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My First Knowledge-Driven Company

My interests have always varied widely, from music to art to sports to business. When I studied philosophy, my tutor led me into studying music, and shortly thereafter, I entered college as a piano major. I soon became interested in the dynamics of musical performance—why in our species we even have such a thing—and what it takes to light up an audience. My interest led me to focus on the question of what it means to be an artist in the world—the work, the exchange of values from the artists to their recipients, and, as a matter of pragmatic philosophy, the pursuit of excellence.


By graduate school, I had written my first book, The Performer Prepares, which offers a pragmatic methodology that evolved from these ideas about excellence in the exchange between performers and their audiences. I decided to apply my own ideas to myself by studying voice, an area I didn’t know anything about. As a neophyte, I could test the ideas, be my own guinea pig, and, in the process, I developed a fresh look at voice and the materials professors used to teach it.


In working with the ideas and materials, I felt the entrepreneur inside of me awaken. I saw an interesting business opportunity, enriched by writing books, directing and producing films, creating art, and programming software—all while working with great individuals and rich ideas about excellence in a particular area of human endeavor—the human voice. Such a business could become an incubator, my own personal laboratory for studying what it means to develop a knowledge-driven business just before the start of our digital age.


Several developments allowed for this high-knowledge business possibility.


Like Training Olympiads

Prior to studying voice and teaching at the university, I had a naive notion that singers either had a good voice or not, and the idea of training and developing a voice over time was only a fuzzy thought. But, since our muscular physiology—and its control by the nervous system—is virtually the same through our bodies, I realized that training a singer is much like training an Olympic athlete: instead of the large arm and leg muscles, we train the tiny muscles within the larynx, and the muscles that control breath and the vocal tract.


Feature by feature, an Olympic athlete and an operatic singer train along similar lines. Like a pole vaulter, when a singer leaps from note to note, he must recruit many muscles to execute precisely, guided from within by a carefully cultivated nervous system. He must condition those muscles over time, just like a marathon runner or sprinter, and the same principles of exercise physiology apply throughout the process: the muscles transform, become stronger, far more responsive. And like endurance racers and sprinters, singers are classified by the distribution of different muscle fiber types, leading to such classes as coloratura, lyric, and dramatic singers. All in all, a singer must train vigorously no less than six years to fully develop his voice.


A singer, however, must do more than an Olympiad: In addition to extraordinary physical feats, he must also light up his audiences, arouse them to heightened experiences, often to sustained sensations of beauty, grace, or emotional richness. He must execute the entire art form, rendering the music with appropriate style, completely committed to excellence.


With developments in science, funded by huge sports budgets, might there be a way to combine my ideas regarding the exchange of values between the performer and audience with ideas from science regarding the training of Olympiads? I thought such a unique blend might make a great knowledge platform, if we had key tools and knowledge to create it.


New Research from Voice Science

While there was a rich tradition for training singers, new research in voice science was reaching its heyday. Until this new research, scientists hadn’t really understood the voice, one of the most complicated organs inside the body. The muscles, membranes, and nerves are not only complex materials to model, but they are also highly adapted to the acoustics and aerodynamics of air, which are extraordinarily complex. But, under an inspired leadership in the community, voice scientists hammered away and developed a rich model that works well—one that described excellence in a singer’s voice in new terms and concepts. In light of the new voice science, we could reexamine the best practices from traditional pedagogies, understanding why they worked or didn’t work. With the conceptual tools from voice science, we could refine and extend those practices, or even invent new ones altogether—a true gift to the art from voice scientists.


However, to understand and apply this gift, singers need a foundation in science, which is not typically available to them. With new visualization tools (see below), I thought we could simplify the entire science, perhaps even make it beautiful, bridging the gap between the science and art.


New Research from Exercise Physiology

In another development, spurred on by the large budgets in professional sports, scientists were making huge strides in exercise physiology. Wiring up athletes to new monitors and software, they studied what happens to the body when put through rigorous conditioning, allowing for keen insights into how to optimize training programs. While these scientists weren’t specifically studying the voice musculature, we can nevertheless apply their research to conditioning the voice since the physiology is virtually the same.


New Research in Neurophysiology

In still another development, due to similar research from professional sports, exercise physiology, and heart health, researchers began to study the effects of mental states on athletic performance. For instance, at Harvard, scientists trained runners to meditate on spiritual experiences and bring those experiences into the act of running, which dramatically transformed their physiological functioning, and, ultimately, their performance.


I had undertaken my own study of excellence in performing along these lines, a study that addressed the x-factor in lighting up an audience. Among pedagogues, there was a general assumption that natural talent dictated whether or not the performer had the charisma for brilliant performance. But, through cultivating heightened and highly-valued states, much like the spiritual states in the Harvard studies, I developed a pragmatic methodology to transform any performer’s interior experiences, which dramatically and favorably affects the functioning of the voice, and the overall ability to light up an audience. (I’ve written about it here). This development would mean that, in building a knowledge platform for vocal pedagogy, we could introduce and integrate these nuances—a piece wholly missing from the literature.


New Digital Typsetting and Animation Software

In yet another development, companies began offering typesetting software for personal computers. At the time, publishers paid roughly $40US a page, but using the new software, they could reduce the cost to $7US a page. Due to their long-standing investments in their own processes, however, few publishers took advantage of these new computer systems at the time. It meant that an entrepreneur like me could capitalize a new publishing company more efficiently than previously.


In still yet another development, animation software was just beginning to reach the market. While these early packages were extremely limited, with enough creativity and an emphasis on matching the animation with the script, I thought we could illustrate complex ideas, bringing them within reach of nearly anyone.


For instance, using the limited animation software, we could only produce scenes that fit in computer memory, and the equipment had to play back the scenes to record them to tape. To record a scene, we had to turn on and off the tape and computer at the same time, by hand, to get a sequence of short scenes. But in doing so, we could reduce the cost of $500,000 for a traditional half-hour animation by a substantial amount.


This would mean that we could bring rich animation to the academic market, a field that was previously prohibitive for the high cost, and, in particular, simplify the complex voice science ideas and make them available for singers.


Direct Access to Decision Makers

Finally, college professors are known entities, which lends themselves to direct marketing. They also care about information, not especially who publishes the books, making it possible for the best book to win, allowing a small publisher to compete against the large publishing houses. This would mean that an entrepreneur like me could start with one book, a relatively low entry for starting a company.


All of these developments suggested to me that I could create a comprehensive knowledge platform for college professors of singers. Under the mission of making complex ideas easier to teach and understand, I thought we could filter the elements from the new voice research, picking what was relevant to singers, and integrate them into traditional vocal pedagogy. And the knowledge platform, once complete, would not likely change: the information would be valuable for years. This meant, while leveraging the digital technologies, we could invest in creating premium animation and elegant software, taking the time to produce well-written and easy-to-understand books, to create an inspiring and long-lasting platform—all at a price point below the standard publishing offerings. Since I had taught myself programming, I could write the software to run the company, designing processes to run the entire company as a digital publishing house/movie studio/software development company, which was novel at the time for information-based businesses, and which would create many new efficiencies in operations. In essence, the business model meant knowledge would drive technologies, rather than the other way around, which is more typical, and I could leverage those technologies, making for deep integration between knowledge, technology, and value.


I started the publishing company in 1987 with one book and it is still going today. We completed the knowledge platform for vocal pedagogy, and then leveraged it for speech and hearing science and for neuroscience. Through the years, we’ve taken advantage of new technologies to continue to streamline and expand the company. In 1989, for instance, we tapped Magnetic Resonance Imaging and the new image manipulation software to create a film showing the inside of the vocal tract and its many variations, in brilliant color, overlaying those images with animation. In 1990 we produced a lengthy, 45-minute 3D animation film, our first in a series, which was a pioneering effort by any standard in film making at the time. And in recent years, taking advantage of Web 2.0 strategies and the interconnected world, we have transformed the entire company into an Internet company.


Throughout the company’s history, I continuously worked with the marriage of science and art, knowledge and technology—all cast in business processes, in the exchange of values. I then leveraged this experience in creating my other companies, driving value by integrating other kinds of knowledge into deep technologies, so that the new possible expressions serve more efficiently, uniquely, and interestingly.


With The Celumbra Project, for instance, we draw upon vast and diverse knowledge streams to build a similar knowledge platform, though far more extensive. In this case, we produce communication assets that are wildly diverse, yet tightly-integrated. These include

    • advertising campaigns in television, radio, and the web
    • state-of-the-art theme park rides that integrate 3D animation, multichannel sound effects, complex, computer controlled lighting effects
    • filmmaking for television, web, and IMAX theaters
    • spectacle shows, ala Cirque du Soliel
    • novel “live” architecture
    • core business software that automatically produces knowledge-driven interfaces, dynamic responses, and interactive kiosks
    • convention displays that extend the companies
    • automated publicity campaigns


All of these works are driven not by the processes germane to the category, but by a rich and comprehensive knowledge platform, one that unifies art, music, neuroscience, and technology to create rich, unique, and dynamic value.