One of my pet causes in life – one of the reasons, apparently, that I am required to roam the planet, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, for my allotted time, is to help people with their voices. Every single day, whether I’m coaching or not, I hear strangled voices, half-present voices, gargled voices, choked voices, vocal-fry voices, airless voices, voices that come from the back of the throat, voices that come from the nose, voices that say everything as if it were a question, voices that don’t know their own names (“Hi, my name is Bob?”), voices with no music, voices with too much music, tuneless voices, voices pitched too high, voices pitched too low, stunted voices, apologetic voices, scarred voices, whiskey voices, cigarette voices, childish voices from grown-up bodies, tragic voices, too-loud voices, too-soft voices – the ways in which people don’t use their full voices are as numerous as people themselves.
And then, once in a great while, I’ll hear a full-throated voice, like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr’s, or Adele’s, and I’ll stop in place and listen with a kind of reverence that is heightened by painful awareness of all the ways voices fail us.
The human voice is a miracle. For one thing, and this is astonishing and you’ve probably never thought about it before, we humans each produce a unique voice, a voice which other people who know us can identify instantly as ours without any apparent effort.
Think about it. You can identify instantly, and without working up a sweat, hundreds of voices. Your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, for a start. That’s easily a hundred or two right there. Then, there’s a whole host of famous voices that you know without thinking about it: politicians, celebrities, actors, TV people, and so on. What’s the total? Somewhere in the 200 – 300 and up range, right?
We put a lot of unconscious brain work behind that apparently simple ability. Conclusion: your voice is important. Your unique voice.
And so I’m on a mission to make sure that yours gets its full due. I don’t want you to swallow it, abuse it, strangle it, choke it, or damage it in any other way.
I’ll let you drink coffee, because the world can’t run without it. And wine, because the world wouldn’t be as much fun without it. But you have to promise me that for the rest of the day you’re going to hydrate as much as you can stand. Coffee and wine are tough on vocal chords, but water helps.
Then, I want you to breathe. Because those gossamer-thin vocal chords, those beautiful little bits of human tissue, flutter in the breeze of your breath in order to produce sound. If you don’t breathe, you make those delicate things work harder – much, much harder – and ultimately you’re going to wear them out.
And you need to breathe in a way that’s counter-intuitive. Rather than sucking in your stomach and lifting your shoulders, I want you to take air into your stomach – as low in your body as you can – and hold it in there with your abdominals, gently, letting the air out slowly through your mouth as you talk.
Third, I need you to open your mouth, pitch your voice at a comfortable place in your vocal range, and let your voice out. This is the hard part. If you’re uncertain, or unhappy, or ungrounded, you won’t open your mouth far enough to let your beautiful voice out. If you’re pitching your voice too high because you feel small, or too low, because you’re overcompensating, then it will come out strained and tense, and not full. And if you’re not fully present, your voice will exhibit one of the million possible ways people find in order not to speak fully and openly.
Your voice is precious and unique. Use it, care for it, and treat the rest of humanity to its full power.