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"Do you hear what I hear?": the neuroscience of hearing, perception, and acoustics for singers

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The teacher-student paradigm has remained unchanged for centuries: singers are trained in the studio based primarily on the auditory information received by the instructor. The vocal output can yield a wealth of information on technical efficiency, musicality, and health. Although visual cues regarding body posture, jaw position, tongue action, etc. can be informative, the successful read-out is primarily based on the sound produced.

It is also known that auditory feedback is a fairly unreliable source of information for the singer themselves. Teachers often ask singers ‘“not to listen” and instead focus their attention onto kinesthetic signals to facilitate learning of motor tasks in addition to interpretive gestures. Although auditory information is received by the singer, such attention can take them out of the moment and shift focus from the task at hand. This has been a handicap for singers, since truly ‘hearing’ oneself can be an unreliable feedback mechanism, which is especially limiting when left alone to practice.

This issue also leads to misdiagnosis of pitch-matching issues or why a singer is flat or sharp: most problems aren’t a result of how a singer ‘hears’, but rather, how the brain executes a pitch target. A deeper understanding of the neuroscience of singing can give insight and pedagogical tools to a singer struggling with pitch.

Neuroscience of sound processing combined with acoustic knowledge about the voice has opened the door to a wealth of new possibilities to enhance the current landscape of a traditional voice lesson. Through an understanding of hearing, filtered listening, visual biofeedback, and other kinesthetic associations, the teacher and student now have a much bigger toolbox to extract strategies and conclusions.

This talk will discuss the science behind these ideas as well as offer practical pedagogical tools to refine the idea of ‘listening’ to a voice and how the brain processes singing.

About Heidi

Heidi Moss Erickson, is a San Francisco Bay Area performer, educator, and scientist. Noted for her “rich and radiant soprano” (Edward Oriz, Sacramento Bee) has performed both in the United States and abroad. A champion of new music, she frequently collaborates with renowned living composers including Daron Hagen, David Conte, Tarik O’Regan, Henry Mollicone, Jake Heggie, and her husband, Kurt Erickson.

Heidi has also garnered recognition in major vocal competitions, including the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the Liederkranz Awards, and the MacAllister Awards.

In addition to her musical life, Heidi graduated with a double biology and music degree from Oberlin and a masters in biochemistry with an emphasis on neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. She studied telomeres at Rockefeller University and has several publications, including a landmark paper in the journal Cell. This was a revolutionary discovery showing that the ends of DNA are looped and it was featured in the New York Times. Her interest in voice science came from her work in the lab of the late Richard Miller at Oberlin. In 2007, a rare cranial nerve injury sidelined her singing career, and was warned she may not ever perform again. Using her own scientific research and strategies, particularly in how speech and singing is processed in the brain, she rehabilitated to return to the art she loves. She has applied these concepts and designed a novel pedagogy to train singers of all levels, including those with hearing impairment, neuro-divergent backgrounds, and physical disabilities.

She is a firm believer of the voice as a palette, and embraces all genres as vocal possibilities. In addition to classical singers, has worked with Hindustani singers, electronic music, musical theater, pop, and latin music. She is currently the scientific advisor for Srijan Deshpande, who is researching the acoustics, perception, and motor learning for Indian Classical musicians.

In addition to a private studio, Heidi teaches vocal physiology at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She has been an invited speaker at the NATS National Conference, The Pacific Voice Conference, Cleveland Institute of Music, Peabody Conservatory, University of Oregon, Vocal ProcessUK, Vocology In Practice, and NerdNiteSF. Her courses on Singing in the Brain have been featured at the VoiceWorkshop UK, SingSpace, Vocal Health Network, and beyond. In 2020 she was also featured as a keynote speaker for the British Voice Association Conference alongside Johan Sundberg. She has been interviewed for numerous podcasts including The Mindful Voice, The Naked Vocalist, NATSChat, and VocalFry. Her writings have appeared in International journals and her article on librettist Sarah Ruhl was featured in October of 2021 in the Washington Post . Starting in September, she will be a regular contributor for the Journal of Singing in a featured column called “Minding the Gap: connecting research from neuroscience to vocal pedagogy.” She is the wife of composer/pianist Kurt Erickson, winner of the 2021 NATS Art Song Prize, and they proudly parent 4 children together.

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