Friday, March 9, 2012

Making the best use of your voice

The mechanics

In an earlier post I talked about why making best use of your voice is important. Your voice is part of your anatomy, so let’s take a tour of the physical apparatus which produces it. Greatly oversimplified, there are four systems at work.

1. Respiration
Inside your chest you have a couple of balloons. The lungs. They imbibe and release the air which is the ‘fuel’ for the whole vocal operation. Mostly we are unconscious of our breathing and that’s the way it should be. Normal speaking uses only tiny amounts of air, and you spontaneously take in what you need – no one in good health ever runs out of breath in the middle of talking. Some pastimes however (swimming is one, playing a wind instrument, singing, acting, and public speaking are others), require you to control your breath consciously. ‘Diaphragmatic breathing’ is how we do this. It also happens to be the way we breathe when we are not breathing consciously, but most people, when asked to take a deep breath and hold it, forget the natural, unconscious breathing that keeps them alive every day. Instead they gulp in a big mouthful of air and hoist their shoulders up around their earlobes, flattening their middles and actually limiting their intake in the process. The term Diaphragmatic Breathing should discourage you from doing this.

To breathe this way all you have to do is leave your shoulders down low and breathe so that your waistline inflates with the intake.

Try it: put your hands on your ribs with your fingertips just touching. Breathe in through the mouth (shoulders down) and the fingertips will part. Breathe out and they’ll come back together. That’s all there is to it. Try holding the sides of your abdomen out while you exhale, just let the front of your belly collapse like an empty balloon as the air leaves you. If it’s hard for you, try it lying down with your knees bent. Now that no brain-power is being spent on helping you stay upright, the easy free flow of breath should come more easily.

You can add a degree of difficulty by breathing in and holding the breath, then letting it out deliberately slowly – by counting aloud for example, or reciting the days of the week or the months of the year at a steady rate. Keep the flow of air steady and see how long you can last. This helps you learn to control the flow of air, and to be aware of your breathing.

Breath control is very important for reading aloud, or speaking loudly. It ‘s essential for managing nerves, and quieting the mind. Although you may not being able to calm your emotions directly, taking control of your breathing is a helpful surrogate.

2. Vibration

Next stop on the tour is the voicebox, or larynx. This is where sound is made, and where the pitch and most of the volume are created. It’s inside your throat, just behind your Adams Apple. Here we find The Vocal Folds (formerly known as chords). Go online and search to have a look at some in operation, they are entertaining. The vocal folds are part of a muscle in the larynx. Two mucousy, stretchy membranes cross your throat in a straight line from front to back. At rest they lie like two sides of a triangle. They are joined together at one end and apart at the other.

To make a sound you send air up from your lungs, the vocal folds snap together, and their thin mucous coating vibrates (more than 100 times a second!) as the air passes through. Loudness and pitch depend on their tightness and the air pressure you’ve applied. Your voice sounds low with thick, long, loose folds, or high with thin, short, tight folds. Just exactly like a guitar or violin string. Volume is the result of strong air pressure on strongly closed vocal folds. Once again, the entire performance takes place unconsciously.

Things can go awry in the larynx, resulting in an unclear sound. It’s possible to tighten up and put a lot of pressure on your throat, and use more than just the vocal folds when you make a sound. It distorts the voice when this happens. Some people do it habitually. If you shouted yourself hoarse at a football match you probably did this. With normal aging the folds become stiffer, like the rest of the body. They can’t close as easily or stand the tension they once could. This is why an elderly person may sound rough and have trouble raising their voice.

3. Resonance
Now you have produced a sound, the next part of the process can be thought of as the amplifier.

Your skull is a box to protect your brain, but it’s full of little holes and tunnels, crevices and cavities, especially around your face. These spaces make wonderful echo chambers where your voice bounces around and reverberates and amplifies itself. Sound intensified in these space develops acoustic overtones (like ‘sub sounds’) which make it warm and interesting. A voice which resonates well is strong and carries, but it sounds balanced, natural - not pushed.

Look at some leading opera singers and note their physical similarities. Most have wide faces with prominent cheekbones, which make large cavities for a voice to resound in. Think of Dame Joan Sutherland’s huge voice, substantial torso and big face with prominent cheekbones. Plenty of space for reverberation! She famously said of herself “if you want to launch a big rocket you need a big launchpad”.

To feel some of your resonators, say ‘mmmmm’ softly, and try to make your lips buzz, when you do. Also try saying ‘ng’ and ‘n’. Lay your fingers gently under your eyes and on the side of your nose and feel the buzz in your sinuses. These are sounds that use nasal resonance. Now hum softly down at a low pitch, lay your hand on your chest and see if you can detect the buzz there as your chest cavity joins in and resonates.

Mostly we want an open sound, not a twangy nasal or deep chesty one. For this we need to use the front of the face or ‘mask’. This is known as ‘ ‘forward resonance’ and it focuses the voice to the centre front, where the easiest and freest resonance can be achieved.

Try this old fashioned elocution exercise, repeating ‘How now brown cow’ with a very ‘proper’ rounded vowel sound. This helps you feel proper forward resonance. Try it a few times, then pinch your nose as you speak. If you’re resonating perfectly, holding your nose will make little difference. Now say it pretending you are the Queen, or try using an exaggerated cockney or very broad Australian accent, and notice the feeling. Repeat this version with your nose pinched – you should get an altogether different result. With your nasal resonance cut off you may not even be able to make a sound at all.

If you must speak in a large space, resonance is vital – unless there’s a microphone. Try imaging the sound coming out of your mouth and physically sending it to the far walls. It’s resonance which enables you to project your voice. You don’t need to force anything, you just need to send it forward. Try calling out “Don’t walk!”, or “Hurry Up!”. Don’t strain your throat. Send the sound into the centre front of your face. With adequate resonance it will penetrate easily.

4. Articulation
Some sounds, like sighs, sobs, and gasps, need no articulation. For speech however, we need to take a raw sound and shape it and finish it off, using the lips, teeth, tongue, palate and jaw. These organs mould and shape sounds much as a potter moulds clay. They all work together to vary the shape of the mouth, and in this way we create the vowels and consonants which are the building blocks of speech.

Look in a mirror and slowly utter the sounds ‘ay’ ‘ee ‘ ah’ ‘oh’ and ‘oo’ without moving anything but your lips and tongue. See what I mean? Your jaw may have opened and closed a bit, but your lips changed shape and your tongue was pretty busy, it curled and lifted or laid down flat - that’s how you varied the sound.

Now lets bring in the lips and teeth to make some consonants. Try saying ‘Lay Lee Lah Lo’ and ‘Loo’; or ‘May Me Mah Mo’ and ‘Moo….’ Or try ‘jog, nog, fetch, glitch, scream’, strength’….any words will do so long as you notice how the vowels and consonants are shaped by your organs of articulation as you speak them.

Traditional tongue twisters are great for helping develop good articulation. Try saying some of these over and over:

Red leather yellow leather
Boom baba boom baba boom baba boom
They are coming with the drumming of a million pinions humming
Thirty-three thieves thrilled the throng on Thursday.

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