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Beatboxing after Laryngectomy

26th April 2017
Public Engagement
A Beacon Bursaries project

What makes public engagement with research so powerful is its ability to give diverse communities a voice.

Beatboxing after Laryngectomy, a Beacon Bursary project led by Dr.Evangelos Himonides, did just this by giving laryngectomy patients a platform to be seen and heard. The activity has also influenced his ideas for future research.

In a series of Beatboxing workshops, delivered in partnership with Shout at Cancer, Dr Evangelos brought together clinicians, patients with laryngectomies and young East London audiences to explore the role of beatboxing in voice rehabilitation and to raise awareness of the difficulties facing those without voice boxes. Culminating in a final performance, a world premiere of Beatboxing Without a Voice, at the Olympic Village on 8th April 2017.

We asked Dr. Evangelos to tell us more about his project, what public engagement with research means to him and how the Beacon Bursary award supported his vision.

Why did it feel important to you to undertake this project/piece of engagement? And how does it relate to your research?

I have been very passionate about supporting people with special needs and/or disabilities, but also people that face particular challenges. Throat cancer patients face multiple challenges, from the time of diagnosis, to surgery, rehabilitation, and integration. Laryngectomy has a direct impact on patients’ ability to communicate with other people, and make themselves understood. In some of these challenging situations, greater awareness and understanding of the condition could enable laryngectomees to feel less excluded. This is why we wanted to engage the wider, unaffected, public in this event, and raise awareness, through singing activity. My own research often centres on singing and its countless facets (e.g. artistry, expression, acoustics, psychoacoustics, technology, development, therapy, rehabilitation, etc.)

How did the Beacon Bursary award facilitate that?

The Beacon Bursary allowed us to realise a long-time aspiration to establish whether Beatboxing could be a meaningful artistic, but also developmental and supportive activity with people that had undergone laryngectomy. We managed to structure a number of training sessions that led to a final public performance at the Olympic Village. Thanks to the support of UCL Culture, we were able to employ a world-leading Beatboxing artist (Marv Radio), and a renowned Classical singer (La Verne Williams), access necessary equipment, and also rent a venue at the Olympic Village, where we held the final public performance.

How did your collaboration with Shout at Cancer come about?

My collaboration with the charity Shout at Cancer really is a celebration of the importance of the symbiotic relationship of teaching, research and scholarship. Some years ago, a young and energetic medical doctor, Dr Thomas Moors, enquired about the possibility of undertaking the postgraduate module that I lead named “Choral Conducting, Leadership and Communication”. Interestingly, he did not fit the usual ‘profile’ of my post-graduate demographic. He was not a music educator, but a junior medical doctor practising in ENT. Thomas was (and still very much is!) a man with a plan; he had a vision of forming the UK’s first ever ‘Alaryngeal Choir’ and wanted to join our programme in order to sharpen his conducting skills, but also in order to become introduced to the evidence base on leadership and communication. I was fascinated by his vision and aspirations, and we have kept ‘the discourse’ and enthusiasm alive since, trying to identify potential synergies. Last year, Thomas founded Shout at Cancer, and I have been trying to support him in a number of ways, but also in identifying future research foci.

What did you discover about the use of beatboxing in speech rehabilitation and trauma recovery?

The first and most important realisation is that all participants have had an absolutely wonderful experience. But many other positive things have emerged. Beatboxing has proven to be a great outlet for artistic expression for alaryngeal singers for two quite different reasons. First, beatboxing is a very inclusive, pluralistic, and also democratic artform. In beatboxing “every sound is valid”; this offers a wonderful opportunity to laryngectomees to produce sounds that are not necessarily going to be mapped onto an elitist conventional ‘aesthetic chart’. They do not have to conform, which is somewhat liberating. Second, many of the popular beatboxing sounds are not ‘voiced’ anyway(i.e. coming from the vibration of the vocal folds) … this means that laryngectomees can produce similar sounds and sound effects as non alaryngeal singers. One additional benefit from engaging in beatboxing is its strong reliance on rhythm/timing. The participants reported that this was very beneficial for their breathing and muscle control. We are keen to research this systematically in the future.

How do you view the relationship between the arts and health? What’s next for research in this area? Do you see a future in which the two are better integrated?

I am very glad that you have asked this question! Although things have changed dramatically over the past two decades, there still is a remarkable part of the population and, quite disappointingly, the funding, government, and policy making worlds that are not quite aware how arts and health go in tandem. There is a growing body of research that clearly demonstrates the importance of musical and other artistic activity in rehabilitation, mental health, palliative care, development, pain management, but also healing. Arts, Health and Wellbeing research centres across the world and within the UK are making remarkable progress in carving a more promising future of synergies between the Arts and Sciences by conducting systematic research that interrogates this relationship. Thinking about fostering the integration of arts with sciences (applied or not), one cannot but celebrate the success of UCL’s own Bachelors of Arts and Sciences programme (BASc). I am extremely proud to announce my recent collaboration with BASc and the Digital Arts in Education (DARE) centre in launching UCL’s first ever music related course (now validated and to become available next academic year) titled “Interactions of Music and Science”.

Why is public engagement with research so important?

I might be biased, as I am an academic at the UCL Institute of Education, the world’s number one institution in educational and social sciences research. Education is therefore core to my ethos, heart and soul, whatever these mean to different colleagues here at greater UCL. Public engagement with research is not just important, it is absolutely vital. During these challenging times, where even the notion of ‘fact’ (i.e. the core of scientific enquiry) is being tortured to its limits, it is engagment that needs to be nurtured and fostered. Increased engagement leads to better education and better education leads to a better society, and this, in my opinion, is a fact!

What did you find challenging about the process? Particularly working with patients who have been through the trauma of throat cancer and laryngectomy?

Multiple challenges existed, but these could not compete with the rewards. Unfortunately, when collaborating with a group that is continually facing major challenges, planning can never be strict, and one has to be prepared for unpredictability. This might involve remission, reaction to new medication, issues with valves, infections, psychosomatic problems, on top, of course, of everyday ‘administrivia’  that might get in the way. When running a project that involves many people, one can sometimes get carried away to hope that participants would be in a state of ‘cryostasis’ between sessions. This, obviously, is not the case. Thankfully, the people at Shout at Cancer, including the patients, are experienced and very sympathetic to this unique context and the various challenges. The levels of altruism and collegiality have been remarkable, and I feel honoured and inspired to have been given the opportunity to conduct this project.

How would you sum up your experience?

I think that it would be better for me to offer quotations from members of the public instead:

  • "As a Laryngectomy participant, this was a unique experience performing in front of people of all ages & letting them know that life is to live on even after losing natural speaking ability".
  • "Really interesting to see the work done and the progress made by the alaryngeal individuals, and learn more about the challenges they face and what can be done".
  • "Fantastic!! Great community feel to the event, very entertaining and thought-provoking".
  • "This event was truly inspirational. To hear the stories of the larynx group, accompanied by the beautiful words spoken by the children and then the great music really touched my heart. I think the work of all those involved should be applauded and supported. I hope in the future similar events can happen to raise awareness and get the needs of this condition more in the public eye".
  • "This was an inspirational and informative event. The concept was so simple yet so uplifting. Thank you for the opportunity to hear patients, professionals, young people and the public share in making amazing music together".
  • "The speeches delivered by some of the participants were moving and thought provoking. Understanding that the operation not only removes the voice box but also make the act of breathing so much hard gave me a new sense of respect and appreciation for what these people are going through. The courage and physical stamina they have shown in the face of their situation is a massive inspiration". 

What’s next for you?

We shall continue pursuing further funding opportunities and designing future research. I am currently working towards the development of a baseline map of the acoustical properties of the alaryngeal voice, in collaboration with Thomas. We are also exploring possibilities with Wellcome and other funding bodies. The future is exciting. Thank you so much for supporting this work. I am very grateful to UCL Culture for the wonderful opportunity.

Beatboxing after Laryngectomy was funded by the Beacon Bursary scheme. Beacon Bursaries are available to UCL staff and postgraduate research students looking to connect their research or teaching with people outside UCL. Interested in applying? Find out how here.