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This article seeks to give you a basic understanding of your voice and how to warm-up your voice for classroom teaching. It is not a substitute for medical attention – if in doubt consult your GP.
A SIMPLE ANATOMY LESSON
Imagine that the speaking, singing human being is constructed like a musical instrument. Your skeleton is a basically cylindrical shape- from your pelvis, through your ribs, shoulder girdle, larynx (voicebox) through to your skull and jaw all connected together by the column of your spine. This is the central, skeletal core of your vocal instrument onto which the bones of your arms & legs attach. Our skeleton is covered in sheets of muscle which wrap around it spiralically to create a perfectly tailored “elastic suit”…
The “elastic” of your muscles can either contract and shorten or it can release and lengthen. Together these two qualities, contraction and release, enable you to move around easily and efficiently. BUT.. because of habit and the lifestyles that we lead nowadays, most of us are using far too much muscular contraction. Medical authorities, alternative and mainstream, warn us about the dangerous effects of prolonged muscular tension. On a mechanical and postural level this mis-directed muscular tension has a distorting effect, causing, to a greater or lesser degree, a tendency to shorten, narrow and twist natural skeletal alignment.
vocal skeletal cylinder front
vocal skeletal cylinder side
the elastic suit
skeletal cylinder front
The elastic suit, such a perfect and roomy fit when we were young children, becomes restrictive of our movement. This all has a correspondingly restrictive effect on the voice: inaudibility, shakiness, harsh and grating tone.
Common Stresses of the “Elastic Suit”
Lack of Body Awareness
Perhaps the most common cause of vocal difficulty lies in a lack of awareness of how we use our body in daily life. We are experts at screening out sensory information that is not directly connected to achieving our goals. An activity as simple as making a cup of coffee would become unmanageably difficult without this ability.
As we focus more intensely on goal directed behaviour our body can become increasingly muted. Day by day we accumulate small, seemingly insignificant amounts of tension without even noticing it. Just as constantly dripping water can distort the hardest stone, these small accumulations of tension have a detrimental effect on both body structure and voice.
Most people have only the vaguest of ideas about how their body is put together. And many of us simply have wrong ideas about how the body is structured. How many of us, for example, can accurately locate the full length and circumference of the spine; where the head and spine join each other; where the larynx is; where the jaw joint is; and where the ribs and diaphragm join with the spine? All of these parts, to name but a few, are part and parcel of the professional speakers stock in trade. Misleading ideas have a direct bearing on how we use the voice. It is possible to get a sound out of a trumpet by blowing in the wrong end but the process is wasteful of effort and the sound produced is disappointing.
Fear and Anxiety
In situations of perceived threat a group of responses called the “fight/flight” syndrome comes into force. Adrenalin is released into the blood stream. Breathing and heart rate speed up. The muscles become more tense. The shoulder and neck muscles are among the first to contract, pulling the head down, tortoise fashion, towards the centre of the body.
For the primitive hunter/gatherer this whole pattern was discharged by actual fight or flight after which everything returned to normal. It is not appropriate, however, to “fight” with your class or to take “flight” and lock yourself in the lavatory, tempting as both options may seem at the time! Fortunately there are many ways of creatively channelling the energy of the fight/flight pattern to enhance vocal security and ease.
Preconception of Effort
Imagine someone lifting a heavy looking suitcase only to find it empty – or lifting a light looking case and finding it full of bricks. If the lifter does not pause momentarily to truly consider the weight of the case, they may sustain an injury. Speaking, like lifting the case, is equally a muscular activity. Taking time to pause and consider appropriate effort is one of the single most important elements in freeing the vocal and breathing mechanisms.
Force of Habit
Our largely unconscious postural and vocal habits start to feel familiar by virtue of long practice. Better postural and vocal conditions can, paradoxically, feel unfamiliar and even wrong in the beginning. A willingness to tolerate unfamiliar conditions will lay the foundations of lasting vocal freedom and security.
TIME FOR A CHANGE !
Find a place where you will not be disturbed for fifteen minutes. Tapping into the full potential of your voice will require a quality of self acceptance. Any sound that you make is going to be unconditionally acceptable! This leads to a reduction in the fear reflexes that interfere with easy voice use.
In a series of experiments in the early nineteen forties, the surgeon William Faulkner established that when his patients thought of something unpleasant the movement of their diaphragm became restricted, shallow and irregular. These breathing changes were accompanied by a corresponding tightening of the oesophagus. And this in turn was accompanied by negative changes in the quality and characteristics of the patients voice.
When, on the other hand, his patients thought of something pleasant the movement of their diaphragm became expansive and regular and the levels of tension in the throat reduced. All of this was accompanied by positive changes in the characteristics of the patients voice. 1.
As a simple, practical, voice warm-up let’s try repeating Dr Faulkner’s experiment…
Vocalising and moving from restriction.
Take a couple of minutes to remember a time when you were feeling a bit pressured and restricted. Use all of your senses to recall and relive this memory as fully as possible… what you were seeing and hearing around you and what you were feeling.
Now look around the room. Does it look any less bright or friendly than before? Walk around the room now. Do you feel taller or shorter? Do you feel wider or narrower? Are you breathing freely or are you holding your breath? Is your walking lighter or heavier? Smoother or jerkier? Easier or tenser? Indicate with your hands how wide or narrow your “personal space” seem to be.
Vocalise an “aahh” sound. How easy or difficult was it to vocalise?
Vocalising and moving from ease.
Move around the room and stretch to dissipate the effects of the last experiment.
Stand or sit in a reasonably symmetrical, balanced way and…
remember a time when you felt on top of the world – use all of your senses, seeing, hearing and feeling to recall this experience. Stay fully in this place for a while longer and allow yourself to take two or three easy deep breaths with the emphasis on the outbreath. Let this feeling spread through your entire body.
Look around the room again. Is it any brighter or friendlier now? Walk around. Do you feel shorter or taller? Narrower or wider? Are you breathing freely? How large is your “personal space” now? Is your walking heavier or lighter?
Vocalise an “aahh” sound. Notice in what way your voice feels and sounds different from the first experiment.
Which state, cramped or expanded, would you prefer to be in when speaking?
Congratulations! You have just taken the first step in liberating your body and freeing your voice. “Embodying” a pleasant experience while vocalising a vowel sound, simple as it sounds, can make a real difference to your voice:
By vocalising vowel sounds in this positive spirit you will find yourself in good company:
“When I started serious study, I spent the first six months vocalizing only with the vowel sounds. Day after day I would be singing ay, eee, oh, eye, ooo… my teacher, Arrigo Pola, believed it was essential. And he convinced me. Over the years I have become even more convinced of the importance of this.”
Luciano Pavarotti- My World Page 282
Do some vocalised ahs. Play around with the volume – a bit softer, a bit louder. Play with the pitch – higher and lower.
Experiment with combinations of volume and pitch – high and soft; high and loud; low and loud; low and soft.
Slide from quiet to loud to quiet again on a single note. Repeat the same with a variety of vowel sounds.
Avoid straining your elastic suit as you do this. Continually return to a sense of ease in your vocalising. Allow your breath to return effortlessly and naturally between sounds avoiding any exxagerated sucking and sniffing of the air.
Vocalise an ah sound and then gently bring your lips, but not your teeth, together to make a humming sound. You may notice a subtle tingling or buzzing sensation spreading across your lips and face. This feeling may spread to other parts of your body – throat, chest, fingertips etc. This tingling is associated with muscular release and increased peripheral blood flow.
Now, if you’re feeling adventurous, sing a song! Sing several songs! Singing, even if it’s something you only do in private, is a great tonic for your speaking voice.
1. Faulkner, William B. Jnr., “The Effect of the Emotions Upon Diaphragmattic Function: Observations in Five Patients”, Psychosomatic Medicine, 3, No. 2 (April 1942).