marci daniels rosenberg,
Published on February 16, 2020
I am excited to feature Marci Daniels Rosenberg, CCC-SLP. (Actually bouncing in my chair right now.) Marci is a singer, teacher, author, researcher and a speech language pathologist at The University of Michigan, Vocal Health Center. A Voice and Singing Specialist, Ms. Rosenberg works clinically to rehabilitate injured voices. She teaches workshops, masterclasses and lectures internationally in the area of vocal health, performance voice, managing vocal injuries, and application of kinesiology principals to voice training and rehabilitation. She serves as the on-site vocal health consultant for University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre. Ms. Rosenberg is guest faculty at The New CCM Summer Pedagogy Institute at Shenandoah. She is co-author of The Vocal Athlete, second edition (LeBorgne & Rosenberg, 2021) and The Vocal Athlete: Application and technique for the hybrid singer (Rosenberg & LeBorgne, 2021; Plural Publishing). She served as the vice president of the Pan American Vocology Association. Marci maintains a private voice consulting studio for professional performers.
TVF: Tell us about yourself Marci.
MR: I will start with my background. I started as a kid actor and did a lot of local and regional musical theater and commercials as I grew up. My family likes to joke is that my big claim to fame was when I was eleven years old and played Annie in a large, regional dinner theater.
TVF: I am talking to Annie! My first ever!
MR: Yes can you imagine? In fact, let me show you a hilarious photo! (And she shows me a black and white photo from the show. And she’s was cute! Awesome!) I was certainly NOT the model of good healthy belting! You can see my neck strap muscles popping out of my neck in this photo! I actually got an equity card in order to do that production, but I had no real guidance. The rehearsal period was 14 days and the we went into an 8-week run with 8 shows a week with two shows on Wednesday and two on Saturday. There was no one guiding me vocally and I am 100% sure that I had nodules by the end of the production. I remember being hoarse all of the time and really struggling by week 4. Somehow, I managed to get through the run and then re-started voice lessons ( Ironically, I stopped lessons during the run because I was so busy). My voice teacher was horrified by the state of my voice. Even though she didn’t guide me through the process of singing Annie, she declared “You are never belting again! You are never singing Musical Theater again!” And she switched me to classical singing. I sang really heavy stuff that I had no business doing at that age but I really had no idea what was appropriate for me at the time. I didn’t know any better. I just thought “Oh this is so fun that I can sing all these arias!” Knowing what I know now, it is really such a shame. Thank god we have so many learning opportunities for voice teachers wanting to learn to manage CCM singing styles. I would have been much better off if I’d had me as a teacher!
I went to Interlochen Academy in my senior year of high school and continued studying classical voice ultimately graduating from Peabody Conservatory with a BM in Voice Performance. If had could do it all over again, I 100% would have done musical theater but at the time, I didn’t have the benefit of good guidance about musical theatre singing so I stopped doing it for many years because I told was that it ruined my voice.
In my senior year at Peabody, I took a vocal pedagogy class and that is when I discovered the field of speech pathology with emphasis on vocal health. I was absolutely mesmerized by all of the vocal pedagogy books and the student voice teaching experience which I loved. I remember my two students, one a flutist and the other a violinist. I remember having so much fun figuring out lesson plans and teaching them. As part of that class we went on a field trip to observe a voice clinic like the one I work in now. I started to understand that there is a whole field called speech-pathology. I volunteered to be a normal subject in a voice research project and got to have my first scope. At that time I was studying with a voice teacher Thom Hauser commuting from Baltimore to Lancaster, Pennsylvania once a week. He was one of the earlier singing voice specialists. He asked me what my plans were after I graduated from Peabody Conservatory. When I responded that I had no idea he said to me, “you need to go and earn a degree in speech-pathology, and you need to become a speech-pathologists and work with singers with voice disorders.” He could tell that I had a clear interest in the mechanics of voice production and vocal health. I would go to my lessons with a list of pedagogical questions that were very physiologically based. I was not interested in imagery or pear-shaped tones or pretending to smell a rose. That kind of guidance didn’t mean anything to me. I wanted to know things like, how come when I am on a F#4 on a /a/ vowel I hear a certain crackly sound but I don’t hear it on /i/vowel? Really specific questions. Most voice teachers I’d had didn’t really know how to answers those questions. When Thom Hauser gave me specific exercises, I would try to guess the physiological rationale. He loved that I did that and he knew exactly how to answer them because he was a functionally based voice teacher.
So that day, early in my senior year on a two hour drive back to Baltimore from Lancaster, PA, I knew what I was going to do. The following Fall, I started my second bachelors degree in Speech-Pathology and then did a year of research at the National Institute of Health (NIH) with Christy Ludlow. I had excellent mentors early on. I was in Christy’s lab for a year and ultimately completed my Masters at Bowling Green State University in Ohio with Ron Scherer as my thesis advisor. I had wonderful exposure to voice science in graduate school and got a job at The University Michigan right out of school thanks to my dual degree. I have been here for the past 18 years. I was very lucky that I was hired into my dream job right out of grad school. When I started at U of M, I saw both inpatients and outpatients. My caseload was more varied with dysphagia, Head and Neck Cancer, general voice and professional voice. Over the years, I became more focused. Now I am micro-specialized focusing on professional and occupational voice and general voice. I definitely miss working with Head and Neck patients and inpatients but I love what I do and I feel honored and privileged every day. I do still perform (musical theatre, of course) but just locally and only when it’s something I really want to be part of because it’s very time consuming.
TVF: How did you get into NIH?
MR: That’s a great question. When I was doing my second bachelors in Speech-Pathology, I had to take a research class with Cecilia Bassich. She worked in Christy Ludlow’s lab. I was talking to Cecilia after class one day and expressed my interest in voice. She said I should come to the lab with her and meet Christy and that’s how I got that position. I learned a lot that year and it was a great experience.
TVF: How did you come to write the book “Vocal Athlete” with Wendy LeBorgne?
MR: Wendy and I met around 2008 I think at the Ohio Voice Association. We started talking about collaborating given our common backgrounds and interests. Then in 2009-2010 we co-planned a conference with Martin Spencer here in Ann Arbor called “Interdisciplinary Management of the Professional Voice.” During that period, Wendy and I decided that we needed to write a textbook for Contemporary Commercial Music pedagogy because there was a significant need. Wendy had done her doctoral thesis on musical theatre belting. We slowly started outlining a textbook with content that was not covered in other books. We wanted to include topics like motor learning, exercise physiology. These topics were being discussed in the research world but not really included in pedagogical textbooks. We sought to create a solid resource book of singing science and vocal health content that was relevant to a singing student and anyone working with voice. Although we dedicated a lot to musical theatre, the book actually has a fantastic section on history of classical voice pedagogy that was part of Wendy’s doctoral thesis. When we submitted our outline to Plural Publishing they were very excited to fill this much needed gap. It took us about three years to co-write the book. We are a great team. We have complementary skillsets and we work well together. We’ve become good friends in the process and I could not think of a better co-author.
TVF: Why do you think that classical singing teachers believe that musical theater singing style is so damaging to the voice?
MR: I think there is a group of teachers that were brought up only in the classical world and when they encounter music theater and pop singers they don’t know what to do with them. Additionally, CCM singers are more likely to be transparent about having had vocal difficulties compared to classical singers so there is a perception that they are overwhelmingly at higher risk for vocal injury than classical singers. I think in past years, singers who sing in contemporary styles were having a hard time finding teachers to guide them to do it well. My experience as a young performer is a perfect example of this. Thankfully, this narrative is changing now. Now there is a whole crop of pedagogues dedicated solely to CCM styles and there is a lot more information available on how to teach these singers. That is not to say that classically trained teachers can’t or shouldn’t teach CCM styles. I know many excellent classically based teachers who are very capable of also managing more contemporary styles. I see great things coming and that older narrative of “classical singing is the only way to sing healthily and everyone must have classical technique” is becoming less and less prominent.
TVF: I get this question all the time. What schools are out there that focus on contemporary and musical theater style of singing?
MR: Shenandoah Conservatory offers a Master of Music in CCM Pedagogy and Doctorate in Pedagogy open to CCM and classical teachers with tracks in leadership and research. Additionally, Wendy LeBorgne and I are guest faculty at The New CCM Summer Pedagogy Institute at Shenandoah which is a great way to be exposed to CCM Pedagogy. Wendy and I cover much of The Vocal Athlete text. Matt Edwards has redesigned the Institute’s curriculum and it is fantastic. Participants have an opportunity to visit a cadaver lab and really see and touch a larynx! New to the institute is a 3-Day intensive in the cadaver lab with David Weber, DMA for those who really want to delve into anatomy of the singing mechanism.
TVF: Is that the only place?
MR: Penn State has an MFA in Musical Theatre Voice Pedagogy that Mary Saunders Barton and Norman Spivey designed, and Boston Conservatory is launching an MFA in musical theatre voice pedagogy this fall, and Carthage College has a new Masters of Music in Music Theatre Pedagogy. We need more formal degreed programs for CCM pedagogy.
There are many summer intensive programs and workshops for CCM. The New CCM Summer Pedagogy Institute at Shenandoah as I mentioned above is outstanding and very comprehensive. I believe this summer's curriculum and guest speakers are listed on the website and registration is open. In addition to the core faculty, each year Matt Edwards brings in voice experts from medicine, pedagogy and research. For instance, this year, the brilliant Dr. Lynn Helding who just published The Musician’s Mind is a keynote speaker. Previous honored guests have included Mary Saunders Barton, Dr. Ingo Titze and Dr. Robert Sataloff. Additionally, each summer Edrie Means Weekly (Co-Founder of the institute) teaches a musical theatre styles course so participants can return for new content. Each summer there are new guest teachers and speakers so some of the content changes. Obviously, I am biased! There are also other wonderful summer intensives. Jeanie LoVetri (Co-founder of the original CCM Summer Institute formerly at Shenandoah), who coined the term CCM, has founded The LoVetri Institute at Baldwin Wallace. She is has been championing CCM pedagogy as its own entity and teaching her method specific to CCM for over 30 years.
The number of singers seeking to perform CCM vocal styles has increased exponentially over the past 20-30 years and this is what is showing up in voice studios. Teachers need to be versatile so they can teach both classical and CCM.
TVF: I have to be honest. This aches my heart because my initial love was musical theater but I got “forced” into classical training because that was the only option available in the university. I learned to appreciate classical singing but it was very tough to wrap my head around it at first. I am definitely going to participate in the 9 day CCM summer program at Shenandoah.
MR: At The New CCM Summer Pedagogy Institute, there are three segments addressing, anatomy and vocal health including cadaver lab, exercise physiology and motor learning, SOVT’s, vocal problem solving, and lots of stylistic content. The faculty cover the general function involved in singing contemporary styles. For example, what tends to happen when belting, how to listen and figure out what’s happening and how to problem solve common technical problems . Participants can complete 3 days, 6 days, or 9 days in any order. It is not a specific method, but rather comprehensive voice training “roadmap” based on physiology, acoustics and singing biomechanics. We help students understand how the voice works and how the dynamic instrument can be modified to make different sounds.
TVF: When I first met you, it was in a semi-occluded vocal tract exercises (SOVT) workshop at The Voice Foundation.
MR: SOVT has been around a long time and certainly predates my entry into the SLP voice field. I started lecturing about it probably 15 years ago and have used SOVT consistently in my clinical practice and private studio. So many people use SOVT’s because they are easy and effective IF you are executing them correctly. Sometimes a student will come in and tell me that they have already been instructed in SOVT by their teacher. I say “Great! Here is a straw. Show me how you do it.” Very often, they don’t execute it in a way that I consider it to be efficient or correct.” The cueing and set up for SOVT’s is very important otherwise a “simple exercise” can easily become useless.
I tend to start SOVT in a comfortable area of their voice in a speaking range. I typically start with a drinking size straw. I find that with our patients the really small straws would often backfire due to too much constriction. They end up getting tighter. If it is a singer who tells me they have done them before, they almost always produce a fast ascending glide in head register (she demonstrates a tight sounding straw phonation that actually sounds obnoxiously buzzy to my ears). This to me, is not a useful way to complete an SOVT using a straw. Certainly in a clinical setting, the first thing we want to do is help the patient achieve an efficient, calibrated speaking voice and approach singing from there. With straw phonation I like to keep it simple. People try to make it more complicated than it actually needs to be. Then it becomes poorly executed. I always use tactile cues for them. I play around with different diameters but start with my “neutral diameter” from a drinking straw (5 mm), then I will go smaller or bigger depending on the patient. I don’t want my patients to rely on a prop. So I came up with “wave in a cave” which is in the Berman and Haskell, “Exercises for Voice Therapy” first edition (Plural Publishing). It involves cupping the hands together to create a tunnel with an opening to put the mouth into for occlusion. Then there is also cup phonation which I also published in “Exercises for Voice Therapy”. This involves placing a Styrofoam cup over the mouth with a little hole at the end so you can articulate while achieving SOVT at the same time. Now there are silicone anesthesia masks you can place over the mouth and seal the opening with the hand. Marco Guzman published a recent article looking at the efficacy of the SOVT with these masks. I think it’s much more environmentally friendly compared to a Styrofoam cup. They are reusable, and you get a better occlusion. An improved variation of cup phonation, for sure! Do you use them a lot?
TVF: Yes, I just did a masterclass at Northern Arizona University and used the air cushioned anesthesia masks with most of the singers. It’s a fantastic way to reveal the state of their vocal hyperfunction because it’s nearly impossible to articulate and sing with ease if they are indeed hyperfunctioning. It works like magic. I can tell them to not push their voice until I go blue in the face. But with the mask, they realize it themselves instantly.
MR: Right! Not only do you get a nice occlusive effect, it also alters their auditory feedback so it doesn’t allow them to micromanage their sound production. People tend to like it. I also bring these when I do masterclasses!
TVF: I tell them that if they find it very difficult to articulate their speech or singing while occluded with the mask, that reveals how hard they are overworking. It shows hyperfunction better than anything I’ve seen.
MR: But that also requires prop! Which leads me to “Blowfish!” Do you know what it is?
TVF: Isn’t that a Japanese fish that gets circumferentially round when it puffs up?
MR: Right. I credit my friend and colleague Robert Sussuma for the original version of this exercise. He is a Feldenkreis (tm) practitioner who also teaches voice. Robert used his version of this exercise on me in a masterclass, and I thought, “Why is this working so well?” I went home and played around with it and modified it. I use this all of the time and the majority of my patients and students really love it. A full written out description is published in The Vocal Athlete workbook, 2nd edition. (She demonstrates).
When you do blowfish, you inflate your cheeks and the pharyngeal space, just like a blowfish is inflated circumferentially. First, I teach it without sound. The steady stream of airflow comes out of the mouth, nothing goes through the nose. I have the student explore the sense of space in the back of the throat sensing the back pressure. The mouth opening must be very narrow. Then I have them add sound while maintaining cheek and throat inflation. The tongue is nice and relaxed at the bottom of the mouth. The sound is actually quite muffled (she demonstrates some glides in this configuration) This sometimes takes patients a while to achieve because the blowfish shape doesn’t allow the jaw to participate in the sound production process. This can be very difficult for many. Their ability to complete this task independent of the jaw gives me information about their structure and function and how they are wired. I take them through a series of experiential steps to help de-structure the tongue/jaw pairing during sound production. When executed correctly, the result is usually a very well calibrated and forward sound. Blowfish can be used for speech and singing as well and doesn’t require a prop!! (She takes me through these steps)
TVF: Marci, this is actually a fantastic tongue base exercise for people with swallowing problem due to poor tongue base retraction!
MR: Oh for sure! This is one of my major Go-to exercises for tongue release. Blowfish sort of “deconstructs” the brain’s narrative for what the tongue and jaw do when making sound. You have to make the tongue move. (She demonstrates a very audible and articulate “we were away a year ago” while maintaining the blowfish posture- I try this too)
TVF: My tongue wants to lock.
MR: Right. That’s common and gets better with practice. You can also do it voiceless and you can do it with singing as well, up and down in “di ga di ga di ga di” (1—2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1) Then move into just vowels. It can be very effective and is worth the fumbling around stage when learning how to coordinate it. Don’t give up too soon if you don’t get it right away. I always tell my patients and student “slower always gets you there faster”, “the tortoise always wins the race”!
TVF: Let me know when you make a video on this please. (Begging with a wide smile.) I will post it right away. Why does SOVT work?
MR: Without discussing in detail the physics behind SOVTs, I explain to my patients that it’s about building up back pressure. Your vocal folds convert aerodynamic energy into acoustic energy. Whenever we make any part of the vocal tract narrow, we call that occlusion. So SOVT in basic terms creates a traffic jam of acoustic energy. The acoustic energy cannot take the typical path of resistance which is straight out of the mouth. Some of that acoustic energy travels back down to the level of the vocal folds. I give my students a tactile example. I tell them to put their hands together and push the palms together firmly. Then I tell them to continue with palms touching but just barely touching. When the acoustic energy bounces back to the vocal folds, it encourages them out of a pressed state to just gently touching state. When the vocal folds are “unpressed”, the mucosal tissue on top of them is able to function better with a nice wonderful wave that we need to convert sound efficiently. That’s how I explain it to my patients and students without getting into too much detail about physics.
TVF: Like gently tapping a cube of jello together rather than mushing them against each other!
TVF: Do you include singing sessions in the clinical setting?
MR: I am very comfortable working with singing voice in the clinical setting. I do it all the time and I do not separate out singing and speaking. I use singing as a therapy modality with non-singers, avocational singers, semi-professional, and elite singers. To me, singing is often the path to the least resistance. I will work with singers on their singing if their technique is contributing to their voice problem. In my view, this is well within our scope of practice- for an SLP who has extensive experience working with singers.
TVF: I agree. I do it all the time too. If a singer comes to me with a singing problem, I have a clinical responsibility to address that. It is not rational to think that they will independently transfer their newly found speaking voice efficiency into singing. I will show them how and then help them find a voice teacher for continued training or communicate with their current voice teacher about my findings. I am not trying to discredit someone’s technique and voice teachers should not fear losing a student because of their students receiving singing voice rehabilitation.
TVF: Let’s talk about imagery.
MR: Imagery…it’s one of my pedagogy pet peeves. “Sing with support”, “sing a pear-shaped tone", what else? I wish I had a dime for every person who came in and told me they were told they need to learn to “sing from their diaphragm”. I always tell my patients that the directive to “sing from your diaphragm”, is about as useful telling you to contract your spleen. It’s a completely useless directive in my opinion. Most people do not have a strong kinesthetic reference to their diaphragm. I can, however, feel my ribcage expanding so I can get on board with that as a way to elicit more efficient breathing. My other pet peeve is blaming every technical problem on breath. It’s often not the case. If I had to choose one thing to blame, for me it would be the root of the tongue. If you threw me on a desert island and you gave me only one thing I can do, it would be exercises that involve tongue release. It certainly would not be an isolated breathing exercise like hissing etc.
TVF: Right. Tongue trill is one of my go-to exercises to figure out my patient’s vocal potential.
MR: Often, the breath sorts itself out when you address other areas of function. The breath is often not working because something else is not coordinated. It’s not that I don’t think breathing is important. I think there are a lot of other paths to the efficient voice which will take breathing along for a ride without focusing solely on breathing.
TVF: How young is too young to take a voice lesson? Let’s say a child who is 7 or 8 years old.
MR: As someone who started taking voice lessons at 8, my response would be to recommend looking for a teacher that will teach musicality, rhythm, singing songs that are fun in a nice and health way so that they are not just imitating all the things that they are listening to on iTunes. The goal should be to help them understand what strain feels like. I did start working with my daughter when she was 9 or 10. I was always her voice teacher until she went to college but I gave her “micro-lessons” when she was younger. I think you can working with younger kids at 10 or 11, but it will be different than working with kids approaching their puberty and teenage years and a teacher needs to know the appropriate developmental stages. It’s about promoting balance, not imitating the auto-tuned and air brushed pop stars. There is not a perfect answer for every kid. We have to look at what they want and need for their voice. If you are going to work with kids you need to know the developmental issues to be aware of and teach to each child’s needs. Working with professional level kids is a different thing all together and requires a teacher who is very knowledgeable with this population.
TVF: I always hear stuff like people who have shorter necks need a narrower straw etc. What is that about?
MR: I don’t tend to blindly generalize these kinds of things. I will go by the patient or student that is right in front of me and modify as needed. I always establish an effort scale with my students or patients right at the beginning to immediately tune them into their level of vocal effort. If 3 is like we are in Starbucks talking but not straining then talking in a library quietly might be 2 and yelling across the parking lot because someone took off with my purse might be and 8. It is important for singers to have an understanding of what things feel like in THEIR voice. We have to differentiate effort versus activation. If I take a soprano who has never sung in chest voice before down to A3, that soprano might say it’s a lot of effort but it really might be just activation that is unfamiliar to them. I spend a lot of time with them to help them understand the difference between train and strain. Especially when you are working with belters because they need to understand the difference. It’s not always easy to tell.
So going back to the straw, the feedback they are they providing in terms of what feels good and results in good buzzy voice determines what size straw I would start with. If that’s a narrow straw for them, great. I am also a big fan of straw in the water. I use smoothie straw for singing in the water, dip in deep into the cup for increased resistance on higher notes. But typically, I vary all of these things for all of my patients depending on need. I view voice training like a dialogue or a negotiation with the nervous system. I am helping to facilitate a reorganization of the patient’s mental rolodex for voice production. How many new voice production index cards can we provide our students or patients? Give them a different option than what they typically default to. The more options we have for sound production, the more flexible we are as singers.
TVF: What sparks joy for you?
MR: First of all, I truly am humbled and honored to have worked as an SLP at Michigan Medicine for the past 18 years. I work now with 3 world-class laryngologists and equally top notch SLP colleagues. I also have the great fortune of collaborating with my performing arts colleagues at The School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Most importantly, it is an absolute privilege to work with my patients, from the 90 year old church choir singer to the principal singer at major opera houses or a performer on Broadway. I am honored that they trust me with their vocal rehab journey. I consider it a calling to work with people who have injured their voice and it is a role I take very seriously. In my non clinical world, in addition to teaching privately, I get enormous joy from my new acrylic paint pouring hobby/obsession, my animals, my funny fabulous daughters, and my wonderful husband of 21 years, all of these things spark joy. Oh… and coffee. Coffee sparks a lot of joy.
TVF: The best thing about my job as a voice SLP, is my colleagues, people like you who shine naturally because there is no question that they love what they do, and do it with their heart and soul. I am very grateful for your time and sparking joy in so many people’s lives. Thank you.