Welcome to another episode of the Northwestern Digital Learning Podcast, where each month we highlight an example of innovative teaching and learning across campus. I'm Dan Hoefler, your host for this episode.
For anyone who uses their voice in a professional capacity—whether it be opera singer or high school teacher—vocal fatigue is a real concern. Until recently, Bienen School of Music lecturer Theresa Brancaccio would help her voice major students understand the strain they put on their voices by asking them to track their talking and water intake, among other things, using a paper form. But a little over a year ago, following a conversation with a colleague at the National Association of Teachers of Singing Conference, Brancaccio realized that her paper tracking process would be much better served, and could be more widely available, if reconceived as a health tracking app—a Fitbit for your vocal cords. One successful fellowship application later and the Singer Savvy app was born.
I recently caught up with Theresa and a couple of her current students to better understand how the app works and her hopes for its future.
What was its inspiration?
Having a heavy workload puts a lot of stress on the voice. It's easy to get so involved in what you're doing that you forget you also have to make beautiful artistic sounds with these vocal chords and you're using a lot of energy in other activities. I think every singer falls into this at some point. When illness comes into the picture, that's when you get the challenge of singers trying to do their best and being at a disadvantage because the throat gets inflamed.
So the goal really is to try to keep an individual at their peak vocal ability, right?
My main aim is to help them avoid vocal fatigue and, by extension, potential injury. But also if a singer has had an injury—let's say they've had surgery and have been told to rest their voice by a doctor—it is a great way to make sure you’re gradually building into a more manageable schedule without overloading right from the start. It gives them a budget each day, depending on how they feel, and it tells them if they're staying in their budget or not. There are graphs that show all of all of these things.
How is a user's vocal budget established?
It's individualized. There is a little test that was developed by Dr. Robert Bastian that they are encouraged to do. It’s two vocal exercises that are done very soft, and if the singer can do them easily at certain pitch levels, then they're in pretty good shape. There are five levels they can rate themselves with: excellent, good, okay, poor, and very poor.
Could you tell us a little bit about its history and the development?
I initially designed this system about 10 years ago on paper to help the students in my pedagogy classes and my voice studio. I'd have them track when they got into trouble or I felt like they weren't taking consistent care of their voices. Then someone asked me if I was planning on making an app for that and I thought, "That's a great idea!"
How was the journey from page to screen?
The paper version was more casual. I dug into more research before designing the app because I wanted to have better measurements and categories for the for the self-ratings. In the paper version, I had students create their own points. For the app, we had to work out an algorithm for a numbering system to rate fatigue. That was a complicated process, but I think we're in the ballpark.
It also now includes a section that tells you what to do if you have a cold, how to lighten vocal fatigue, and other health guides to make better choices.
Who's using it today?
All of the people in my voice studio are using it, as well as all of the vocal pedagogy students. I introduced it to the entire student body [at Bienen] but I can't make it required because of an IRB study that's connected with it. I told my students that they are not required to use the app, but if they don't, they must do the paper version instead.
To learn how the app is used in practice, Theresa asked two of her voice major students—Benedict Hensley, a junior baritone, and Anne Teeling, a sophomore soprano—to join us and give a little demonstration of its usage. I began by asking each of them how they incorporate the app into their regular routine.
BENEDICT: The first thing I do is choose a general voice-feeling category for the day. Most days it's the "excellent" category where I don't feel any sort of hindrance to my vocal capability. As I reach different checkpoints during the day, I’ll fill out how I've used my voice. There are different categories for talking or taking a lesson or singing in choir—things like that. At the end of the day, I will try to fill in anything that I might have missed or forgotten.
ANNE: I try to do it every day, and if I don't do it right after I do some sort of vocal activity, I'll do it at night. I do the swelling checks every day so I can see my pitch ceiling and then I'll mark how I'm feeling. Even if I don't do the swell check first thing in the morning, I’ll mark how my voice is feeling based on my speaking voice, which gives me a point budget for the day to track.
Do you think that using the app has influenced your behavior in any way?
BENEDICT: For the most part, I try to be conscious of my voice. But seeing that little icon on my home screen and having all of these graphs and measures of how I'm using it does make it easier to be more conscious of what you're doing.
ANNE: I think that it's helpful to have a number attached to how much I use my voice per day and have a limit that I shouldn't go over. It makes me more conscious of how much I talk or how much I'm practicing. If I know that I'm getting close to the limit or I'm starting to feel tired, I’ll check the app and try to budget in a vocal nap (not talk for 15-30 minutes) to let myself rest. If I have something the next day and I've already used a bunch of my points, I'm probably not going to talk much that night.
Could you each give us a little bit of a demo?
[11:09-12:08] Benedict demonstrates how he uses the app to perform a swell check and what it tells him about his voice.
[12:09-13:27] Anne demonstrates how she uses the app to perform a swell check and what it tells her about her voice.
Theresa, looking forward, what are your goals for the future of Singer Savvy?
THERESA: I want to disseminate it to all voice programs throughout the U.S. so that people have some way to stay on track and develop this mindfulness. There is also a whole musical theater community of people who I think could benefit a lot from it as well.
The other interest I've had is from speech language pathologists. When you're [feeling] okay, you usually don't pay attention. However, when you run into trouble—speech language pathologists see people who are in trouble—this is a tool they can use to build awareness. And there are other uses too like for schoolteachers who do a lot of speaking throughout the day and are not aware of how much they are using their voice. So that's another offshoot that might grow from this. I hope we can partner with pathologists at some point too.
If someone wants to try it out today, how would they get access to it?
It's currently a web-based app only, so you will need to go to: singersavvyapp.com.
I am now currently applying for an additional grant so that we can build it into a native app form. I'm hoping we can get some funding so that we can get in on iTunes or Google Play. The benefit to that is that you can get notifications to remind you to use it—which is kind of important for habit tracking. It’s also Wi-Fi dependent right now, so that could be a problem if you're in a strange building or whatever. I really hope we can bring it to the next level so that it can be more widely accessible.
My thanks to Theresa, Benedict, and Anne for making the time to chat with me. If you're interested in learning more or want to get in touch with Brancaccio about collaborating on the next phase of the app, she can be contacted by email at email@example.com. You can find this episode as well as all of our previous episodes on the Digital Learning Soundcloud. Until next time…