Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

Kenneth Tom

Kenneth Tom, Emeritus Professor, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, California State University Fullerton; Integrative Voice Specialist; Researcher; Author


Kenneth Tom, Ph.D., is Associate Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at California State University, Fullerton. He received his A.B. in German and Music from the University of California Berkeley, with additional studies in musicology, literature and linguistics at Georg-August Universität in Göttingen, Germany. He studied voice with Susan Fisher Clickner at the New England Conservatory, Robert Eckert at the University of Iowa, and Carol Plantamura at the University of California San Diego. 

He completed his M.A. in speech-language pathology at San Diego State University and has been a licensed speech-language pathologist since 1988. After completion of his Ph.D. in Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Iowa, he held faculty positions at Emerson College, Boston, and California State University Fullerton. At CSUF, he trained over 600 speech-language pathologists in anatomy and physiology of speech, cleft palate/craniofacial disorders, voice disorders, and research methods as part of their clinical master’s degree program. He is the co-founder of the CSUF Gender-Affirming Voice and Communication Clinic.

His research interests include voice production, especially as related to acoustics, laryngeal function and aerodynamics; voice training and therapy: techniques and efficacy, complementary modalities; and acoustic and physiologic phonetics, especially as related to bilingualism and second language acquisition.

Kenneth is a Guild-Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner and certified yoga therapist, providing individualized instruction/therapy incorporating the tools of movement, conscious breathing, meditation, and chanting  – to support healing and wellness. He integrates movement/somatic learning approaches (yoga, Feldenkrais® method), manual therapy (myofascial release, craniosacral therapy, acupressure), theatre voice and singing techniques into his work as a speech-language pathologist specializing in voice training and therapy.

Interview with
Kenneth Tom

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

The main focus of my work has been training speech-language pathologists and providing clinical care in the area of voice. I approach teaching and vocal rehabilitation from a whole-person, mind-body perspective, integrating evidence-based voice therapy/voice habilitation techniques, movement and manual therapy.

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

My undergraduate studies gave me the opportunity to follow my interests in language/literature/culture, music (violin studies, vocal performance, musicology), and theatre/movement. During my junior year abroad in Germany, I observed a friend who was a Logopädin provide voice therapy in the otolaryngology practice where she worked – a seed was planted. Years later, I completed a master’s degree in clinical speech- language-pathology followed by doctoral studies in speech science with a focus on voice production/acoustics at the University of Iowa. While studying at the University of Iowa, I was inspired by the way Kittie Verdolini integrated movement and acupressure in her clinical work. I pursued training in manual therapy approaches, i.e., myofascial release, craniosacral therapy, and acupressure.

In my undergrad theatre training, voice was taught in a holistic body-mind way, combined with body/breath awareness and movement, in contrast to the way I was being taught in private voice lessons in the classical music environment. This dichotomy spurred a deep curiosity and interest in how voice is connected to movement, healing, and creativity. After years of studying yoga, I completed yoga teacher and yoga therapist training in 2009. I chose to train in the Viniyoga tradition, in which the tools of yoga are adapted to the conditions and needs of the individual, making it especially well-suited to personalized work. After being introduced to the Feldenkrais Method in workshops at the Voice Foundation, I explored Feldenkrais somatic movement classes and received one-on-one Functional Integration sessions. The experience of learning through somatic movement was revelatory, and I could see how valuable this approach to guiding change in neuromotor patterning was to voicework. I continued study in the Feldenkrais practitioner certification training and became a Guild-Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner in 2020.

What do you love the most about your work?

I love developing individualized learning processes with clients/students: creating a “space” that is engaging and safe for freely exploring; creating vocal and/or body movement sequences directed towards their goals. Witnessing aha moments of discovery, when a student notices and takes in – this feels better, this works better, now I understand. Supporting their problem-solving, creativity, and self-efficacy.

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

Having a clear understanding of functionally relevant anatomy/physiology/acoustics, how these systems work dynamically and the ability to communicate that information in a way that is understandable and relevant to a student. The ability to guide a student’s attention/awareness of the internal experience (sensory, emotional, cognitive) of singing and to elicit changes in a student’s neuromotor behaviors. The ability to accurately see and hear what a student is actually doing in the moment, what their physical/emotional responses to a suggested cue/instruction are. The ability to modify cues/instructions as needed. The ability to be an “emotional fiduciary” with respect to the student’s well-being. Kindness, generosity, empathy.

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?

Mentors are vital to growth and learning. Mentors can often see abilities and potential that one may not be aware of consciously, and can be a hugely positive force in shaping a career. They can advise and point out useful tools and steps to take to move towards accomplishing one’s short and long-term goals. They can be models of different approaches to building a career, finding work-life balance, and living one’s values. My voice teachers, Susan Fisher Clickner and Robert Eckert were both supportive over many years of my efforts to build bridges between different disciplines. Lilly Li-Rong Cheng, my mentor during my clinical master’s degree has shared important life wisdom and provided many opportunities for writing, lecturing, leadership and international work in speech-language pathology. I was most fortunate to be one of Ingo Titze’s Ph.D. students. Ingo’s passion for all things voice integrated art and science in a profound way. Kittie Verdolini was an inspiring model for creativity, not only in her scientific career, but also in her whole person approach to caring for patients. I am deeply grateful for all their guidance.

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

There are different approaches that singing/theatre voice teachers use in teaching breath management. It is vital to understand the anatomy and physiology of respiration in general – what moves/what can move, during the breath cycle. There are classic texts that are very helpful, e.g., Thomas Hixon’s Respiratory Function in Singing: A Primer for Singers and Singing Teachers. In this text, Hixon et al. made an interesting observation. Referencing an earlier study (Watson PJ, Hixon TJ. Respiratory kinematics in classical (opera) singers. J Speech Hear Res. 1985 Mar;28(1):104-22. doi:10.1044/jshr.2801.104. PMID: 3157022) they found that although the respiratory kinematics in their study participants (classical singers) were very similar, their “subjects' descriptions of how they thought they breathed during singing bore little correspondence to how they actually breathed.” All the singers’ narratives re: how they breathed were (1) not only different from each other, but (2) also did not match objective measures of their actual breath dynamics. Interesting to think about how this happens.

In each client/student, it is important to find out what conditions may affect movement ability in the thorax and shoulder girdle, e.g., previous injuries, arthritis, etc., and to discover what movements they can sense kinesthetically/proprioceptively. Each client/student should be guided to an approach/technique that effectively coordinates breath flow/pressures for their phonatory requirements, and efficient with respect to balanced, distributed muscular effort. If a particular approach creates more tension and vocal strain in a student, that’s probably not the way to go for that student, at least at their current learning stage.

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?

In its musculoskeletal environment in the upper airway, the larynx can be raised, lowered, or compressed. The degree to which one or more of these actions occur can be involuntary, sometimes below the level of conscious awareness (extraneous, unnecessary muscle contraction) or voluntary (e.g., lowering or raising the larynx to lengthen/shorten the vocal tract to “darken” or “brighten” vocal timbre). For vocal wellness and longevity, it’s important for the teacher/clinician to guide the student/client to reduce unnecessary tension/holding, and to acquire/habituate patterns that serve the student’s goals while preserving laryngeal health. It can be especially relevant in developing an authentic gender affirming voice and communication in transgender clients.

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?

The vocal folds have different “jobs” and these are accomplished in a coordinated interplay with acoustic and aerodynamic variables.

a. increasing/decreasing fundamental frequency
b. producing vocal timbres along the breathy to pressed quality continuum
c. producing shifts in vocal quality related to perceived registration
d. onset/offset of phonation

Within the aesthetics/expectations of your musical style/s, it can be very useful to consciously explore and compare options and then habituate the technique to produce what options you choose, keeping your short-term and long-term vocal health in mind.

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 word “resonance” is used to denote a number of different phenomena, which can cause considerable confusion. To reduce confusion, it’s good to be aware of this and know what the term “resonance” denotes in different disciplines. In speech science, resonance refers to the acoustic filtering (in the vocal tract) of pressure waves emitted by the laryngeal sound source, as well as the effects of the filtering on the acoustic spectrum. In clinical speech-language pathology it refers to differences in perceived speech, or objectively measured acoustic output and speech aerodynamics when the velopharynx is (mostly) closed, i.e., oral resonance vs. when the velopharynx is (mostly) open, i.e., nasal resonance. Yet, in the context of voice therapy, Resonant Voice, as a type of semi-occluded vocal tract exercise, resonant refers to phonation produced whereby the speaker senses sympathetic vibration in the front areas (skeletal, soft-tissue) of the face. In singing/vocal pedagogy it can refer to that aspect of vocal timbre that is perceived as more forward (“oral”) resonance or more back (“pharyngeal’) resonance. In theatrical performance voice training, it can refer to a perceived vocal timbre that is rich and deep.

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

This is perhaps the most controversial topic in singing voice pedagogy. Part of the problem is that the term registration is used to describe differences in both vocal production and perception of vocal quality. I will leave it to you to peruse the voice science and vocal pedagogy literature for the debates on terminology and the history of visualizations and other objective measures of relevant phenomena in the voice science literature.

I think it is less important to impose a highly detailed narrative descriptive/explanatory model when teaching voice, and more important to help each student become aware of differences in sensation when making shifts or transitions into different vocal qualities most teachers label as “registers”. These sensations include laryngeal/perilaryngeal movement/muscle tonus; movements of bony structures, e.g., the mandible, maxilla, zygomatic bone, hard palate, teeth; movement/muscle tonus/ position of soft tissues, e.g., the tongue, velopharynx; and locations of sympathetic vibration in the bony and soft tissue structures of the facial/cranial areas. This awareness can guide the development of
a reliable “Gestalt” for reproducing the vocal tract + breath management + vocal fold vibratory pattern to each series of tones in a particular “register”.

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?

There are very good resources available re: voice care, e.g., Joanna Cazden’s (2012) Everyday Voice Care: The Lifestyle Guide for Singers and Talkers. Jamie Koufman, M.D. has written a number of books offering practical ways to reduce chronic acid reflux. In the second chapter on Vocal Anatomy and Physiology in One Voice: Integrating Techniques across Performance Disciplines, 3 rd Ed. (J. Melton with K. Tom, 2022), I include recommendations for reducing risk for tissue injury, minimizing tissue trauma, and immune system health.

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

Although singing is a universal human activity, there are many unique musical styles that have developed within different cultures. Each has its own history of what is considered beautiful, authentic, and admirable in singing. Within a cultural context, the how of singing is passed on in different ways. Each of us has an opportunity to find out what is personally/culturally meaningful and alive for us in terms of musical styles, and to move along a path to learn the how.

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

Movement, thought, emotion and vocal expression are intertwined in our lived experience of responding to the environment we find ourselves in at any moment. Singing is movement, thought and emotion. Because of my background in yoga and somatic movement, I think it is less beneficial to think of good posture as a static “held” body configuration, and more beneficial to think of posture as the way the body can be functionally supported in relationship to gravity. Good “posture” for singing or on the theatrical stage may need to accommodate standing, sitting, lying supine, prone, or side-lying, walking, etc. Movement work with conscious body awareness can help a client/student discover, guided by sensation, options for “postures” that provide more optimal body shapes for performing vocal tasks. Trying to correct “incorrect” standing or sitting postures with specific mechanical instructions, e.g., lift your sternum, pull up the crown of your head, tuck your pelvis, widen up your ribs, etc. can fail to address the cause of compensatory, extraneous muscle tension that is a symptom of movement habits and/or incomplete or inaccurate body mapping. In some students, superimposing such “corrections” can exacerbate existing tension patterns, and add to a student’s confusion (“if this is more correct, why do I feel more tense and it seems harder to phonate?”).

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?

Most of us agree that students/clients have different learning styles and bring their particular habits of speech production and singing. They come with different medical/health backgrounds, and different abilities. I find it appropriate, then, to individualize and adapt instructional language and learning session structure (metatherapy). The content of instruction can integrate body awareness, redirection of attention, individualized supportive movement and manual therapy. Creating an environment that feels safe and supportive, encourages curiosity and active exploration. I think it’s our job to create this environment: the physical and emotional space, the substance of the physical and vocal work, and the guidance of the client’s/student’s discoveries. Discoveries “stick” and increase curiosity, exploration, and progress.

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

Moving along the path, as teachers, therapists, students, clients, singers, speakers – it’s important to provide for your emotional and spiritual needs. A life lived well is not only therapeutic, it brings you closer to the truth of who you are, which is the ultimate source of your creativity.

Please note that Kenneth Tom is not affiliated with VocalPedagogy.com and we do not disclose contact information. We hope you enjoy the interview!

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