What do most college professors have in common with Billy Joel, Reverend Billy Graham, Bill Murray, and Bill Clinton? Few of us are named “Bill,” so that’s not it. Rather, it is our occupational dependence on our voices. Like politicians, singers, actors, and preachers, teachers rely on their voices as a rich resource, capable of conveying, clarifying, and emphasizing ideas and feelings.
The nature of our daily work, like that of politicians and singers, also puts our voices at risk. We speak for hours at a time, often in rooms with poor air quality, and we must project our voices to the depths of lecture halls with poor acoustics. There are a number of steps that any of us can take to strengthen our voices and be the James Earl Jones of our classrooms, speaking in vigorous, resonant tones that hold students’ attention and enlarge their comprehension.
Biomechanics of Voice
Variations in voice production are often within our deliberate control. By consciously controlling specific muscle groups, we can create a more richly expressive voice with plenty of carrying power.
Speech scientists tell us that we each are physically able to use about a two-octave range when we speak. Naturally, we rarely use the full range, typically speaking within a few notes of our optimum pitch.
Being fairly elastic, the vocal bands can be stretched and relaxed, causing pitch variations. The mass of each person’s vocal bands is genetically determined, making us each “natural” baritones, altos, tenors, or sopranos. However, by changing the tension on the bands, we can create a wide array of varying tones within that natural range.
Rate, Volume, and Timbre
Our typical speech rate, volume, and timbre likewise result from genetic predisposition, but are subject to consciously created variations. Volume and timbre, for instance, are strongly affected by the size, shape, and sound-absorbing quality of the resonating cavities in our heads, the largest being the mouth. Each mouth is a certain size, but by dropping the lower jaw slightly and opening the lips wider, the size of the oral cavity and its subsequent resonating power are drastically changed.
Such capabilities lead many voice experts to assert that the human voice is more expressive than any musical instrument. Because of its enormous ability to be varied, the voice can convey the excitability of the piccolo, the mournfulness of the sax, the ponderousness of the bass, or the lighthearted glee of the tympani. We can each “play” our vocal instrument more skillfully with certain types of care and practice.
With this background in mind, let us now consider the ways and means to develop classroom voices that are both athletic enough to bear the strain of talking all day and vigorous enough to provide plentiful nonverbal cues to meaning.
The Athletic Voice
Since speaking comes from proper use of several muscle groups, experts rightly refer to speaking as an “athletic” activity. As such, we can make best use of our voices if we use the same practices of preparation and exercise that the athlete does. Doing so should provide the speaker with a voice that has endurance, power, and flexibility while avoiding overexertion.
Tips for Fitness
- Warm up regularly. Begin the day with vocal stretching exercises. Appropriate exercises include deep-breathing work to relax the chest and abdominal muscles that will control the flow of breath needed for speaking. Do a few neck rolls as well to stretch the neck muscles. By warming up physically for the challenge of speaking, the muscle groups controlling respiration, phonation, and resonation should be relaxed enough to allow you to achieve varied expression.
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing. The energy for speaking needs to come from the diaphragm, both to reduce strain on the voice box and to provide the power needed to carry your voice effectively. If your shoulders rise and fall as you speak, you are using clavicular, not diaphragmatic breathing. Switching the breathing power to the diaphragm takes considerable practice, but will reduce vocal strain noticeably.
- Employ optimum posture and vocal exertion. Standing up straight allows the diaphragm to be fully supported, the resonating cavities to be properly aligned, and breathing to be unimpeded. Trying to speak emphatically while sitting usually involves leaning forward at the waist and jutting out the jaw. Such exertion constrains diaphragmatic breathing and stretches the muscles controlling vocalization, risking damage. Remember that variations of expression to suit your meaning can be achieved with just slight changes in tension on the vocal folds or a well-placed pause: Screaming and shouting are not necessary.
- Proper hydration. Teachers who speak for an hour or more should keep water bottles handy. Water or citrus juices are best for vocal fold hydration – coffee actually hinders your ability to sustain a strong speaking voice. Switch to water with a little squirt of lemon and you will speak comfortably and longer. As we grow older, the vocal folds are naturally drier and less flexible, so hydration becomes especially important.
- Avoid smoking. Smoking is a bad habit for anyone, but especially for those who need to sustain healthy voices. Smoke dries out the vocal folds, making them less flexible and therefore less expressive and more susceptible to injury.
- Avoid throat clearing. Note the frequency with which you “clear” your throat. That little semicough makes the vocal folds smack roughly together. A better response to a perceived throat tickle or phlegm buildup is to take a sip of water and a deep, cleansing breath.
Sore Throats and Laryngitis
Despite all our best efforts, we do occasionally develop sore throats or full-fledged laryngitis. The result can be disastrous. Clinton lost his voice at a crucial point in his 1992 presidential campaign, leading to a disruptive hiatus in his travels. Similarly, John Kerry lost a crucial day of campaigning in Iowa during the January 2004 primary election due to laryngitis. In 1998, Joel incurred serious damage to his vocal folds and had to cancel a six-month tour. Can you imagine if a teacher had to stop talking for that long! Even going silent for a day is hard to abide.
If struck with laryngitis, silence is absolutely the best therapy. Even whispering can damage the vocal folds. Do not just talk in class, choosing silence only when convenient: Go completely silent. This calls for some real creativity if you must still teach, but is necessary for long-term vocal health. Write out some discussion questions for the class, show a film, and let students actually do the teaching – anything, as long as you do not vocalize for a day or two.
The Vigorous Voice
The literature on teacher effectiveness references vocal expressiveness as a factor perceived as beneficial. By varying our expression, we clarify for students the distinctions between important and peripheral points in our lecture; we hold their attention; and we convey to them that this material is interesting, perhaps even incredibly fascinating.
Our vocal expression, however, is very much a matter of habit. Those who are accustomed to speaking relatively blandly will have to work harder to achieve dynamic expression. And old habits are hard to break.
Breaking the Monotone Habit
If students have told you that you speak in a monotone, you will first need to learn to recognize that tendency in yourself. Audio or videotaping is the best mechanism for such self-monitoring. Tape yourself in a couple of classes. Look at your notes to identify the most important points you intended to emphasize in each class. Then, listen to the tape at those emphatic points to determine if your vocal expression changed accordingly. Was there a perceptibly lower or higher or more varied pitch used? Was the idea set off with significant pauses? Was the most important idea spoken more slowly or more resonantly? If none of these devices are regularly apparent in the taped lectures, then the students were right.
You can modify monotonal habits by planning changes in vocal pitch, rate, volume, or timbre for each lecture. However, that is likely to result in a delivery that seems awkwardly choreographed. President Gerald Ford, for instance, once planned specific changes in delivery to enliven a key televised speech; however, he appeared so marionette-like that one of his sons called him later that night to tell him how badly he had done.
The better approach is a more systemic revision of vocal use. Start by critically listening to voices that you admire or recognize as more expressive than your own. Listen closely, identifying emphatic moments and the vocal cues alerting the listeners to that emphasis. Try to commit the flow of that model’s speech to your aural memory, gradually emulating it in your own speaking. Be sure to emulate, not imitate. Try to capture the rhythmic flow of the more expressive voice within your own pitch range and personality. With time and persistence, you will become more “multitonal.”
Exercising Your Way to Expressiveness
Following the tape-assisted analysis of your voice, you are ready to undertake some exercises to achieve desirable vocal modifications. Several of the references provided at the end of this column include vocal exercises to expand pitch range, modify speech speed, enhance vocal resonance, among other things.
To improve speed, swimmers wear ankle or arm weights during practice, so that they’ll have more strength to meet the unweighted demands of normal competition. Likewise, if we want to improve our use of our full pitch range, we should do exercises demanding extreme reach within our range. One exercise is to speak the sentence, “Who was that masked man?” with at least four different meanings.* Doing so requires fairly dramatic pitch and rate changes to emphasize distinctly different parts of the message. There are exercises to enhance resonation, improve speaking rate, reduce timbre problems, increase vocal projection, etc. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate the possibilities:
- Rate: For those who speak at an unchanging rate with few meaningful pauses, try reciting the final stanza of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” deliberately saying each day’s gift at a slower or faster pace than its predecessor. Be sure to pause enough between days to get a breath and readjust your mental pace.
- Resonation: Those who speak at a higher pitch than preferred, or whose voices do not carry well, should try exercises that enhance oral resonation, such as the classic, “How now brown cow?” The goal here is to open the mouth wider on the “ow” sounds, creating a more resonant oral cavity.
- Timbre: There are a variety of exercises designed to increase vocal quality (timbre), depending on the particular quality you want to modify. Those whose voices tend to be too breathy, for instance, can work on controlling that excess by reciting the “Husbandless Hannah Hughes” monologue, which requires sustaining 10 or 12 words littered with the breath-wasting “H” phoneme.
None of these exercises is a quick fix. A regular regimen of such exercises will, however, produce a much-improved range of natural vocal expression over time.
Richness Without Risk
The human voice is a treasure whose potential we hear realized in the singing of Placido Domingo, the poetry of Maya Angelou, and the acting of Anthony Hopkins. We also have heard it in the teaching of those instructors who are enthusiastic about their subject and who work at developing healthy habits of vocal expression, allowing their enthusiasm to be obvious. Any of us can join that pantheon by practicing sensible habits of vocal care and exercise.
As long as there are no pre-existing physiological problems, anyone can break the monotone habit with patient and dedicated effort. The effort will be rewarded with new or enhanced skills that help attract and hold student attention, place clarifying emphasis, and establish the instructor’s credibility.
- Eisenson, J., & Eisenson, A. (1996). Voice and diction: A program for improvement. New York: Macmillan.
- Hahner, J. C., Sokoloff, M., & Salisa, S. (2002). Speaking clearly: Improving voice and diction. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Mayer, L. V. (2004). Fundamentals of voice and articulation. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Sataloff, R. T. (2000). http://www.voicefoundation.org/library/vocalhealth.pdf.
- University of Pittsburgh Voice Center. (2001). Frequently asked questions regarding voice problems. http://voicecenter.upmc.com. UPMC Health System.