How many faculty members across the country can boast that they have opened for Bruce Springsteen? Well, the Speech-Language Pathology (SLP)
department at Salus University can.
Nora Whittaker Jones, MA, CCC-SLP, an SLP adjunct professor since 2017 who teaches voice disorders and the voice practice review for the speech pathology practice exam, was a professional singer before transitioning into academia. During Barack Obama’s first presidential run in 2008, the candidate had a rally planned in Philadelphia that included a performance by Springsteen. Obama’s staff was looking for a local female performer to open for The Boss. At the time, Whittaker Jones was in a singer-songwriter hip hop group. Jesse Lundy from Point Entertainment and Helen Leicht from local radio station WXPN recommended her for the gig.
“You had to pass a really extensive background check. And, I had the advantage of having the background of a kindergarten teacher,” said Whittaker Jones. Unfortunately, she didn’t get close to Springsteen or Obama that day. Her band had another show previously scheduled that evening, so after her set at the rally, she and the band had to immediately leave to fulfill the other commitment.
“I performed and we had to get into our car and have security escort us out of the venue. I didn’t get to see Bruce, but apparently it was a great show,” she said. “A lot of those opportunities you get maybe a 24-hour notice so you have to just kind of make it happen.”
As a professional singer, Whittaker Jones loved being on stage and working with voice students as a singing teacher. She started to get referrals for students who had voice problems and tended to have success with helping singers get back to being able to sing again. “I was interested in learning more about the anatomy and physiology of the voice, because I’m a big nerd and I love voice and swallowing science,” she said.
As a result, she looked into getting a graduate music degree and found out that in most music programs at the time, there were no anatomy and physiology requirements. It was really a small part of what most of the programs were doing. It was her father, Stephen G. Whittaker, an occupational therapist at MossRehab in Philadelphia at the time, who alerted her to the fact that there is a specialty in SLP dedicated to voice rehabilitation.
“He told me that very few people do that, so I could probably get a pretty decent job if I got that degree. And, that I would learn all about these things I was interested in, like anatomy,” she said. “Up until that point, I only knew speech pathologists who work in elementary schools. I didn’t know about voice rehab. So, I went to graduate school with the intent of working with people who have voice disorders.”
As an educator at Salus, Whittaker Jones said her goal is to get 10 people in her class to be interested in treating voice disorders. “One of the problems with the voice field is that it can be too singing specific and too over-the-heads of many of the people who want to do it,” she said. "But my big goal is to get people who wouldn’t ordinarily treat voice disorders to at least be able to have a basic treatment plan. We need to have more speech pathologists out there treating and understanding voice disorders. It’s hugely prevalent.”
With speech-language pathologists, fewer than 10 percent are comfortable treating voice disorders, according to Whittaker Jones. And, that’s how she approaches her class, knowing that most of the students are not going to be that interested in voice disorders. “There are a lot of people with voice disorders who are not singers, though which is something to know,” she said. “The majority of people with voice disorders are actually teachers. About 40 percent of teachers will develop a diagnosed voice disorder at some point during their careers.”
Whittaker Jones started out teaching in-person at Salus, but since the pandemic, she’s moved to Colorado and now conducts her classes remotely. “I really love teaching. I try to develop the students more in field-related skills — clinical writing as well as clinical critical thinking skills. You need to use a lot of critical thinking for voice therapy,” she said.
She doesn’t perform much anymore as a professional singer, preferring now to concentrate on treating patients and teaching. “I’ve kind of thought about going back to school to further develop my teaching skills, but I really love working with the patients,” she said. “I’m content with where I am for now.”