene Brancoveanu, who performed a song from "The Rape of Lucretia," accompanied by Stanford pianist Laura Dahl. Brancoveanu's beautiful voice and elaborate variety of facial expressions was stirring.

What followed elicited gasps and laughter from the audience - the view from a laryngoscopic camera in Brancoveanu's throat was projected on big screens while Sung and Elizabeth DiRenzo, PhD, vocal fold biologist and assistant professor of otolaryngology, explained what we were seeing. The video tour had been recorded prior, and throughout the evening new twists and turns were revealed. Sung and DiRenzo had recorded Brancoveanu while he sang, while he played with falsetto and passaggio and while he varied the vowel sounds, and they walked us through this intimate demonstration of living vocal anatomy.

What is voice? Sung used a saxophone as a metaphor: In both, there is an activator (power), a vibrator (source), and a resonator (filter). For the saxophone, these are the air blown from the player's lips, the reed, and the horn's curves and buttons. For the voice, they are the lungs, the vocal folds, and the mouth and nasal cavity.

The vocal folds (the more technical term for "vocal cords") vibrate against each other hundreds of times per second, and tightening and stretching them controls pitch. We saw them tighten and loosen as Brancoveanu sung, and through use of a special strobe camera that slowed down the motion, we actually saw them opening and closing. The speed at which they open and close, or the "average fundamental frequency", is what makes the difference between female and male voices: males' folds vibrate 125x/second while those of females vibrate much faster, at 200x/second. Why? Men's larynx are 40% longer, and the effective length of their vibrating vocal fold is 60 percent longer.

We also saw how vowel sounds are formed: they are caused by cavities ("formants," the biggest of which are the pharynx/throat and the mouth) being opened to different proportions. The change between "OO" and "AH" was dramatically visible on the video as the pharynx contracted and expanded, totally changing shape. The funny Brancoveanu explained how to avoid breaking vowel registers by "bridging", or pronouncing a different vowel at a certain pitch.

The program concluded with tips for vocal health: Your voice can be broken, so treat it gently! Hydrate, warm up, cool down, don't tire yourself, set limits. As someone whose singing experience doesn't extend beyond the shower or the car, I had never heard of vocal strength training. An enlightening evening.

Previously: Stanford Medicine Music Network brings together healers, musicians, and music lovers
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