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Voice Power The Care and Feeding
of the Professional Voice

by Diane DiResta

Whether it's the rich, resonant tones of Richard Burton, the breathiness of Marilyn Monroe or the nasality of Fran Drescher, the sound of the voice conjures up an image—an impression—and can influence perception.

"You should think of the sound of your voice as inhaling the words and letting them reflect in the space behind you. Vowels shape the voice. You inhale the sounds rather than projecting them."
—Len Cariou

Speakers know how to use the voice for effect but don't always use the voice effectively. This can cause a variety of illnesses which can prevent speakers from doing what they do best—speak.

One of the bigger problems for professional speakers is laryngopharyngeal reflux, an inflammation near the back part of the larynx due to acid rising to that point. Thirty-five million people in the United States have acid reflux.

"This inflammatory condition causes the vocal folds to function less efficiently leading to vocal fatigue and poor projection," states Dr. Thomas Murry, clinical director, professor of speech pathology in otolaryngology at the Voice and Swallowing Center of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Columbia University. Reflux is most common among speakers because so many speakers are on the go, stressed and may have poor diets. Being aware of the symptoms of reflux can help speakers take preventative steps to take care of the problem.

The big five symptoms are:
  • Vocal fatigue
  • Lack of projection
  • Hoarseness as the day wears on
  • Throat clearing
  • Increased phlegm in the throat
Noticing that you have some of the above symptoms is one step you can take to begin to alleviate the problem.

Preserving the Voice
  • To preserve the voice, don't talk over noise or constantly clear your throat. Instead, Murry recommends the silent cough technique.
  • The silent cough technique is a way to clear the throat without violently banging the vocal folds together. The silent cough is done by breathing in air and blowing the air out fast through your throat and mouth without making a sound. Immediately after the silent cough, you should tuck your chin down toward your chest and make a strong swallow. The silent cough often clears mucous that clings to the vocal folds or near them. The silent cough is an important element of vocal hygiene and helps to prevent unnecessary trauma to the vocal folds. It is especially important to use the silent cough after surgery to the vocal folds.
  • If the symptoms of reflux continue, go to the doctor before the problem becomes severe.
  • Another common physical voice problem is vocal paresis, a weakness in one or both vocal muscles manifesting in breathiness or fatigue. Both folds must come together symmetrically to produce a clear, resonant voice. Vocal paresis can be caused by a flu or viral infection. When the nerve is inflamed, the condition can last for six months to a year, causing the speaker to change habits to adjust to the inflammation. A monotone may be an indicator of a minor defect or partial paralysis. Also, speakers who have difficulty projecting could have some vocal fold asymmetry. Tape yourself and listen to how you sound. Also, be aware if you find people asking you to talk louder. This may be an indication that you are suffering from vocal paresis.
Breathiness and Hoarseness
  • If you are part of a speakers circle, have one meeting dedicated to voice quality. Often what you think is normal may actually be an indication that something needs to be checked out. If you have women in the group, note if they speak in a breathy manner.
  • Women are more inclined to get polyps or nodules, which are growths that prevent complete closure of the vocal folds and create breathiness. "In females, the back part of the vocal folds never completely closes due to the way they are formed. So the female voice is always going to be a little bit more breathy than the male's because of anatomy," states Murry.
  • If you are suffering from breathiness, take action and get checked out. It is always better to be safe than sorry. The definition of the term "frustrated and feeling sorry for yourself is to wake up to find that you're hoarse when you have a big speaking engagement.
  • When hoarseness is the problem, first determine that there is no hemorrhage. Then start a process of hydration and steam. Speakers should travel with a facial steamer. When staying in a dry hotel room, opera singers use them every hour for five minutes. Alternatively, you can make boiling water in your coffee pot, pour it into the ice bucket, and throw a towel over your head to reap the benefits of steam.
  • To avoid becoming hoarse, avoid alcohol, chocolate and caffeine before a speech. They will dehydrate the mucous membranes, causing hoarseness. Finally, after an all-day motivational program, get plenty of rest and drink lots of water. Before you climb into bed, toss out those mint chocolates on your pillow; they are a double whammy because the mint relaxes the lower esophagus and allows acid to come up.
Keeping the Voice Healthy
  • To keep the voice healthy, Renee Grant Williams, author of Voice Power (AMA-COM), recommends drinking eight glasses of water a day, avoiding dairy products and eating a balance of protein and carbohydrates. She also recommends practicing "safe speaking" by using disposable hand sanitizers to clean off telephone mouthpieces.
  • Your voice is a precision instrument that needs to be assessed regularly. If there is a change in your voice for two consecutive weeks or you experience excessive coughing, see an otolaryn-gologist who specializes in throats. When surgery won't solve the problem and you have a weakness in the cords, or there is a pathology, you need a speech pathologist.
  • "Nobody should see a speech pathologist unless they've had a good strobo-scopic examination," warns Murry. A video chip flexible stroboscope is a new technology used to examine the vocal folds. It takes pictures and slows down the motion of the vocal folds for better viewing and diagnosis. If the anatomy is healthy and you need to learn how to use your voice properly, see a voice coach.
  • To prepare for your presentation, you use your intellectual muscles. To maintain your physical health, you exercise your body's muscles. To prepare to speak, you need to prepare your voice. "The most important thing to know," cites Murry, "is that just like the legs and arms of a football player, the vocal folds are muscles that can get weak, injured and tired."
  • Jeanette Lovetri, one of the world's top specialists in training professional singers and founder of the Voice Workshop and Somatic Voicework, believes, "The more vocal fitness, the more the voice stands up to stress."
  • The goal of working with a voice trainer is to get the instrument to have more efficient responses. Just as runners have physical trainers, speakers need voice coaches.
  • Murry recommends practicing the three Ps: Posture, Placement and Pitch.
  • Posture: Hips over the legs, shoulders down, jaw relaxed, tongue forward.
  • Placement: Your voice is coming out of the bell of your head and not from a little tube in the throat. Imagine the sound coming out of the end of a French horn and not out of the tubes of the horn.
  • Pitch: Experiment with different pitches to see which one brings out the best "ring" or resonance once you have the proper posture and placement.
Once you know where your speaking voice is, you can calibrate your voice with these five-minute warm-up exercises:
  • Breathing down low in the chest
  • Humming to match to the best quality possible
  • Lip trills
  • Tongue trills
  • Syllable drills (puh tuh kuh/ buh duhguh) to warm up tongue/jaw motion
For training the speaking voice, Lovetri recommends singing. "Professional singing is two to five times more demanding than professional speaking. It's a very effective tool to shorten the amount of time it takes to develop the voice. Be sure that the instructor is working from a "physiologic place and not just from a musical place," she cautions.

Lovetri shares, "The key to vocal fitness is good breathing and relaxed but dynamic use of body parts. Most people don't breathe adequately. To project your voice, torque up your breath."

Twila Thompson, director of The Actors Institute in New York, concurs. "The voice is created in the breathing, not in your throat." She suggests that speakers, "Practice breathing into the belly, pushing it out like a balloon, holding it for five to 10 seconds, then letting air go out with a sound for five to 10 seconds."

Another method she recommends for maximizing the voice on stage is "connecting with the audience and having an intention to reach them with every word you say." Thompson advises, "What is your intention in giving the talk? Should they think differently, challenge something? Having that intention is more than 50 percent of the issue."

Len Cariou, actor, singer and Broadway star of Sweeny Todd, shares how he maximizes his voice by exercising the lower extremities. He says, "By contracting the legs and buttocks, it focuses the tension in the lower body and frees the speaker to sustain the voice and speak freely." Cariou says preparing the voice is also about articulation. "You should think of the sound of your voice as inhaling the words and letting them reflect in the space behind you. Vowels shape the voice. You inhale the sounds rather than projecting them. Good diction allows one to speak at any level of volume and be understood."

You don't have to sound like James Earl Jones to have vocal impact. What is important, according to Susan Berkley, the famous voice of "Thank you for using AT&T" and author of Speak to Influence, is vocal transparency. "The voiceover artists who make millions of dollars pitching products on television and radio do not necessarily do so because of the quality of their voice, but because they know how to take the voice they have to enhance the message of the copy writer. I call this quality 'vocal transparency.'" She explains, "To have vocal transparency, you must first have the best possible instrument you can, so there are no 'sticking points' when people listen. Then, take the focus off yourself and place it squarely on the most important part of all: your message and your affectionate contact with the audience."

Making a difference in the lives of your audience is done with your instrument—your voice. With proper breathing, voice training and vocal hygiene, your voice will be strong, healthy and you'll master true vocal power.

Diane DiResta is a New York State licensed and certified speech pathologist, speaker, coach and author of Knockout Presentations. Her company, DiResta Communications, Inc., works with organizations that want to communicate with greater impact in the marketplace and with individuals who want to communicate more clearly.

Copyright Diane DiResta. All Rights Reserved.

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