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Protecting Voices through Music & Science

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Musicians are protective of their instruments. Cellists purchase a second plane seat for their cello. Pianists try to control humidity. UW senior Addison Francis is no exception. The instrument she is careful to protect? Her voice.

Francis got an early start as a singer, taking private lessons and singing in talent shows, church worship, and musical theater from a young age. Performing with others, she noticed that many singers do not adequately protect their instrument. “I saw many areas of music where there’s not a focus on vocal health,” she says. “Across the board, I saw a lack of awareness.” Hoping to change that, Francis majored in both music and speech & hearing sciences.  

Addie Francis

“Most schools don’t have both a speech and hearing department and an auditioned music program," says Addison Francis. "Here there is a lot of interaction between the two, which is what I wanted.”  Media credit: Max Weinstein-Bacal

“I chose the UW for that reason,” says Francis, a first generation college student who received a Hans Wolf Fellows Award and a Mu Phi Epsilon Seattle Alumni Endowed Scholarship, both from the School of Music. “Most schools don’t have both a speech and hearing department and an auditioned music program. Here there is a lot of interaction between the two, which is what I wanted.”

Francis credits Kari Ragan, artist in residence in the School of Music, with helping her bridge her two interests. Ragan teaches voice, but she also works closely with colleagues in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences (SPHSC) and UW Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology to rehabilitate singers with vocal health problems. “She got me connected with everybody from day one,” says Francis. “I had an idea of what I wanted to do, and she provided me with guidance and support.”

Ragan also helped Francis further develop her singing voice. During her time at the UW, Francis has performed in three UW operas, sung with guitar students for their recitals and at retirement homes, and performed with the Campus Philharmonia Orchestras twice. In March 2017, when the orchestra presented Schubert’s Mass in G at Meany Theater, Francis sang in four of the mass’s six sections, including a trio, a duet, and two solos. Each section was conducted by a different student from the UW’s orchestral conducting program.

Music is part of who I am. Speech language pathology is just a different perspective on it.

“The first time I ever sang with an orchestra was my junior year,” says Francis. “It’s such a vast encompassing sound, with so many colors. It’s exhilarating. And senior year, singing in Meany was amazing. I’ll always treasure that experience.”

Francis also performed in class, which proved to be as nerve-wracking as singing on the Meany stage. “The songs can be challenging,” she says. “It’s the first time performing them with accompaniment and in front of your peers. You’re thinking about the language component and about bringing the character to life. As a music student, performing is not like an exam you can study for. It takes hours of practice that may or may not be constructive. Taking exams is a breeze compared to performing for my advanced repertoire class.”

Addie Francis

"The side of just being able to empathize with people is something I really love about the field [of speech language pathology],” says Addison Francis.

Courses in speech and hearing sciences have required an entirely different skill set for Francis. SPHSC covers a wide range of communication issues, with voice being just one area of specialization. Students learn about communication disorders and how to interact with diverse clients. “The side of just being able to empathize with people is something I really love about the field,” says Francis, who spent one afternoon a week during her senior year volunteering in a preschool for children with hearing impairments.

Francis also served as vice president of the National Student Speech Hearing Language Association and has volunteered for the past two years at The Arts & Science of the Performing Voice conference, presented by the Northwest chapter of The Voice Foundation. The conference brings together music teachers, speech language pathologists, and otolaryngologists to share their research. “Those conferences have greatly exposed me to different leaders within the field.” says Francis. “That’ll be me someday.”

This fall, Francis will take the next step toward making that happen as a graduate student in speech language pathology at the University of North Carolina (UNC) - Chapel Hill School of Medicine. But that doesn’t mean she’s abandoning vocal performance. She’s already confirmed with the UNC music faculty that she can audition for UNC operas and other productions.

“Music is part of who I am,” says Francis. “Speech language pathology is just a different perspective on it. It’s important to have musical people influencing science-heavy fields, and to have the science of voice introduced in the School of Music. The connection between the two is crucial. For me, that’s what has been so great about studying at the University of Washington.”

To learn how you can provide scholarship support to students like Addison, visit the College's website or contact Jessica Frederick at 206-616-3253 or jessimay@uw.edu