Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

Kittie Verdolini Abbott

Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at the University of Delaware
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Katherine Verdolini Abbott, PhD, CCC-SLP, MDiv, is Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Delaware. Her clinical master’s degree in speech pathology was completed at Indiana University (1983), and she completed her PhD in experimental psychology at Washington University (1991). Her primary clinical and research interest is voice and voice disorders. Her interest in voice stems from her own prior career in vocal performance, which spanned a variety of genres from classical to musical theatre, folk rock, and Renaissance music. 

Her research history includes inquiry into effects of hydration on voice, emotions and voice, cognition and motor learning in voice, wound healing, exercise physiology, spirituality, and clinical trials in voice therapy. Current research centers on cognitive and physiological mechanisms in pediatric voice therapy for children with vocal fold nodules.  Her work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1997. 

She currently advises six PhD students in her lab, as well as a post-doctoral researcher and a variety of doctoral students in less formal capacity around the world. In addition to her work in communication sciences and disorders, Dr. Verdolini Abbott completed a Master of Divinity degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches.

Interview with
Kittie Verdolini Abbott

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

Voice and voice disorders

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

My interest in voice started before I was 3 years old. At around that time, banging some pots and pans on the floor to make “music,” I announced to my mother that I wanted to be a singer when I grew up. My love for voice has never wavered since that time. In my teens, I performed fairly widely in high school and professional and semi-professional venues. I majored in performing voice at the university level, at Indiana University. I developed nodules as a result of trying to sing pieces that were not in my Fach (I was singing repertoire for lyric coloraturas, when in fact, it was later discovered I am a contralto). I was able to overcome the nodules with the help of a wonderful voice teacher in New York City (Raymond Wyatt), where I moved. I then spent 6 years in Italy, singing in rehearsals and performances every single day. After about 5 years, I did 3 concerts with a bad bronchitis, and forced my voice through the illness. I developed very serious nodules at that point. I returned to the States to study speech-language pathology in hopes of solving my voice problems. Over time, these problems were overcome, ultimately at the hand of my deceased husband’s surgical mentor, Dr. Pasquale Laudadio in Bologna. “Voice” continued to grip me, as it always has, and I was delighted to embark on a research career in it, while continuing clinical practice (and singing!).

What do you love the most about your work?

In short, I love everything about it. I love the process of realizing, by way of clinical observation or observation of my own voice that a pressing question presents itself. I love the process of honing the general question into one that can be experimentally addressed. I love working with my PhD students and other colleagues in this process. I especially love the moment when the results of a study are initially seen, in the numbers — the numbers often reveal a reality we cannot see with our usual eyes. I love watching students develop their own independent careers in research and clinic. I love the process of working with students and colleagues with expertise in a variety of domains that we bring to voice. Especially my students have brought numerous domains to voice, including exercise physiology, wound healing, psychology, motor control and learning, and even meditation. I am enriched as these students and colleagues teach me, and especially as the results are brought to the clinical and pedagogical world of voice.

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

I think that we as a field are still in the process of determining the answer to this question. At a minimum, I believe an excellent vocal pedagogue, including a speech-language pathologist, a singing teacher, an acting coach, will have multidisciplinary knowledge and demonstrated skills in bringing that knowledge to life in the individuals we work with.

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?

Of course, mentors are important in guiding us not only in the expansion of our knowledge and skills base, but also in career advising. Many mentors have influenced me deeply. I can start with my high school vocal coach, Jerry Nowak. He was absolutely instrumental. Others have included two singing teachers in particular, Mark Madsen and more recently, Craig Wich. Arthur Lessac was mentor in theatre speech and voice. Ingo Titze has been a critical colleague in voice science. All of these individuals were “different” from many others, in their excellence and in their thinking “outside the box.” They all influenced me deeply and I hold their influence and their persons close to my heart every day.

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

Oh golly. I think that although we often tout breathing as THE issue in voice production, our understanding of its role and how to accomplish it are often misguided. I think the most important approach to breathing in voice is seen with efforts to understand respiratory-laryngeal interactions in voice, rather than approaching breathing/respiration of its own. A current post-doctoral fellow in our lab, Dr. Maude Desjardins, has done some excellent work along these lines and continues to do so, now with computational modeling.

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

I believe that we can understand a range of vocalization patterns, including therapeutic ones, within a schematic that positions them along a spectrum of vocal fold configuration from pressed (undesirable), to barely ad/abducted (“ideal” in many cases, to optimize the ratio of voice output intensity to vocal fold impact intensity [Berry et al., 2001], to slightly and even greatly separated. Apart from pressed voice, each of these phonation modalities has its advantages and disadvantages, and the selection of one over the other should be based on the person involved. I also greatly appreciate the work of my former acting coach, Arthur Lessac, who gives students numerous expressive options across these configuration choices. I believe such options are not only extremely helpful for expressive purposes, but also for vocal health. I have come to conclude that the exclusive use of one laryngeal configuration, although generally healthy, can lead to fatigue and even damage. The “rose garden” of voice offers us solutions to this dilemma.

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?

Of course, vocal tract tuning is critical to optimize the amplification of harmonic frequencies issuing from the voice “source,” the vocal folds. Some singing teachers have discussed this issue in great detail, for example Kenneth Bozeman. And of course, Johan Sundberg’s work is seminal. At a personal level, as an attempt to imitate one of my earliest voice teachers, a lyric coloratura, I narrowed my own vocal tract that as contralto, is substantially larger than hers. This issue of vocal tract narrowing, especially pharyngeally, limits me to this day — when I do not attend to it. Therefore: “Be true to yourself!” Each voice is unique not only in its laryngeal characteristics, but also in vocal tract.

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

For almost any kind of singing, it is important to learn register mixing. My current voice teacher, Craig Wich, bases much of his work on this concept. We practice reinforcing chest voice, jumping to falsetto, and then integrating the registers in the middle. His take — and I agree with it — is that mixed and falsetto/head voice registration can be used favorably to simulate “belt voice,” with vowel manipulations. Powerful stuff!

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?

Pay attention to your own body. Your body knows when a vocalization is healthy and expressive and when it is not.

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

All styles are good styles, depending on who you are. Again, be true to yourself! We can damage ourselves trying to sound like someone else whose voice we admire, when that instrument and that personality are not our own.

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

Keep your ears over your shoulders. Even more important than posture is the attitude that accompanies it. A current PhD student, Aude Cardona, an accomplished opera singer and experienced yoga teacher, is working on studies that address the influence of “quality of attention” on voice. Her work is influenced by the mindful tradition, understood deeply. She says that the benefits of the asanas (body positions in yoga) are not the positions themselves, but rather the attitude. Stay tuned to hear about her work as it unfolds!

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?

Motor learning principles tell us to limit verbal, biomechanical instructions and feedback in training. The findings from this literature are counterintuitive and run counter to how many of us conduct our training sessions. The literature says that instead of an overt emphasis on movement biomechanics, attention is better directed towards movement outcomes. These conclusions are based on at least 2 decades of research and is powerful in its implications for training.

Will you share some final thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Books, Resources)?

Arthur Lessac describes 3 body “NRGs” (energies), 3 vocal NRGs, and one “love” — or “social” energy, of interconnectedness. All of these NRGs represent powerful training tools. Too often, in our “technical” approaches to voice training, we forget the “love,” or “social” energy of what we do. Voice is not only voice unto itself; it is a powerful tool for human interaction and healing!


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

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