The theatre voice coach says:

Warm up your body. Runners stretch and jog lightly before a race to avoid injuries. Similarly, actors warm up their voices. The rich tradition of theatre offers a collection of effective techniques to get the voice ready to go. Do warm-ups daily. Think of these warm-ups as other routines you follow because personal health is important to you: like flossing your teeth or taking a multi-vitamin each day. Actors stretch their bodies mainly to release unnecessary tension. Excess tension impedes the free flow of breath and interferes with optimal functioning of the muscles used for speech. Stretching also gets blood flowing to your rib muscles; these muscles will work hard in your teaching day. As you warm up your body, remember that good body alignment is essential to good voice use. Exercises prepare your muscles to bring you to an upright relaxed posture so you are ready to speak.

Ready, set, breathe. Breath is the generator that powers the engine of the voice. Full and effective breathing gives the voice power, energy, resonance and flexibility. All actors work with the body and breath before moving onto other areas of voice development. What are earmarks of a voice-friendly inhalation of air? Breathe in through the nose to warm and moisten air. Shoulders should not move upward, and upper chest remains still.
Diaphragm (area just above the navel) expands. Abdominal muscles (around and below the navel) relax. Your intercostals (or muscles between your ribs) in your sides and back expand as the lungs fill with air. Allow your breath to do the work of speaking. In other words, let your words float on air. Don't push from the throat.

Hum your folds to life. Mmmm, your vocal folds are buzzing to life. To warm up your folds, try this:

  • Hum at middle pitch or slightly higher.
  • Use good breath support; feel the throat open.
  • Take new breaths to keep your hum going.
  • Think of humming as a vocal fold massage.
  • Once you've hummed a minute or so, glide your hum up in pitch, then back down to a low-pitched hum.
  • Imagine a silent "m" bouncing off your diaphragm like a trampoline. Once your "m" has bounced, visualize it coming up your trunk and around the bend at the back of your throat to just behind your closed lips.

Warm up your articulators Articulators — the tongue, lips, soft palates, jaw, and others — shape your sounds into words. To get the most out of these parts, it's important to remember one thing: BREATHE. For example, release the lower jaw by saying, "ouch." Did you breathe before you spoke? Disconnecting your speech from your breath forces you to "push" words out from the throat. Articulator warm-ups relieve tension, but don't over-do them. "Little, but often" is a good motto. Your articulators get a strenuous workout in your teaching day. Unnecessary tension only adds to their burden.

Become a master of breath management: Take a small puff of air: just enough to say "one" at your usual volume. Try a bit more - say "one, two," making the sound continuous. Repeat up to 10, 15 and 20. How much breath did you need to produce each amount of speech? As you counted higher, did your lower rib cage intercostals expand to take in large reservoirs of air? If you ran out of air before words, did you force your speech from the throat? Be careful, that's how you get vocal damage. To avoid this, take a quick breath when needed, or use shorter sentences. Learn to manage your breath well.

A guide to vocal freedom workbook

Theatre voice is rich with imagery and ideas that may be new to you. Actors must develop skills and habits that allow them to safely and effectively deliver lines from unamplified stages performance after performance without a loss of vocal quality. An actor's livelihood depends on this ability.

As a teacher, you are also a vocal performer, but perhaps — as yet — have not received any vocal training. You may wish to learn more about theatre voice. Explore theatre departments at colleges and universities near you for beginning courses.

In addition to technical skills you can glean from theatre voice courses, you may also learn about vocal self-expression. Tension, lack of self-esteem, or emotional trauma sometimes can cause individuals to squelch their innate abilities to produce voice.

Want to learn more? Download and print your personal copy of the booklet, A Guide to Vocal Freedom.

Rediscover pitch that's perfect for you

Speaking in a pitch range appropriate for you is not only more effortless, it's healthier. People can get into real vocal trouble by imitating a voice that doesn't "fit" their natural vocal makeup. So, how do you find your natural pitch range?

The way you spontaneously say "mm-hmm" (as if you are agreeing with someone) is usually in about the middle of a person's natural pitch range. Vocologists sometimes also recommend a natural yawn or laughter as a mid-point marker for a person's range.

However, habitual pitch and natural pitch aren't always the same. Habitual pitch is learned, while our natural voice is innate. We may move from natural pitches to a habitual range of pitches due to social upbringing or peer pressure. So, does this mean teachers should speak at a monotonous tone all day? Not at all. The natural way you "mm-hmm" is, rather, a springboard for your spectrum of vocal pitches. It's healthy for your voice to vary pitches.

Clues in your speech

Pitch is powerful tool for adding meaning to your speech. Read the following question in a monotone:

She took that boy to the party?

Now, raise your pitch to put an emphasis on she. Then, try reading the sentence, emphasizing a different word each time, playing with varying pitches.

See how pitch can substantially change the meaning of the sentence? Think about how your vocal clues make your meaning clearer and easier for your listeners. How could this technique be used in your classroom?

Exploit your natural resonance

Resonance refers to the amplification, richness and quality of your voice. Metaphorically, think of your mouth and throat as the speakers of your stereo system. Are you projecting a voice with poor resonance or one that is fully resonant?

Exploiting your natural resonance spaces is a wonderful skill for teachers to develop. By using the nooks and crannies of your unique vocal structure for resonance, you will find that your voice carries well without increasing your volume. This takes the load off your vocal folds.

Resonant voice might be described as sounding "buzzy."

How you can add resonance: We all have three sound-resonating areas: the nose, throat and mouth. Not surprisingly, these are the places where you feel vibration when you speak. Practically speaking, you can do little to alter the nasal cavity, but go for optimal resonance with your throat and mouth. Alleviate tension in the throat, keeping the airspace open for your voice to pass seamlessly through. Open your lower jaw during speech to expand the mouth.

Each one teach one

Select a poem or a paragraph from a work of literature. Read the selection aloud to a friend or co-worker, and have your partner evaluate your speech according to this checklist:

  • How's your posture?
  • Do you prepare your body to speak (by settling into a voice friendly position), or do you mill around as you talk?
  • Do rhythm, pitch and volume vary?
  • Does the last word or two of every sentence "drop off?"
  • Do your words float on your breath, or do they sound pushed out?
  • Where do you pause?
  • Are you relaxed?
  • Are you emphasizing the important words?

Finishing touches: 10 tips to better speaking

1. Vary your rhythm. Have you ever noticed that former president George W. Bush tends to read three words and then pause? The rhythm is not unlike a waltz. While this may sound soothing, is it effective for motivating people to action?

2. Don't drop off the last word or two of every sentence. This is a common but ineffective speaking pattern. Add energy to your thought. The difference is HUGE.

3. Pause at important points. When you do, your audience will absorb your thought.

4. Don't clench your lower jaw. Sometimes, people "speak through" their back teeth, trapping their speech. Instead, make the most of your voice production power, and let your words flow easily through the mouth.

5. Breathe, using the airspace from your belly, sides and back effectively. If you don't, you'll run out of air before the end of a phrase and force out the final words using your throat muscles, causing a strained quality and possible damage.

6. Practice good posture. This will help you breathe properly and maintain your confidence.

7. Don't over-emphasize non-essential words. How often do we hear something like, "…wasted time, energy, AND resources." The speaker is missing the point; "and" is the least important word of the sentence. Why emphasize it?

8. Vary pitch. When you use your full range of pitches throughout the day, your speech sounds alive. It's also healthier for the vocal folds.

9. Vary your sound levels. The unexpected works: when students expect a shout from their teachers, soft voices may be more effective.

10. Give vocal clues: vocally emphasize important points. The critical word of a thought isn't necessarily at the beginning of the sentence. Nor is it always the noun or the verb.

A bright idea: Integrate your voice work into daily routines.

Practice vocal warm-ups following your morning run, walk or workout. If you train with weights, do your voice work at the opposite end of the day. Voice work and weight training don't go well together.

Hum in the shower to warm up vocal folds. They love the moisture in steam!

Hum in different pitches to release the range, increase vocal variety and relieve monotony. You can hum anywhere!

Exercise your jaw before or after brushing your teeth.

Warm up your articulators while commuting to work.

Release shoulder tension by moving your shoulders forward and backward in small circles.

Hum at the end of the day (perhaps as you reorganize your desk or drive home). Stick to middle-pitch "mmmm's," and think of it as a cool down.