Homegrown Music

Homegrown Music

For months, Molly Erickson has been spending her lunch hours listening to live music at WDVX’s daily “Blue Plate Special” concerts. For Erickson, a trained opera singer and an associate professor in the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, attending the concerts in downtown Knoxville is more than fun–it’s research. This summer, Erickson presented the initial findings from her study at the Voice Foundation’s 36th annual symposium in Philadelphia. The Voice Foundation is the world’s leading organization, as well as the oldest, dedicated to voice medicine, science, and education.

The free Blue Plate Special concerts, broadcast on 89.9 FM, are open to the public and take place in the studio of Knoxville’s grass-roots radio station, WDVX, at Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive. The stage is in a room that also houses the Knoxville Visitors Center and Cafe Gourmet coffee shop.

The performers run the gamut from bluegrass to jazz to folk to Americana–precisely the genres Erickson is interested in studying. “These people are completely ignored in the research world,” Erickson said. “Their medical, therapeutic, and training needs are different from those of an opera singer or a hard rocker.”

Erickson said the idea for the study came out of the Voice Foundation’s 2006 summer symposium where the need for finding and studying these types of singers was discussed.
“With the Blue Plate Special in mind, I put my hand up and said, ‘I probably have access to all of those people,'” she said. The goal is to provide useful information for voice teachers, speech pathologists, and doctors.

Aside from basic demographic information–gender, age, and so forth–it will be helpful for voice-care professionals to know where these musicians are performing, how often they perform, how much formal training they have, what sort of voice problems they encounter, whether they seek medical care for their voice problems, and whether they have insurance.

Jeannette LoVetri, director of the Voice Workshop in New York, an organization that collects cutting-edge vocal information and disseminates it to singers, singing teachers, colleges, universities, conservatories, corporations, and others who work with or care for the voice, said studies like Erickson’s are long overdue. “All the styles of music that have their roots in the USA have long been ignored by the academic and scientific communities, who, for the past fifty years, have focused their pedagogy and research almost exclusively on classical music.

Now, a new awakening is taking place, headed by scientists who recognize the importance of validating the music of the American people, and for the first time projects investigating authentic homegrown styles are being presented at world-class scientific conferences. The richness and variety of our regional music, much of which is sung, is important. The Blue Plate Project is expanding our knowledge of bluegrass, country, and folk singers, allowing those who serve their needs–both in terms of vocal health and longevity–to do a better job.”

With the radio station’s blessing, Erickson has been attending the Blue Plate concerts since December 2006 and approaching the performers to see if they would complete the 5-page questionnaire she’s developed. “I try to be very unobtrusive,” she said. “Very few of the Blue Plate Special performers have refused to participate. They are very happy that we’re interested in them.

“In fact, they thank me–which tells me they also see a need.”

Tony Lawson, general manager and program director for WDVX, said the radio station is grateful to Erickson for wanting to help grass-roots performers. “It has been a pleasure to work with Molly and see the interest and passion she shows for this project and the care she shows for Blue Plate musicians, a great percentage of whom can be categorized as ‘underserved,'” Lawson said.

Erickson is a member of the Knoxville Opera Company and sang with the Kronos Quartet in Knoxville last year. She is a member of the Cavern Choir, the first completely Internet-based vocal ensemble. She has a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from California State University–Sacramento and a master’s degree in vocal arts from the University of Southern California School of Music. She has a doctorate in speech science and technology from the University of Southern California and a clinical master’s degree in speech pathology from the University of Florida. She received clinical voice training at the University of Florida and Vanderbilt Voice Center.

What the Singers Said

Using a 54-item questionnaire, Erickson has collected data on about 150 singers, ranging from amateurs to award-winners. Three-quarters of those she’s polled have been male. Their ages have ranged from the upper teens to the upper 70s, with most in the 25-to-39 age range. Among her findings:

  • More than one-third of the singers have no health insurance.
  • More than one-half have had no formal vocal training; less than one-third have had any type of formal training.
  • About one-half of the singers report sometimes singing too loudly; singing too high or low in pitch; being tired after performance; being hoarse after performance.
  • More than three-fourths of the singers get their information about healthy practices from fellow musicians or don’t get any information at all.
  • A little more than one-third of the singers report having had tired voices, and one-third report having either lost their voices completely or having lost the top notes of their ranges.
  • Fewer than 2 percent of these singers report having a diagnosed medical problem of the vocal folds.
  • About two-thirds say they drink two or more alcoholic drinks per week, and about 10 percent say they smoke more than a pack of cigarettes per day.
  • As for healthy habits, more than three-fourths say they drink two or more 8-ounce glasses of water per day, and fewer than half say they drink two or more cups of coffee a day.