STAYING POWER: Cultivating Vocal Stamina

November 7th, 2011

I recently did a consultation with someone who worked as a corporate trainer, so she spoke frequently, for extended periods of time. She reported that her voice was usually gone by the end of the day, sore, raspy and almost inaudible.

What’s happening here? The most likely cause is that she’s overworking her voice, and that can happen in two ways. The most obvious possibility is that she’s consciously trying to “speak up” and “project” her voice, so she ends up pushing and straining. The muscles of the voice are not big, strong muscles, so they don’t perform well under a lot of pressure and fatigue quickly under those conditions.

Another culprit can be unconscious tension. Muscular tension creates resistance on your voice, much like friction creates resistance for moving parts in a machine. You have to exert more force to overcome that resistance and that wears on your voice.

One very common source of unconscious tension is the tongue. Many speakers unconsciously pull their tongue back and down every time they make a sound. The tongue is a fairly large muscle, especially in comparison to your vocal folds, which are about the size of your thumbnail. When your tongue pulls back and down, it’s like an elephant sitting on a mouse. It becomes a lot harder for your vocal folds to vibrate under those conditions, so you have to use more force to overcome that pressure. Once again, your vocal folds quickly fatigue and become irritated.

So what’s the right way to cultivate vocal stamina? To paraphrase Kristin Linklater, the strength of the voice does not lie in muscular effort, but in breath and resonance. You’re a wind instrument. Your voice is powered by breath. To find more voice, you must move more breath. (The tricky part is doing that without tension.) At some level, everyone knows this, but few people have actually experienced real breath support, as it relates to speaking.

While breath is the power of your voice, resonance is the amplification. Resonance takes the small buzz produced by your vocal folds and expands it into the unique sound that is your voice. In a perfect world, you want every open space and every square inch of your body vibrating with the sound of your voice. That way, you spread the effort around, rather than making your vocal folds do all the work. Not only do you strengthen your voice, you also make it deeper, richer and more expressive.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to speak all day, in a fairly large room, without frying your voice. You accomplish that by making sure your breath is doing all the work and your whole body is acting as a giant sounding board. In this way, you produce the maximum amount of sound with a minimum of effort. Your voice easily fills the space without you feeling as though you’re yelling. Your listeners are drawn into the experience because you are fully engaged, fully available and powerfully present.

BE THE CHANGE: Embodying Skills

September 6th, 2011

During my holiday, I tried to finish a book that’s been on my shelf for some time, The Anatomy of Change, by Richard Strozzi Heckler. This is one of those books that contains really great insights and resonates so well with the concepts I teach, but sadly I can’t recommend it because it’s so difficult to read. (Kristen Linklater‘s Freeing the Natural Voice is another one in that category.) Now, I’m no book critic, but when a smart guy who likes to read, and loves to learn, struggles to get to the next page, something tells me it’s the writing.

Now that I got that off my chest, I’ll share one quote from the book that keeps resurfacing for me in the middle of lessons.

“At the time of the race, the runner must let go of the [training] and concentrate fully on the race. He must be in union with the things he has practiced, because he is no longer practicing. He now needs to be those things.”

I love this concept, and of course it’s true for any kind of performance, including public speaking and presentation. It’s not enough to know what you’re supposed to do. It has to be in you at that point, part of your being. Yes, “conscious competence” is one stage of learning, and there’s nothing wrong with being at that stage. But it’s not the end of the road. You aspire to “unconscious competence”. When you’re at the front of the room, and all eyes are on you, it’s too late to be thinking about grounding, breathing and resonance. You have to be grounded, breathing and resonant.

How do you embody skills?

  • Practice. Time and repetition help to change muscle memories.
  • Feel what you’re doing. Don’t just think about it.
  • Go slowly. Give your body a chance to absorb what’s happening.
  • Focus. Pay attention to one thing at a time.
  • Enjoy it. If it feels good, you’re more likely to retain it and return to it.
When I’m in the middle of a breathing lesson, and my client asks, “Do you breathe like this all the time,” I can only smile and say, “When I’m thinking about it, yes. When I’m not thinking about it, I hope so.” Embodying skills is the journey of a lifetime.

PRACTICE: Getting the Feel of It

July 25th, 2011

I normally won’t touch the term “projection” with a ten-foot pole, since, for most people, it implies working harder and pushing one’s voice to the back of the room. But I do teach Kristin Linklater’s concept of “sound forward”—at least, I think it originates with her—this idea that every last vibration of sound is moving forward, flowing away from the speaker.

But that’s not what this post is about.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when we get to “sound forward” exercises, clients start to get uptight and over-think the process. They start to hesitate, make more mistakes and apologize, saying, “I’ve got too many things to think about.”

And that is the problem: trying to mentally control what’s happening. Once we reach a certain level of complication (and believe me, speaking and presenting can get very complicated) our brain starts dropping balls, as it were. A juggler knows they can’t think about the steps. That would be disaster. They must know how it feels.

When we become preoccupied with the result, “getting it right,” we start thinking about what we’re doing. By thinking, we become less attentive to sensations. So when we focus on getting the “right” result, we forfeit the pleasure of the action. We become tense. We lose our flow. We become frustrated. We actually trigger an avoidance response to the task. We’re fighting a battle instead of enjoying a discovery.

If we can put aside our need to “get it right,” and immerse ourselves in the sensations connected to an exercise, it becomes pleasurable, a feel-good activity. That creates a powerful learning experience. In no time, our bodies absorb and memorize that feeling. We want more of it. We’re able to repeat it again and again, easily and with joy.

When we know and enjoy how it feels, the desired result becomes effortless and authentic.