UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering



1 February 2022

Three of UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering's Impact Fellows use this blog to reflect on their experiences engaging with the public through an interactive workshop at Tomorrow's Home 2050 exhibition

Group collaborating at workshop

How often do we, really, think about our voices? Other than momentarily wincing when a recording of us is played back, we usually take them for granted. And yet, for many of us, they are a vital feature of our lives. Our voices are related to our age, our gender, our class, they often determine our communication. So how do they affect us? How do they define us? 

The “Voice and Ageing, Voice and Home” event that took place at the Museum of the Home last December offered a closer look at these questions. This free workshop was part of the Tomorrow’s Home 2050 installation, a larger project at the museum which was designed by The Liminal Space in collaboration with the UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering. Tomorrow’s Home 2050 imagines what our homes will look like 30 years from now, incorporating technological advances and considering the crucial challenges that we will face, such as climate change or an ageing population.  

The workshop was led by Hannah Conway and Hazel Gould, a composer and a writer respectively with experience in running artistic, interdisciplinary events with the general public, such as their project SoundVoice. Through a mixture of singing, creative writing and discussion, they took a group of people on a journey to explore deeper questions about their vocal identity, and its relationship to the home. The workshop environment allowed for interesting synergies between people of all backgrounds, with surprising and fascinating results. The joy of collaboration is discovering, through others, things we did not know about ourselves. 

Three of our IHE Impact Fellows participated in the workshop and have written about their experience.  

Group engaging with collaborators at workshop

Oriol’s experience 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the workshop was talking to Charmian Bedford, a trained opera singer who performed for us. On a very basic level, listening to an opera piece from up close (we were only a few feet from her) is staggering. The power and control in her voice was unlike anything else, a show of skill as impressive as that of a weightlifter or a pro runner. At a time when mumblecore and breathy pop delights are the norm (and I have nothing against them!, God knows I love Taylor Swift), Bedford’s performance was a reminder that the voice is as much of an instrument as the piano, one that you can tune and modify and improve.  

After the song, we were asked to describe Bedford’s voice. It was a trusting environment, yet describing her voice was challenging. I wanted to find a positive descriptor, one with minimal negative connotations, but I also wanted to take the exercise seriously. Bedford was gracious and took all our comments well, but the activity made me reflect on how personal voice can be.  

This, in turn, made me wonder about the impact of voice changes. This is a natural part of ageing, on top of a side-effect of many other things (disease, travel, training…). I remember when my voice changed as a teenager. I had been part of a choir for a few years by then, and the sudden deepening of my register had a direct impact on singing. I prided myself on being able to hit the high notes, and suddenly that which had brought me much joy was gone.  

A similar thing happened with my accent. Living in the UK for a long time has Britishised my speech. I’m not aware of this myself, but I can track the change by how other people’s perception of me changes. First they used to think I was Spanish, then they were confused, now they think I’m… Irish? This is rather amusing to me, but it forces me to confront how things that I barely think about, such as my voice, can have a huge impact on the way I come across. 

Opera singer next to Hannah Conway on a keyboard

Sarah’s experience 

Have you ever sung a song to summarise a discussion? We did – singing a song to summarise a creative exploration into the voice. Very different to a typical day as a PhD student! 

Questions such as: “how does ageing change your voice?” and “what does voice in the home mean to you?” kickstarted conversations. The safe, but fun, space created for the workshop encouraged involvement and promoted inclusivity; to the extent that it was difficult to get everyone to stop talking! 

The openness and honesty shown in answering the questions surprised me. The shared personal stories made us consider the physical and psychological effects of the environment on voice and identity. Participants spoke of times during their lives in which they did not feel listened to, causing them to lose their confidence and lose their voice, with the result that they barely spoke. After the workshop, I reflected on these life experiences. The importance of proper listening and in valuing all contributions were crucial, two aspects that I will take with me and promote in the future.  

At the end of the workshop, threads from all the conversations were pulled together in a poem and a song. Summarising the different voice-themed discussions by exploring our own voices was a fun and fitting way to end the workshop. I found singing the thoughts and personal reflections from others, and hearing other people sing my ideas, a unique experience that connected us all.  

It was fascinating to observe the techniques used by Hannah and Hazel in engaging the workshop participants and cultivating collaboration. Collaboration and co-production had previously seemed like a daunting endeavour. Now these present exciting possibilities - if a two-hour collaboration between strangers can inspire the creation of a poem and a song, anything seems possible! 

Group dancing at workshop

Nour’s experience 

We live in a very loud world. Voices are all around us. But have we ever stopped and taken a moment to think about what these voices really mean and what they represent? For me, this was not something I reflected on until I participated in the “Voice and Ageing” workshop. Within two hours of that session, people who were complete strangers at the beginning, ended up writing and singing a song together in great harmony. All by the power of voice. 

During the session, we had conversations about voice and what it represents for each person. Talking to people from different walks of life made it very clear that, despite our differences, we are all similar in the way we perceive our identity through our voices and much more. Voices reflect history, heritage, memories, vulnerability and empowerment. Voices mean home. Voices mean belonging. Our voices are actually what sparked these conversations in the first place and created a safe space for all of us to open up and share. 

When we were asked to describe our voices and Charmian’s voice, the words we used actually described how the voice made us feel rather than describing the voice itself. It was very interesting to hear what people thought about their voices and how others perceived them. Something that again showed the impact of our voices. This beautiful tool that can build bridges, create a home, and empower us and those around. It was truly a humbling and inspiring experience. 

The noise I make, 
The song I sing,  
The words I choose,  
As powerful  
As I need to be.  
Extract of the poem written by Hazel Gould in collaboration with the attendees to the Voice and Ageing workshop.