Dedicated to Claudio Lenk (r.i.p.),
Roxana Coll, Ignacio Cobeta, Víctor Osma, and Concha Doñaque.
– I –
Our voices have an almost magical power to attract or repel other people. And in many indigenous cultures –oral and rural ones, a person’s voice is that person –it reflects their soul, their essence, their self. “There is no index of character so sure as the voice” (Benjamín Disraeli).
For those of us who use our voices in our professional lives (teachers, actors, singers, salespeople, therapists, speakers, politicians, street vendors, receptionists, and many more), our voices are everything. We must educate them, mold them, and train them, lest –if we do not– we irreversibly damage or even lose them (nodules, polyps, edema, aphonia, dysphonia, etc.).
Yet…, it is very difficult to find a skilled and efficient teacher! …There are so many who haven’t even a sufficiently well trained ear, to be able to judge if we are producing our natural voice (our best possible voice, taking into account our body, age and culture), aren’t there!
But, What is the voice? How is it produced?
The larynx is located inside the neck, and can be likened to a small chest made of bone and cartilage, inside of which we find the vocal cords (NOTE: vocal, not oral, as some people say). These cords, are not 2 cords as one might imagine, but rather 2 folds of muscle tissue, almost gelatinous. They come together when we so choose, thus cutting off the air being released from the lungs, which then impacts against them causing them to vibrate.
In other words: the folds emit sounds in the same way that any cord or object does when we strike it until it vibrates; and the air passing through there, pulls the vibrational sound outside the body, so that we may mold it and produce the sounds corresponding to the letters of our alphabet.
Although it varies from one person and circumstance to another, the cords come together between 3 and 10 times per second. Males have longer cords, so the air being exhaled brings them together less frequently per second, and that is why they tend to have deeper or lower-pitched voices. Women usually have shorter cords, so the air being exhaled brings them together much more frequently per second; which is why we tend to speak in a higher pitch.
That said, we also produce sound when we whistle, because we are expelling a lot of air, with great force, through a small opening. And the whistle that comes from a long tube, does not sound the same as one from a short one (a flute and a trombo sound different…). This is because any change in the shape of the passageway through which the air passes (any obstruction, narrowing or widening, lengthening or shortening, etc. of it), also changes the sound we produce.
This also implies that the shape of our bodies, gives shape to our voice –establishes and differentiates it–. The heavier the body, the greater the voice –all the more powerful– [which makes it absurd to discriminate against heavy people, or against this nice young man with an incredible voice: Video ].
It follows that, although twins may be separated at birth, they will tend to develop similar voices (because our body shape, to a large extent, is a function of our genetics).
Following the same logic, when an opera singer loses weight, they “lose” voice (less mass vibrates when they sing, and less air is exhaled in the process).
That said, the sound the cords produce, is small, just as the sound produced by a piano or a guitar cord would be small, if we removed it from the box in which it is set and resonates.
That is to say: For a voice to be great, for it to have sufficient volume, we must make it vibrate together with a “resonance chamber” which gives it strength and texture (acting as both microphone and equalizer). The size of the “resonance chamber” gives the voice volume. And the texture of its walls changes the texture of the voice: The smoother the inner walls of the “chamber” are, the more vibrant the voice will be –like when we sing in an auditorium or events hall–.
In addition to the larynx itself, our primary “resonance box”, logically, is the thorax (how much space do the lungs have…?). But our bodies have many other spaces, and each cavity or space makes the voice resonate in a particular way. Learning to “manage” our voice, in fact, has a lot to do with learning to recognize which cavity we wish to push it towards, and with precisely what pressure (air) we need to do so. Inside our head, for example, we have numerous cavities (hollows): the nasal cavity, the frontal sinus, etc. And there are also a number of bones in our bodies that influence the sound of our voice, when we make them vibrate (that is why there are actors who say they speak from the hip or the sternum, for example). It is difficult for us to imitate the Slavic people who come to our country, because they push the voice towards the crown of the head before projecting it outside the body, while Mexicans generally project it out “directly from the throat”, and Chileans almost seem to “whistle” by projecting it towards the palate and nose (taking advantage of the frontal and nasal resonators).
Moreover, the organs we use to absorb, retain, regulate and direct the air, also have a direct impact on the voice we produce. However, are we only referring to the lungs? No… Yet, what they say about “ventriloquists and politicians speaking from the stomach” is not true… (Let’s not blame the stomach…!).
In truth, voice professionals control the expulsion of air with their abdomens –not their stomachs. They train their abdominal muscles for two reasons: To thus allow them to expand their diaphragms much more than what is normally possible, since this provides them with enough air to produce and sustain long notes, difficult ones, or complex phrases or passages. And because they need to be able to control all that air, regulating and calibrating it in a thousand different ways.
In terms of the voice, “training the abdomen” does not mean “keeping the stomach pulled in”, nor “letting it hang out”, but rather consists of toning the abdominal muscles (the differing layers of them), so that we can relax as well as contract them at will. Additionally, voice professionals train “to learn to breath”, since it is important to be able to completely fill the lungs (not only the upper third!); and also to learn to recognize when they need to do so.
When we train in order to be able to produce a voice of consistent quality, we say we are “placing” it. When we are also making it resonate in the various cavities of the head and body, to increase its volume and clarity without increasing the physical effort involved in producing it, then we say we are “projecting” it. And when we use the abdomen to control the air, we say, indeed, that our voice is in “suspension” (“appoggio”/”appoggiata”) –we are supporting it properly. Some popular singers, however, do not want to sound like those trained at a conservatory, and purposely decide to control the air and the textures of their voices using the larynx muscles, concentrating a great deal of effort and emotional tension in this one area. This is called “belting”, and is physically exhausting, emotionally tiring, and extremely dangerous to our vocal cords.
– II –
Learning to use our voice, is like learning to play a musical instrument. …Extremely complicated and difficult. And with an additional challenge: the instrument is inside us, so the teacher cannot say “cover this hole”, or “press this string here” –our “phonic apparatus”, is not only a “string instrument”, but also a “wind instrument”, and it combines the characteristics of each, since it uses air to press the “strings”, and then alters and shapes it–.
In order to learn to “play” this “instrument”, we must learn to move muscles and ligaments we did not even know exist, and we have never “felt” (about which we have no “proprioceptive” or body memory). And each movement produces a different sensation, which the teacher cannot simply reproduce in us.
How, then, can we go about learning about something we do not “know”? The teacher has nothing –to use to teach us– other than his/her ear, his/her criteria, and his/her example (his/her voice). And we have only our ear, to know when we are correctly doing what he/she asks us to. And it is incredibly frustrating when one is told “make it sound like this”, when one hasn’t the slightest idea how to do it! This is what makes it so difficult to master one’s own voice. Nevertheless, when we learn to “suspend” our voice (to use the abdomen to control it), and to make it “resonate” in our head or chest, what a great deal more volume, and great deal less tiredness!
Let’s face facts: If our voice becomes tired after speaking for two hours, we are not using it well. But, how can we correct ourselves?, where can we learn about these things? A good place to start would be by reading a couple of books on the subject, and carefully performing the excercises therein. We recommend:
- The manuals by Patsy Rodengburg (primarily The Right to Speak and The Actor Speaks: Voice for the Perfomer), as well as…
- the book by Cristián Caballero, edited by his son, Claudio Lenk: Educando la voz cantada y hablada (Educating the Speaking and Singing Voice), Edamex –easy to find, written for those who speak our language (Spanish), and inexpensive–.
On caring for one’s voice, one can obtain the following free on internet: “A Guide to Vocology, from the National Center for Voice and Speech in the United States.
Meanwhile, to care for one’s vocal cords (and one’s voice), it is worth bearing a few things in mind:
1) All unnecessary tension accumulated in the body (be it emotional or postural) seriously affects the voice. This is the reason behind, for example, those who have “monotonous” voices –people whose speech is clipped, whose voices are low (in volume), extremely tense and generally higher-pitched than one would expect, to such a degree that they can be “painful” to listen to–. Making fun of them solves nothing, since by hurting them, we only cause them to experience more of the anxiety that oppresses them and causes the problem in the first place.
We must address the tension and anxiety that torments and exhausts them, if we truly wish to help them. That is: We need to correct their posture, and the emotional problems that are the cause of such voice difficulties; or if not, we might help them to understand, perhaps not the issues regarding their voice, but instead the cause of so much tension –perhaps some painful life experience, some wound from the past…?–.
Traditional homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropraxy, and/or relaxation, are very helpful; and it also helps to learn to recognize areas of postural tension in oneself –for example: Are we hunching our shoulders, more than we should?, do we stretch our neck ahead while we walk, or to the contrary, do we hold our chin tucked in?; do we slouch around, or do we hold our backs upright and rigid?; do we find it utterly impossible to “hold in our stomach? Do we tend to clench our hands, or cross our arms in front…?–. Addressing all of these issues, would result in a better, more beautiful and healthier voice, without any additional vocal training…
2) People who constantly “clear their throats” (terrible for the voice!), might do so because they suffer from acid reflux, pancreatic problems, or some kind of respiratory problem. We must get to the root of the problem, if we want to definitively improve their voice, and not just offer them some temporary remedy.
3) However, if the person clears his throat due to shyness, it would be best to overcome this bad habit: A couple of good and loud coughs are better, and definitively rid us of what is bothering us in the throat, better than clearing one’s throat all day –since that damages the vocal cords and does not resolve the problem. Both coughing and clearing one’s throat, sound like barking, because while the cords are vibrating, they are rubbing against each other –like two electric saws being pressed together. Somebody who constantly clears his throat, injures his cords to such a degree that he can no longer control his voice, cannot produce sound when needed, or loses his voice entirely (may end up aphonic).
4) Also, vocalizing and enunciating is essential for anybody who makes a living with his/her voice. And to do so one must really open one’s mouth when speaking, carefully enunciating each sound, since this helps others to understand us, without tiring us. Everybody has more difficulty producing certain types of sounds than others. If we somehow record ourselves, and we carefully study the recording, we can discover our weak spots.
5) Paying attention to our intonation and inflection prevents us from sounding “mono-toned” (speaking “in just one tone” makes us monotonous and boring). The people who put us to sleep (literally) when speaking, are those who do not put any emotion into what they say, and for this reason, their tone of voice neither rises nor falls. In our culture, a lot of men have this problem, and the rest of us suffer for it. And all because they fear being made fun of if they play with different tones of voice…
Learning to modulate one’s voice, is like using punctuation in a text. If we refuse to use periods, commas and accents marks, we cannot expect others will want to read what we write, understand what we say, or admire our writing style. But excessive modulation is also problematic: We lose credibility. Everything is better when it is “just right” –balanced.
6) Pausing allows our listeners to “digest” what we are saying, clarify their questions, and offer opinions. It shows respect for our listeners, too; for what they feel and think.
7) Drinking a lot of water is absolutely essential,
8) …as is breathing through our nose when we speak or sing, since this helps the mucous membranes involved in producing our voice, remain moist. By the way: Have you noticed that most of us, breath through one nostril for 4 hours, and through the other nostril for the same amount of time? This allows the mucous membranes in the nose to recover from the dryness of the air, and to rid themselves of the impurities and pollution that became stuck to them.
9) Smoking, drinking and inhaling toxic substances all destroy the voice –which is what others “see” of our “selves”–. High alcohol content liquors and brews like “aguardientes” (very rough alcoholic beverages) and halucinogenic drugs are not the only things that hurt us; many “socially acceptable” drugs do as well: Coffee dries the mucous membranes severely, and tobacco directly attacks the entire “phonic apparatus”, and causes cancer of the larynx. The day you see the suffering of somebody whose larynx had to be removed due to smoking, you will understand why it is best to avoid all these things.
That said, let us not forget that a wonderful voice cannot conceal an empty inner life (in which there is nothing) or a dirty one (hurtful); an incredible voice cannot hide the fact that somebody is vain or destructive.
In addition, the contents of our words reflect the worst and the best we have to offer. Therefore: We must also work on our insides, so that what we say reflects something valuable.
And of course: One expresses oneself in the same way one wishes to be treated; one, in the way one speaks, tells others how one deserves to be treated.
As the ancient Book of the Wisdom of Solomon says: “The debris appears when the sieve is shaken; man’s [meaning a person, in the generic sense] defects appear when there is debate. The potter’s vessel is tested in the oven; the test of a man lies in his reasoning. The fruit reveals how the tree was cultivated; the word reveals the man’s mind. Never praise anybody before they speak, since this is the proof of man”.
The voice, words and reasoning are what allow us to evaluate human beings, as long as –and to the degree that– the person we are judging, lives in agreement with what he preaches. Because if he is not consistent…, be careful!: “The mouth speaks of what fills the heart…” –yes, but words, without actions, are worthless. Criminals may happen to have beautiful voices, too.
Illustration source: DreamsTime.com (© Legger)
ARTICLE ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN
Blanca de Lizaur; “Todo lo que siempre quisiste saber sobre tu voz, pero nadie supo contestarte I” (“Everything You Always Wanted to Know About your Voice, but Nobody Could Tell You – I”); in Humanidades (Humanities), UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) # 264 ; p.6; and
“Todo lo que siempre quisiste saber sobre tu voz, pero nadie supo contestarte II” “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About your Voice, but Nobody Could Tell You – II”); in Humanidades, UNAM # 265 ; pp. 6 and 8.
Available at (repository): http://www.bettermedia.org