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Pomona Senior Receives Fellowship to Study Throat-Singing in Seven Countries

Robert Beahrs, a Pomona College senior, has been awarded a distinguished Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship. Beahrs is one of 50 fellows selected from about 50 selective private liberal arts colleges and universities. The fellowship grants Beahrs $22,000 for one year of independent exploration and travel outside the United States.

For his Watson project, “Throat-Singing: In Pursuit of Overtones,” Beahrs will travel to Russia, Mongolia, India, Quebec, Sardinia, Corsica and Norway. “Human beings are remarkably inventive with their voices,” Beahrs says. “As a Watson Fellow, I will be able focus on mastering one specific singing technique which tests the limits of vocal ingenuity: throat-singing. By manipulating vocal resonances to create incredibly rich sounds, a skilled overtone singer can produce two or more distinct pitches at the same time. My goal is to understand why and how throat-singing is traditionally practiced, to look at what role it plays in different cultures, and then to see if there are any physiological effects associated with its performance.”

Tuvan throat-singing is a traditional but little known musical style originating from folk music in Tuva, a constituent republic of the Russian Federation located in southern Siberia. Beahrs first learned about Tuvan throat-singing in an ethnomusicology class with Pomona Professor of Music Katherine Hagedorn. The class was Performance Traditions of the African Diaspora. “The idea of pushing the limits of voice and singing more that one note at a time really fascinates me,” he explains.

Beahrs, a music major at Pomona, decided to apply for a Watson because of the fellowship’s focus on freedom, travel and independence. The Watson Foundation stipulates that the fellows may not return to the United States during the twelve months of the fellowship, and the projects are designed to be a truly independent experience where the fellow’s agenda and research is self-motivated and pursued individually.

In developing his project proposal, Beahrs met with many of the music faculty at Pomona, including his voice teacher. “I started out being interested in choral cathedral singing,” Beahrs remarks, “and then I honed in on a topic that was more about specific ways of singing—getting overtones, using nasal/sinus resonance and singing with the vocal ventricular folds, also known as the “false” vocal folds.” Beahrs found that throat-singing involved most of these stranger vocal techniques, and he wanted to learn more about the technique. During his year of travel and research, he hopes to discover why and how throat-singing is practiced traditionally, and to compare its role across the cultures where it is found.

Beahrs says that his involvement in music at Pomona “has made me feel completely prepared for this project.” Beahrs is the musical director for the popular Shades a cappella group. He sings in the Claremont Colleges Choir and Glee Club. He was the musical director of the Claremont Colleges production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, and he has taken voice lessons throughout his time at Pomona. He also found his participation in the sciences at Pomona for his pre-medicine work useful in “understanding the physical properties of overtones” and in developing the second part of his project, examining blood pressure and heart rate “before, during, and after throat-singing in order to study their physiological effects and potential application to music therapy.”

In the public announcement of the 2005-2006 Watson Fellows, Beverly Larson, executive director of the Watson Fellowship Program, noted that the Watson Foundation “looks for people with passion, a feasible plan, leadership potential and creativity…The awards are long-term investments in people likely to lead or innovate.”

Pomona College, one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, offers a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.