Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

Kari Ragan

Voice Teacher, Singing Rehabilitation Specialist, Trainer of Voice Teachers, Author

Biography

Singer, author, and voice pedagogue, Kari Ragan holds degrees from the University of Washington (DMA), and Indiana University (MM, BM). In 2012, Dr. Ragan was the recipient of the prestigious Van. L. Lawrence Award. This prestigious award, presented jointly by The Voice Foundation and the National Association of Teachers of Singing, afforded her the opportunity to research cool-down physiology for singers. Dr. Ragan was also the recipient of the NATS Foundation Pedagogy Award (2009), earned the NYSTA Distinguished Voice Professional Certificate (2009), the Wicklund Singing Voice Specialist Certificate (2010), and was selected to be a Master Teacher for the NATS Intern Program (2021).

As a singing voice rehabilitation specialist (SVS), Dr. Ragan works in affiliation with the University of Washington Laryngology program to help rehabilitate singers with injured voices. She has maintained a thriving Independent Voice Studio for nearly forty years and served on the voice faculty at the University of Washington teaching Applied Voice, Voice Pedagogy, and more. Dr. Ragan serves as the NATS Advancement Committee Chair and on the NATS/Rowman & Littlefield Editorial Board, and is the moderator of NATS Chats, a national monthly webinar. She is the co-founder and organizer of the Northwest Voice: Art and Science of the Performing Voice Conference, a multi-disciplinary meeting held annually in Seattle, Washington.

Plural Publishing released her book A Systematic Approach to Voice: The Art of Studio Application in 2020. Other publications and information can be found at KariRagan.com.

Interview with
Kari Ragan

What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty?”

At the core, I am a teacher of singing. Within that context there are three areas of focus: I specialize in a science-informed approach to guide singers toward efficient singing in order to serve their artistry; teaching other voice teachers through practicums and private sessions to guide their approach to teaching singing; and, as a singing voice specialist (SVS), working in affiliation with voice medical teams to rehabilitate singers with injured voices. Much of my approach to teaching is encapsulated in my book A Systematic Approach to Voice: The Art of Studio Application published in 2020 by Plural Publishing. 

How did you discover your calling for your specialty? How did it start?

During my sophomore year of college, my voice teacher connected me with a local high school that wanted someone to teach singing. When I transferred my junior year to Indiana University, I connected with local high schools there to begin building my teaching studio in order to help pay for college. It wasn’t until later in life, though, that I truly embraced my love of teaching singing. Separate from that, the singing rehabilitation specialist work came about from a series of coincidences that led to my collaboration with the voice medical profession. 

What do you love the most about your work?

There are many facets I love about this work. The most meaningful aspect is helping singers explore their full vocal potential knowing what a profound impact their life as a singer has on their overall quality of life. It is a joy to be able to assess what is impeding vocal function and then devise some exploratory vocal tasks that guide the singer toward vocal efficiency and artistry. I love guiding fellow teachers in this work to optimize their approach to teaching singing. 

I also feel privileged to work in affiliation with medical voice teams helping to restore singers’ voices and often surpassing their previous singing goals. Singers are often at their most vulnerable at that time, so this work is very specialized and rewarding. 

Teaching singing engages my intuitive and empathic sensibilities. I value tremendously the trust singers place in me and the process we pursue together.

In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?

As Voice pedagogues, it is best when we practice within our areas of proficiency because the skill set required is vast. In our field, that knowledge base includes understanding the fundamentals of anatomy, physiology, acoustics, and cognition of the voice as well as vocal health and hygiene. It includes a broad range of musical skills needed when applying the above to a variety of genres/styles. The art of teaching is knowing how to impart that knowledge in an accessible manner. I believe a voice pedagogue must have excellent ears, an understanding of a singer’s voice function, and a respect for their humanity. As pedagogues, we offer our best when we operate from deep curiosity and humility to continue to learn, study, and collaborate to serve the needs of our clients.

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?

My mentors have been many, too many to name, from my earliest choral directors and voice teachers to those with whom I have studied or coached as a professional singer. After university, my principal voice teacher was the renowned Ellen Faull, Juilliard Emeritus, and opera coach/conductor Dean Williamson. Each has had a tremendous impact on my career as a singer and teacher. Mentors can provide a life changing trajectory to one’s journey, so they are critically important. Trusting someone to know and guide you requires much faith. Even now, I have treasured colleagues and friends who I consider to be my mentors. It is no small privilege to be a mentor, and I aspire to be that to others in our field.

When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Fundamentally, there are physiologic truths about the mechanics of breathing for singing; and I believe voice teachers should have knowledge of those facts. However, teaching breathing for singing falls along a continuum. At one end we have the physiologic knowledge (how the body actually works) and on the other end kinesthetic exploration (how it is experienced by the singer). A voice teacher’s job is to guide that exploration knowing that singers employ a variety of successful breath management strategies individual to their needs and informed by their genre. 

Thomas Hixon’s Respiratory Function in Singing: A Primer for Singers And Singing Teachers I find a particularly useful resource among many others. 

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?

Every day I marvel at the magic of the larynx. One of my primary concerns with regard to the larynx is vocal health and hygiene. Knowing how to care for this instrument through the span of a lifetime is critical. I have spent forty years teaching voice and am privileged to have spent twenty of those years working in affiliation with a preeminent voice clinic to rehabilitate singers with injured voices. This association has afforded me exposure to a wealth of information generously shared by the laryngologists and speech-language pathologists with whom I collaborate. It has profoundly changed my career and approach to teaching. 

We live in a time of incredible access. This can be both a blessing and curse. So, when you find a trusted resource dig deep. We know so much more than we used to so there’s less guess work.

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? 

We depend on the vocal folds to achieve amazing feats, so we need to take care of them! When you think about how many “miles” the vocal folds travel each day, especially as performers, it’s nothing short of miraculous. As mentioned above, it’s imperative we understand vocal health and hygiene and inspire our students to do the same. Staying current on research is imperative. 

I also encourage singers to get a baseline videostroboscopy from a laryngologist who specializes in the performing voice. The article “Understanding Voice Doctors: Whom to Call and When to Call Them” is available on my website and has much useful information on this topic. 

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? 

To borrow from the Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin movie title, “It’s Complicated.” ☺ I believe one of the most important aspects of acoustics is understanding that resonances of the vocal tract impact the vocal folds either by strengthening or disrupting their vibratory pattern as the sound waves return to the source (inertive or compliant reactance). In other words, when resonance in singing is produced in an optimal manner, it creates acoustic energy that helps the vocal folds vibrate more efficiently, resulting in less effortful singing. That’s worth knowing!

When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience? 

Once we get out of the “semantic minefield” of registration it is such a fun and interesting topic to explore with our singers. I believe it can be simpler than people make it. I developed a slide rule (pg. 119 in my book) that gives a visual representation of how to explore vocal aesthetics on a continuum within the context of registration. Other than that, one of the most important aspects of registration for voice teachers to know is that it is now understood to be BOTH a laryngeal source and acoustic occurrence. That’s critical! 

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? 

Vocal health is one of my favorite topics because an education on this subject has a profound impact on decisions regarding voice use and care. At some point, every singer will experience a vocal health challenge whether it’s something as simple as recovering from a cold or more serious such as having a diagnosed injury or pathology. There is so much to consider with regard to vocal health: daily vocal dose, emotions and their impact on the voice, medications (both OTC and prescribed), voice hygiene, efficiency of voice technique, and much more. 

I attend many multi-disciplinary conferences where I am reminded that the more I learn the more there is to know; the learning never ends. I am so passionate about this topic that I co-founded (along with my medical voice team at the University of Washington) a multi-disciplinary conference held annually in Seattle called Northwest Voice: The Art and Science of the Performing Voice Conference. There is so much to learn through collaborative care and the voice team approach with MDs, SLPs, and other tangential fields.

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 is an important topic, especially in a twenty-first century approach to teaching. I encourage voice teachers to refer to specialists when working with genres outside their field of expertise. In my experience, contemporary singers often have their own style, sound, aesthetic, so it’s vital that while helping them gain more vocal efficiency we not interfere with their natural style; the essence that makes them unique. 

In the past couple of decades, we have certainly learned a great deal about the importance of cross-training. This is for the betterment of vocal function, but also for exploring the full potential of a singer’s voice and artistic sensibilities.

When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience? 

Every BODY is different so I like to guide singers to explore alignment, posture, and movement in a way that feels natural. There is no need to impart some specific posture upon them. That being said, proper alignment can have a tremendous impact on the body reorganizing itself for more efficient singing. 

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? 

The art of teaching is tailoring complex ideas about singing so that they are accessible to the singer and fit their individual needs and goals. As voice teachers, we must have a strong intuition about how to successfully achieve this. Most complex principles of voice production can be simplified during application in a lesson. Teachers incentivize the singer when they are allowed to first experience vocal efficiency. Once vocal efficiency is experienced, singers are motivated to more readily welcome little bits of information parsed out in a way that is age and level appropriate.

Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Books, Resources)? 

As a voice teacher, I try always to remember what a privilege it is to be entrusted with a singer’s voice, an instrument that lives within their body and soul. The trust that singers place in me comes with an awesome responsibility as a pedagogue and as a fellow human being. It is critical to see my students as not just their voice but as a unique individual!

I encourage those interested in voice pedagogy to explore the hard-working organizations within our field that make certain we have up-to-date information, opportunities for collaboration, networking, connection, and simply sharing time and space with other like-minded individuals who love the voice. National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), Pan American Vocology Association (PAVA), The Voice Foundation, and many others are a few to consider. I encourage people to join and support these organizations as the benefits can be life altering and career affirming.

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