January 5, 2020. A few months ago, Joan Gallant’s quest to sing in tune following a cochlear implant (CI) was highlighted, along with some information on why it is a challenge. (See Will People With Cochlear Implants Always Sing Out Of Tune?)
After the posting was published, a reader sent in two sound clips and asked for feedback. While she didn’t wish to be identified, she did give permission to post the clips, and to send the clips to Johanna Boyer, a musicologist who works in music research for MED-EL, and was in contact with Joan Gallant. Johanna has personal experience as she’s had a cochlear implant for 10 years.
“I am a trained singer and have performance experience in opera, musicals, etc. and I do still perform as singer songwriter,” Johanna explained. She offers hope for people with cochlear implants who love to sing. “In the past 7 years I have conducted multiple singing workshops for CI users in Austria, Germany, and Finland and I also had a couple students, who I was teaching. I currently have a bilateral CI user, who is my student. Based on this experience I am confident to say that training can improve singing in tune in CI users.” Bilateral means that both ears have a cochlear implant.
The sound clips from the unidentified blog reader help to illustrate the challenge of singing in tune:
Blog reader Singing with CI #1 — https://drive.google.com/file/d/1yll-Q_5tnNu_26-4s4Btx3Pavwbis2l5/view?usp=sharing
Blog reader Singing with CI #2 — https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QOKndW_9-8vpMsajWTkjB8ANiz4o1V02/view?usp=sharing
After reviewing the sound clips, Johanna Boyer noted that “In my opinion there are 2 areas for CI users that need attention and training: pitch discrimination and vocal production (singing).
Pitch Discrimination is an important basis for singing and considering the various CI indications we have today, the cochlear implant path needs focused training. What I mean by that is if the individual, who is interested in improving pitch discrimination is a bimodal user (Cochlear Implant plus Hearing Aid) then he or she needs to train the CI alone to improve pitch discrimination in the CI. To assure that no residual hearing is used, the CI should be directly connected to the sound source through a connectivity accessory. There are many apps out there to train pitch discrimination, which makes training simple and fun.
When we sing it matters how we produce sounds and I have observed various aspects that impact intonation (singing in tune) in CI users.
- The placement of the tone: ideally, we want the resonating tone to be in the front so that when we open our mouth the tone is carried out. If we don’t practice the placement of the tone, then it might ‘get stuck in the throat’ and that impacts sound quality and intonation.
- Breathing control can also negatively impact intonation (the ability to sing in tune). If we can’t properly control the respiratory flow then when we e.g. open our mouth wider like with an A vowel more air suddenly escapes, which impacts intonation.
- The way we shape and place our vowels also influences intonation and is something we need to practice. I had students who thought they couldn’t match the pitch from the piano, and I noticed they were using a vowel that sounded very unstable. When I asked them to match the pitch using ‘m’ they had no problems.
- Pitch range: when someone chooses a song, it doesn’t always fit the person’s actual pitch range. Also don’t forget that no training and age can be factors that influence pitch range. With a smaller pitch range, higher or lower notes can become a challenge. Then often too much force is used, and so we overcompensate and don’t land on the note we meant to.
Now those 4 aspects I mentioned are easier to practice when you have experience, or a teacher who can guide you. Of course, I understand that not everyone has the possibility to work with a vocal teacher one on one. So…….other recommendations for practice opportunities I often give are: practicing in a group or choir, or using video games like ‘SingStar’ or ‘Rock Band’ that give you visual feedback about your intonation.”
Left to right: Johanna Boyer, Jenna Browning, Joan Gallant, Josh Stohl, Kosta Kokkinakis. (Photo courtesy of Joan Gallant)
A few months ago, Joan Gallant was invited to spend a week at MED-EL’s North American Research Laboratory in Durham, South Carolina, and had four researchers that worked with her. In her report, Joan explained that the “overall goal of the lab is to improve MED-EL’s cochlear implants.” The four researchers working with her were:
- Jenna Browning, a research audiologist
- Kosta Kokkinakis, an electrical engineer who is interested in how microphones pick up sound and determine what is useful speech and what is ‘noise’
- Josh Stohl, lab director and electrical engineer, interested in how to stimulate the hearing nerve in a better way that may provide more useful information to the brain for processing sound
- Johanna Boyer, MED-EL’s music topic manager who does research on music.
Joan described the week, which was both exhilarating and very hard work! “After the tour of the building and meeting the four lab members I would spend the week with, I signed the research consent forms and then did ‘baseline’ testing to give them an idea of my performance with my cochlear implant. I was asked to listen to words and then sentences, and to repeat what I heard.”
As Joan soon learned, this was just the beginning! In a brief summary she said that “This was a one-on-one study and very interesting and also exhausting. One study was on music training trying to develop a program for those with cochlear implants. I also had two singing lessons.”
Joan expanded on her summary, explaining that after the baseline testing, “I spent the week helping them to collect data. They use a computer in place of the external cochlear implant audio processor so that they can test new algorithms and sound coding strategies that are not yet possible on the current generation of commercial devices.” An algorithm is a logical or mathematical calculation.
Joan had a front row view of the research that goes into new generations of cochlear implants. “I got to listen to things in the lab before MED-EL comes out with them in their future products. A lot of what I did throughout the week was to listen to their new sound coding algorithms. For example, Kosta’s primary interest is reverberation and so his research studies tested me in rooms with different amounts of echo. He is trying to find ways to reduce noise and echo in different environments. Throughout the week I listened to 350 words and 1200 sentences (some with ten words) and many of these sentences were tested in background noise or in reverberant rooms.”
Joan was delighted to work with Johanna Boyer, who she had been in email contact with prior to arriving in Durham. “I also did 8 hours of musical training as part of Johanna’s research. She had different exercises that focused on various aspects of music, like melody and rhythm. There were many levels with increasing difficulty. Johanna also spent two hours providing singing and voice lessons, which is something she doesn’t typically do with other research participants. They try to individualize the experience for each research participant.”
By the end of the week, another test was made, and Joan was able to see if any of the initial results had changed. “On Friday, Jenna repeated the word and sentence testing that she had completed on Monday morning to see if my speech understanding had improved. By then, I had spent 30 hours in the lab, listing to different sounds (speech, speech in noise, speech in reverberant rooms, music, etc.), which is a lot of auditory training!”
The conclusion? “They were very pleased to see that I had improved in both quiet and in noise from all the testing I had done throughout the week. My words score improved from 60% to 80% of words correct in quiet. In background noise, I could tolerate an extra 3 decibels of noise to get the same score as I did on Monday.”
For more on the challenge of singing when you have a cochlear implant, see https://blog.medel.com/what-does-hearing-with-a-cochlear-implant-sound-like/?utm_source=salesforce&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=blogInt-update190814
Thank you to Johanna Boyer for providing so much insight and tips in singing for those with a cochlear implant. Thank you to Joan Gallant for her detailed report on her week at MED-EL’s research lab. Thank you to the blog reader who shared her sound clips. And a big thank you to MED-EL for making Joan’s experience possible. Do you have a cochlear implant and love to sing? You can share your experience by sending an email to email@example.com. You can also comment on this blog, or follow us on Twitter: @HearPEI.
© Daria Valkenburg