Karen Brunssen, mezzo soprano, teaches at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University where she is Professor of Music in Voice and Co-Chair of Music Performance. She is Past-President of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), a member of the American Academy of Teachers of Singing, and author of The Evolving Singing Voice: Changes Across the Lifespan, Plural Publishing, 2018.
What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?
At different times, and sometimes all at the same time, my musical career has been a combination of teaching, performing, presenting, administration, and a curiosity about the voice as a living instrument. The latter led to my book: The Evolving Singing Voice: Changes Across the Lifespan published in 2018 by Plural Publishing.
How did you discover your calling for your specialty? How did it start?
Years ago I did a presentation at a regional ACDA conference about the sounds of singing at different ages. I had an LP and cassette tape recordings of friends and family singing from the ages of three months to 103 years old. They heard a baby cry, a baby laugh, my son as a 3-year-old making up a song while banging on a percussive bell, then my son as an 8-year-old singing Kumbaya with a pulsy vibrato, myself at ages 17- 40 and ending with my grandmother at the age of 88 singing in her hooty soprano voice, and my 103-year-old great aunt exemplifying age-related beautiful imperfections such as cracking and running out of breath. In subsequent presentations I incrementally added a lot more information about why and how the voice changes.
Vocal function is dependent on where the body is within progressive and constant changes. Understanding how the voice evolves can play a useful role in the voice studio if teachers are better informed about age-related changing realities and expectations for their students.
What do you love the most about your work?
It is a delight to constantly be learning, connecting the dots about singing, and seeing them come to life for my students as they create and develop their musical lives. Every singer is unique in their sound and spirit. With this, the living vocal instrument and person is new with every utterance.
In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?
The best vocal pedagogues never think they have all the answers. Any progress they make toward understanding concepts, improving listening, adjusting approaches and application of ideas, and exploring repertoire, inevitably leads to further wonderings and exploring. Every student brings a wealth of uniqueness that reciprocally requires the teacher to learn about and even from their students.
Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors?
I have experienced mentors constantly throughout my life through voice teachers, choral directors, conductors, coaches. I used to go to my voice lessons early and stay afterward to watch my teacher, (Thomas Wikman) work with other students in his studio. His ideas and exercises for male voices continue to get results in my studio now. His idea of line with the breath flowing balanced on a breath pressure like we use when we are complaining, such as when one says, “Are you kidding?” makes the point every time. He was also a fine pianist and played for lessons, so I was coached along the way and always experienced the interdependence of function and expression. He was the founding director of Music of the Baroque in Chicago. Choral rehearsals with him were voice lessons. He exemplified what it is to be a self-made and self-taught person who did not go through formal education but was one of the finest musicians I had the honor of working with over many decades. Considering that my own terminal degree is a B.A. in Music from Luther College, “I did it my way” as I joyfully pursued singing and teaching not knowing or expecting what comes next.
Building Blocks – Questions about ten key areas of voice
When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Children can produce sounds as loud as adults. Their smaller vocal folds, lungs that have less elastic recoil which is made up for by expiratory muscles that work harder to achieve the 50-60% greater lung pressure for phonation. Around 8 years of age, as the thoracic cage grows, alveolar size and numbers increase commensurate with height, elastin fibers in the lungs develop, the ribs ossify, and the thorax shape changes from a flared out to more barrel shape. The high-pressure linear breath coordination of childhood gradually changes, the vocal tract lengthens, lungs develop, and vocal fold layers mature. During adolescence hormones trigger nonuniform growth spurts that outpace adaptive motor skills. Time, and some SOVT exercises can update coordination with their changing voices. As young adult females and males develop, they incrementally benefit from an “airflow conservation” method of support which Richard Miller refers to as appoggia.
When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
What we see in vocal pedagogy books and models are generally adult larynges. The cartilage of the laryngeal structure is spongy at birth. It ossifies slowly and reads as a bone on x-rays starting at the back of the thyroid cartilage during the 3rd decade and increases during the 4th and 5th decades of life. The infant vocal folds are one half cartilaginous and one-half membrane, the vibratory portion. The shorter vibratory length responds well to high subglottic pressure. After puberty they are 1/3 cartilage and 2/3 vibrable membrane. The layers of the vocal folds change throughout life. Fibers thicken and compositional differentiations contribute to changes in sound. With age the layers of the vocal folds change due to the amount, distribution and structure of elastin, collagen, and hyaluronic acid in the lamina propria. There are functional consequences with this.
When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Proportions among the layers of the vocal folds change dependent on age and sex through the life span. At birth the vocal folds are 100% one kind of cell. At 2 months they are two layers of different kinds of cells. By 7 years there are 3 different cellular layers. The proportions will continue to develop and change as they mature. The thyroarytenoid is not fully developed until post-puberty. During adult years the epithelium, three layers of the lamina propria, and the vocalis muscle are mature. With hormonal changes during the senior years the elastin fibers repair more slowly, and new fibers decrease with much less ability to stretch. It is not uncommon for there to be a bowing of the vocal folds during phonation. All of this has ramifications for the complexity of phonatory function and expectations for singing at every age.
When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
The miracle of the human voice is that it can make a plethora of vocal sounds as the breath, vibrator, and resonator interact to offer a vast array of options. Choices abound for the singer depending on what and how they want to sing. Sensations and a singer’s own proprioception of their sound serve as intuitive personal guides. Teachers and coaches can serve as external guides with their professionally informed standards of singing whether amplified electronically, or the singer uses specific amplifying strategies in their vocal production such as the “ring” of the voice.
When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
The voice can be produced at many levels up and down the scale. These can be referred to in numerous ways such as, from low to high, vocal fry, chest, head, falsetto, whistle. There are other names given to them such as Mode I and Mode 2. There are many opinions and varying criteria depending on whether one is speaking as a voice scientist or a voice pedagogue, or repeating language used in the past or new language used in the present.
Experiencing the full range of the voice benefits the singing voice. As singers become familiar with all their vocal possibilities they may discover their whistle register, the chest voice, their head voice, etc. Being able to isolate registers tends to be more important for non-classical styles, which is not my area of expertise.
When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
When a student walks into my studio I take notice of their speaking voice and their eyes. Both tell a lot about a student’s health physically and mentally. Are they rested or fatigued? Are allergies or a virus affecting them? Are they content, worried, nervous, sad? Almost always, singing can be very habilitating. As they improve vocal skills, coordination, and function, they set up good possibilities for themselves physically, musically, mentally, vocally, personally, educationally, artistically, historically, poetically, and even mathematically. These all reverberate to those they perform for as well as in the balance of their own lives.
When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Style means a lot of things including how to perform music from the various periods of music; Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th and 21st Century repertoire. And it can refer to contemporary styles; musical theater, jazz, gospel, country western, hip hop, choral ensemble singing, and more. All of these merit consideration of vocal techniques, context, language, culture, and performance practice.
When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Posture for singing develops best when guided relative to the age of the singer. Often those who work with singers rely on adult strategies. These may not be the best approach for children and senior singers.
When it comes to teaching methods or communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Teaching voice is an art as the teacher’s input flows informed by experience, empathy, fundamentals, knowledge passed on from past and current times, with an eye for what might be on the horizon, and all with the best interests of our students in mind.
Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Resources)?
We are fortunate for ALL the wisdom that brings life to our vocal and musical pursuits as we are flooded with life lessons that translate to all areas of our being. History and times gone by are embedded in us through song. Fellowship abounds in our community of singing. It reaches back in history, enlightens us in the moment, and evolves into the future.
Book and Chapters
- Brunssen, K. (2018). The Evolving Singing Voice: Changes Across the Lifespan. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.
- Brunssen, K. (2018). Planning the Menu for a Vocal Smorgasbord: Singing Across the Life Span. In B. J. Winnie, Editor, The Voice Teacher’s Cookbook: Creative Recipes for Teachers of Singing. (15-17). Meredith Music Publications, Delray Beach, FL.
- Brunssen, K. (2020). Back to the Studio. In M. Howe, Editor, A User’s Manual for the Aging Voice. (37-46). Compton Publishing, Braunton, UK.
Choral Journal Articles
- Brunssen, K. (2010, August). The Evolving Voice: Profound at Every Age. Choral Journal, 1(1), 45-51.
- Brunssen, K. (2017, February. One Life: Many Changes Throughout a Lifetime of Song. Choral Journal, 57(7), 43-49.
Articles for NATS Journal of Singing
- Brunssen, K. (2018, September/October). From the President: Celebrating 75 Years of “Pedagogy: Enhanced and Informed. Journal of Singing, 75(1), 1-3.
- Brunssen, K. (2018, November/December). From the President: Surrounded, Challenged and Motivated. Journal of Singing, 75(2), 117-118.
- Brunssen, K. (2019, January/February). From the President: Valuable Learning Tools at nats.org. Journal of Singing, 75(3), 241-242.
- Brunssen, K. (2019, March/April). From the President: Kindred Spirits Celebrating NATS 75th Anniversary and World Voice Day. Journal of Singing, 75(4), 389-391.
- Brunssen, K. (2019, May/June). From the President: Rocking the Boat and Riding the Wave. Journal of Singing, 75(5), 521-523.
- Brunssen, K. (2019, September/October). From the President: 1944: Can We Reconcile Pedagogic Paradoxes? 2019-Probably Not. Journal of Singing, 76(1), 1-3.
- Brunssen, K. (2019, November/December). From the President: Where Are We Going? Mentoring! International Initiatives! Advocacy! NSA Categories! Philanthropy! Journal of Singing, 76(2), 117-120.
- Brunssen, K. (2020, January/February). From the President: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” Journal of Singing, 76(3), 249-251.
- Brunssen, K. (2020, March/April). From the President: Ask Both What Your Association Can Do For You and What You Can Do for Your Association. Journal of Singing, 76(4), 377-379.
- Brunssen, K. (2020, May/June). From the President: Can One Exercise Make a Difference? Journal of Singing, 76(5), 509-511.
- Brunssen, K. (2020, Spring). President’s Update: Report of 2019 NATS Board of Directors Annual Meeting and NATS Transatlantic German Pedagogy Trip, Inter Nos, p. 4-5
- Brunssen, K. (2020, Spring). President’s Update: Unchartered Territory and the Journey to NATS’ First Strategic Plan. Inter Nos, p.5.
- Brunssen, K. (2021, Jan/Feb). College Auditions: Where to Start. NYSTA VOICEPrints, 19(3), 35-4.
- Brunssen, K. (2016, Sep/Oct) One Life, One Voice, Many Changes. NYSTA VOICEPrints, 14(1), 4-6.