This is for you J.
I know, I have terrible posture so this is a bit rich of me to be extolling the virtues of proper posture to someone else, but seriously, this is important. The resonators that allow you to project your voice are in two main areas – your face (nasal cavities) and your chest (lungs etc). If you roll your shoulders forward and collapse in on the chest, you are killing off those resonators’ capacity to resonate and suddenly your voice shrinks. Then, in order to be heard, you have to strain by overworking your diaphragm and other muscles. Thus, when your shoulders are out of place, that often emerges as your voice becoming less powerful, scratchy, or coarse.
Thankfully, there are ways around this! Yoga, obvs. Regular stretching, again, obvs. The key is to build up your core strength and open up your shoulders at the same time. If your core is strong and the area around your collarbones free, you are laughing.
Without breath, there is no speech. It’s just that simple. The problem is that breathing tends to be something that we do without attending to it, leaving us open to all kinds of bad habits and behaviours. Building up breath-power is a slow process, but it all goes down to the massive muscle that is the diaphragm and the way in which we keep our ribcage open and supple. A weak diaphragm means a weak and unsupported voice. A strong diaphragm means a lot of power in reserve to support your voice.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise
- Lie on the floor face up with knees slightly bent and place your hands lightly on your stomach.
- Focus on breathing using your diaphragm. Try not to let your ribcage move. Feel the stomach rise as the lungs fill from the bottom.
- Let the stomach fall naturally when breathing out by relaxing the diaphragm.
- Progress by placing a small weight on the stomach, such as a small book, on do it all again.
- Now, stand up and place your hands on your stomach again, feeling how you breathe. The feeling standing will be very different, so just try to feel your body and be aware of what the differences are
Opening the Throat
Do me a favour – vocalize right now. Just say “ahhhh”.
Now Yawn. Yawn and say the same thing. That yawn should open up your vocal tract (because that is physically what yawns do) and should have made that vocalization more powerful and more clear. When opera singers or classical actors perform, their vocal tracts are basically as open as yours is when you yawn. They have played with their voices enough to know how to make the vocal apparatus open in the same way as it would when you yawn, but without the need to yawn. How do they do this you ask?
Well, I am glad you asked… The yawn is one way to get it done, but it isn’t necessarily the best. This article goes through a number of the different techniques and the problems with each. I find that with large classes and rooms with crappy acoustics, this tends to be a big issue for me because I know that I tends to speak with a closed throat and place my voice in my chest. If you do that too much, you simply end up sounding hollow. I have to be very conscious about keeping my vocal tract open so that the breath can power my speech.
I actually do tongue & mouth exercises before class on a regular basis. It may look ridiculous if some student were to be watching me from the back of the room, but I don’t care. I know they work. These tongue and mouth exercises are just designed to open up my jaw (where I tend to store a lot of my tension) and to prepare my lips for the task of speaking. Just as you would stretch out before you leapt into a rigorous workout, you should do a few quick exercises with your tongue and your mouth before class to get yourself ready for the task that is speech.
Thing I also like about it is that it situates me as being “in class” when I do these exercises. I don’t do them at any other time, so when I do actually do them, my body knows that now is the time to perform. It activates something in me that lets me click into performance mode. Don’t ask me how it does it, but just doing these exercises does help.
It’s so easy to treat your voice (and your body) not as an instrument that you need in order to do your job as an academic but as a hinderance to overcome, if only because I think a lot of us think of ourselves as brains on sticks in some way, shape, or form. That leads to a lot of bad habits. Yes, we are academics and we are terrible at posture, at locating our voice in our heads and chests, and we aren’t even very good at breathing (!), but the worst thing of all is the care we tend to take of our instrument when we are not “on” because all the things we tend to do to alleviate stress are bad for us. Drinking? Alcohol is terrible for your voice. Smoking (pot or tobacco)? Also very bad for the vocal cords. Coffee? Ditto. Even going to a club or a loud environment such as a pub can be very harsh on your voice as you try both not to be heard and to be heard at the same time.
This isn’t to say give up your vices entirely, but rather if you are going to be working through your voice you need to balance those vices with some virtuous behaviours.
- Drink more water! I carry a water bottle around with me all the time specifically to help remind me to do this
- Stop smoking if you smoke. It’s just bad for you. If you need that buzz of nicotine or THC, there are better ways to get it into your system without the need for smoking.
- Give yourself vocal rests throughout the day. If you lecture, don’t schedule office hours immediately afterwards. Give yourself an hour before you use your voice again.
- Invest in a humidifier for your home. (That said, if you live RIGHT BESIDE THE SEA, you may not need this one.)