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.

Inside Out: Speaking with Authenticity

September 21st, 2010

If you’re like most people, speaking is just a matter of words, something you do with your face. When you think about it, it’s little wonder communication becomes less effective under those circumstances. Speech loses its personal connection and your message loses its impact. What can be done to ensure your listeners see the real you and feel the true power of your words? Here is a three-step method to get the process started.

Relax from the inside out. Tension, anywhere in your body, affects your voice and ultimately distorts your message. (Just because you don’t notice tension doesn’t mean it’s not there.) If your impulse to speak must fight its way through six layers of tension to see the light of day, what comes out bears little resemblance to your original intention. A relaxation program to help you identify and release deep muscle tension can make you a better speaker.

Breathe from the inside out. Everyone knows breathing is important to speaking, but few have experienced that feeling. There is nothing like a full, relaxed in-breath to open your inner space and clear the channel for expressive, uninhibited speech. What follows is an out-breath. Sound flows out with breath. The only alternative is to squeeze sound from your body, creating distortion that affects the meaning of your message. As Louis Colaianni said, the in-breath reveals what you feel. The out-breath expresses what you feel.

Sound from the inside out. If you imagine speech coming only from your mouth or your throat, your voice will be small, weak and shallow. Your listeners will get only part of your voice and by extension, get only part of you. Imagine and practice sound starting in your center and vibrating throughout your whole body, and you will be more fully engaged when you speak.

My teachers said real communication is about taking what’s inside and putting it on the outside, taking what’s private and making it public. That can be very profound, but it starts in your body. It’s that simple. If you can relax deeply, breathe fully and be generous with sound, you are much more likely to speak confidently and genuinely, with your whole being. That will make a powerful impression on your listeners.