On Friday, I was invited to take a specially organized private tour of The Voice Center for Medicine and the Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The tour was carefully and skillfully arranged by Nina Eidsheim, an assistant professor in the university’s musicology department, and Jody Kreiman, a professor at the Voice Center (along with Jody’s team). Nina is editing a forthcoming volume of essays about singing from Oxford University Press to which I am contributing. Jody is the author, along with Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, of Foundations of Voice Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Voice Production and Perception.
The UCLA Voice Lab is a fascinating place. This is especially the case for anyone who wants to know a lot about the human larynx.
I know a few things about this most delicate of human systems owing to listening to guests talk about it on VoiceBox, my weekly public radio and podcast series about the human voice. But I had no idea until Friday morning that scientists have so much trouble keeping this small and highly complex bit of flesh and muscle alive outside of the body in order to carry out research on it. Unlike muscles like the heart, the larynx can’t so easily be kept “working” artificially when it’s removed from the throat.
Recent experiments on dog larynxes (which are quite close in shape and function to those of humans) have enabled scientists to develop a system to keep human larynxes “alive” for around eight hours in isolation. It’s an exciting breakthrough as it enables a depth of research to be done that simply wasn’t possible before. Experiments on “dead” larynxes aren’t all that helpful and you can’t do all the things you might want to do to a larynx when it’s inside a working conscious human body. So the discovery will hopefully lead to the solving of many mysteries and pathologies to do with the human voice.
Here’s what Jody told me in an email about the importance of being able to “get inside” the voice box in this intimate way, as it relates in particular to singers:
I have been thinking a bit more about why a singer would want to know about voice physiology. In many arts and crafts, knowledge of tools is really important–the different brush fibers, the pigments, the kinds of wood or stone and how they vary with season and point of origin and age, and so on. It’s hard to be a good artist without being a good technician, I think. Knowledge of voice physiology would let singers know the limits of their tools, what is possible and what is not, how to reach closer to those limits safely, an understanding of what can go wrong and why–lots of advantages. This might not contribute much to artistic sense or interpretation, but it might add range to their craft (especially contemporary vocalists) and length to their careers, and maybe that extra layer of understanding might ultimately affect their artistry as well.
So there are artistic applications of the Lab’s research, as well as the purely medical ones.
The trouble is that acquiring human larynxes from fresh corpses isn’t easy. Bruce Gerratt, a colleague of Kreiman’s, told me that it’s often the case that the Lab will hear word of an organ donor, only to have the promise of the delivery of a fresh larynx revoked at the eleventh hour when the family of the soon-to-be-deceased changes its mind about giving up their relative’s parts to scientific inquiry.
In the absence of a constant supply of authentic human larynxes to study, the scientists at UCLA are making do with silicon ones.
Post-docs make the artificial larynxes, slivers of jelly-like substance that resemble tiny gaping mouths, in the lab. Scientists like associate professor Zhaoyan Zhang (pictured above) mount different combinations of simulated laryngal tissue onto slides and blow air through them to see how they react. The experiments are conducted on a zany-looking contraption (pictured) that looks like it’s been cobbled together by a bunch of scientists, which in fact it has.
I am looking forward to keeping in touch with the UCLA voice specialists and seeing how their research goes. In the meantime, if anyone out there has a larynx to donate, don’t hesitate to call Jody, Bruce, Zhaoyan and their colleagues at UCLA.