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Personal life shapes music doctoral candidate’s dissertation

Marion Dickson used a life-changing condition to delve into unmined voice research and earn DMA

Ms. Marion Dickson

Many of the physical changes caused by pregnancy are obvious. But what does the months long process of gestating a child do to a woman’s voice?

Marion Dickson has personal and professional reasons for wanting to find the answer to that question.

She’s a classically-trained soprano who was pregnant with her third child when she started her doctoral program in the Moores School of Music. She wrote about the experience, and the effects on her voice, through research that provided answers to that question in her dissertation, Acoustic and Aerodynamic Impacts of Pregnancy on the Classically Trained Soprano Voice.

Dickson chose to pursue her Doctor of Musical Arts degree at UH after contacting Professor Joseph Evans, professor of voice, and Dr. Monica McHenry, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, and found both were eager to pursue this research with her while she was pregnant.

“When we started this project in 2009, there were no published studies on this topic,” Dickson said. “We wrote the protocol which examined vibrato rate, pitch accuracy, and the function of the vocal folds, as well as respiratory measures.”

Two extensive research studies conducted by well-known experts in the field were published in 2012, giving her additional results to compare with her own.

The impacts of her pregnancy on her voice were both positive and negative.  Pitch accuracy and vibrato rate were not markedly impacted by pregnancy.  However, increased vocal fold efficiency throughout third trimester, although within healthy levels, showed an increase in vocal fold tension, especially right before the birth. The 2012 studies came up with the same results. However, in Dickson’s study, at 10 weeks postpartum, most affected areas of the voice were again functioning at a more efficient rate.

Dickson’s research and teaching were recognized with a 2014 National Association of Teachers of Singing Emerging Leader award, an honor that is only presented once every four years. The award includes covered expenses for her to attend the 53rd NATS National Conference in Boston this summer.

“The Moores School is a world class facility,” added Dickson. “I also had the unique opportunity to cross over and work with Communication Science and Disorders. They all understood me as an artist, individual and a professional.”

“Working with Marion has been an adventure and a joy,” said Professor Cynthia Clayton, Dickson’s advisor and associate professor of voice at the Moores School of Music. “I know she will be an asset wherever her teaching takes her.”

Since 2008, Dickson has been an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas. She enjoys her position there and is happy to remain a part of their music department. With her doctoral degree, she is seeking tenure track-position that gives her the opportunity to teach full time.

As Dickson prepares for Commencement on May 9, 2014, the baby boy that inspired her dissertation is a three-year-old preschooler. His involvement with his mother’s UH education didn’t end after his birth – he and the rest of the family attended her final vocal performance that marked the conclusion of her doctoral studies.

Balancing a teaching position and a young family, while pursuing a doctorate degree is something that brought Dickson and her adviser, Dr. Clayton, closer together.

“Marion and I are both singers, teachers, and mothers,” said Professor Clayton. “I remember fondly the time childcare fell through and she had to bring her youngest (the baby whose pregnancy was well documented in her dissertation) to her lesson, which happened to be one which several prospective graduate students were observing. She handled it with grace and pragmatism, and her usual good spirits and energy. ”

- By Monica Byars