Can you bulk vocal muscles like you build biceps? No!
Knowing 75% of the vocal fold is muscle, why shouldn't you strengthen that muscle (the thyroarytenoid) for a stronger voice? A weak voice does not necessarily originate from weak vocal muscles. In fact, research shows that we only use about a third of our laryngeal muscle capacity to speak.
The key is to precisely coordinate --1 rather than bulk up -- vocal muscles. This is the essence of what serious singers do in their voice lessons. Teachers, too, can benefit from using vocal muscles in a coordinated and efficient way. Little laryngeal muscles fine-tune the voice, but you should leave the major task of taking in and maintaining airflow for speech to the big guys: the large abdominal and intercostals (rib) muscles.
Why muscle coordination outranks muscle strength:The larynx is, after all, our personal musical instrument. An analogy of a trombone player underscores why practiced control of airflow is essential to the resulting sound. Have you ever listened to an inexperienced trombone player - who releases air from the lungs in an undisciplined and uncontrolled manner. Compare that audio experience to the sound of a skilled trombonist.
Unlike the body builder's biceps where more is better, the skilled speaker believes practiced control is better.
The vocal burden of coaching
If teachers are vocal athletes, PE teachers and coaches must be vocal Olympians! They must shout instructions in vocal minefields.
- Outdoors: There are few hard surfaces to contain sound waves. The voice fades as it travels.
- Indoors: Acoustics are a major problem, especially in gyms and indoor swimming pools. Multiple hard surfaces and high ceilings create an echo chamber.
- Cold: When we're cold, we raise our shoulders, tighten the neck and jaw, pull back our heads and fold their arms across our bodies. It's tough to vocalize healthfully in this position. Teaching by example: Vocalizing while demonstrating an exercise, particularly while lying down or putting the body in a vocally unfriendly position, means less breath support is given to the voice and more stress is put upon the vocal muscles.
A survival guide
- Use a megaphone. Make one out of cardboard or simply cup your hands around your mouth.
- Close the gap. When instructing students, have them stand near a wall or "huddle" so you can use a normal voice level. Have them remove helmets or other protective gear while you are talking.
- Keep warm. Muscles usually work best when the body is warm.
- Don't speak against the wind. Nobody will hear you. Catch students' attention with gestures, a whistle, flags or some other means.
- Consider using a portable amplification system. These devices can be worn fanny-pack style to boost teachers' voices both indoors and out.
- Solicit help, if possible. For example, with traveling teams, allow another teacher or chaperone to supervise on the bus. Your voice probably needs the rest.
No voice recess for teachers: It's easy to identify the vocal pitfalls of being a coach, gym teacher or aerobics instructor. Hoarseness, sore throats and voice loss are common casualties of the profession. Classroom teachers face many of the same problems.
Most elementary teachers must report to recess duty. They may shout to gain students' attention, over the noise of playing or fighting children, and in all kinds of weather. They may return indoors to an overheated and poorly ventilated building.
Elementary teachers with no singing or voice training also find themselves regularly singing during activities. Middle and high school teachers may supervise extracurricular activities. Teachers with no voice training undertake drama, music or singing classes.
Is it any wonder teaching is considered a vocally risky profession?
Extreme athletics and voice
Extreme sports may exact a price on your voice-producing structures.
Weight lifters exhale when lifting and inhale upon release. This pattern probably won't harm vocal folds. Breathing the reverse pattern -- a common mistake -- does strain the larynx. To compound the problem, many weight lifters hold their breath when lifting heavy loads, displacing some of the pressure to the vocal folds. These little muscles weren't meant to do this type of work.
Teachers may make the same mistakes when, say, carrying a load of books or moving desks around the room.
In general, sports that change normal breathing patterns (such as swimming) should be examined. Could it be that an altered breathing pattern for the sport has become the routine breathing pattern? Ask yourself: is this the ideal breathing pattern for teaching?
Vocal hygiene isn't washing your mouth out with soap.
Vocal hygiene, rather, is a phrase used by voice specialists (vocologists) for behaviors individuals can do to maintain good vocal health.
Here's a "what not to do" list: Do not:
- overuse dehydrating substances (antihistamines, alcohol, caffeine);
- persistently cough or clear the throat (sip water instead);
- habitually yell or shout;
- speak at an inappropriately low/high pitch for extended periods;
- excessively talk;
- talk or sing over background noise (reduce background noise instead);
- push the voice;
- smoke; or
- "talk through" sickness.
1. Know signs of vocal trouble:
- Your voice loses range or just sounds different than normal;
- Hoarseness doesn't clear up in 2-3 weeks;
- You routinely wake up with a low or groggy-sounding voice;
- Speaking seems to require excessive energy;
- Others ask you if you are sick.
2. Know that it is good for your voice to use its full range - not unlike a musical instrumentalist playing scales. However, it is harmful to consistently use one end of the range (very high or very low).
3. Teachers may fall into a habit of "snapping" the vocal folds open and shut quickly (often to get their students' attention). These glottal attacks, usually on a word beginning with a vowel (like "everybody") may be harmful.
Male and female voices
Confidential to men
"My voice is too high and feminine. I look like a man — I want to sound like a man. What can I do to lower my pitch?"
First, just listen to many voices — both male and female. There probably is more overlap between female and male voice pitches than you thought: males often speak at 65 to 260 Hertz, while females speak in the 100 to 525 Hz range. Thus, a voice of 100 to 260 Hz is just as "masculine" as it is "feminine."
But men do adopt effeminate voicing and speaking patterns sometimes.
1. The root cause may be behavioral: was a dominant female the developing boy's "vocal role model?"
2. Anatomically, smaller vocal structures typically produce higher pitched (more feminine) voices. In general, people are unhappy with their voices when their bodily statures and voices do not "match" (for example, a large rugby player with a little voice).
What can I do? For a male with a natural pitch on the high side, it's tempting to continuously press the larynx downward to achieve lowered pitch. This is potentially harmful. It is far better to work with a vocologist (voice specialist). The vocologist can help sort out causes of a high-pitched voice and teach you to use your lower pitch range in a healthy manner. Is surgery to permanently lower voice pitch an option? A few cases have been attempted to alter the configuration of the larynx. At best, the results have been mixed.
Is help available? Consider working one-on-one with an experienced voice team to explore the healthy and full range of your speaking pitch. Look under the Nurse's Office link to check the Voice Team Locator to find a voice team near you.
Just for women
A woman's hormonal ups and downs may affect her mood, weight, energy level — and yes — her voice.
Monthly cycles: Some women's voices fluctuate just as their monthly hormones predictably ebb and flow. Usually, these changes show up in the voice right before menstruation occurs, although some women note changes during ovulation. Voice changes — due to falling estrogen levels — usually occur on day 21 or so:
- loss of (singing) high notes;
- vocal instability or fatigue;
- pitch uncertainty;
- decreased vocal efficiency;
- reduced vocal power or flexibility.
Hormone shifts cause changes inside the larynx. Tissues hold fluid and blood vessels dilate, increasing vocal fold bulk. Puffier vocal folds vibrate differently, making speaking and singing more effortful. Interestingly, due to these effects, European opera houses used to excuse singers from singing during premenstrual and early menstrual days.
Pregnancy: Imagine the wild hormonal ride your vocal system endures in pregnancy. When a woman is expecting, estrogen and progesterone levels surge, causing swelling of vocal fold tissue, which are heavier and more sluggish to vibrate.
Expectant and lactating mothers may notice:
- prolonged warm-up time
- a muffled voice quality
- vocal fatigue
- increased vocal effort.
A key point: Changes in vocal folds usually tempt us to speak in a compensatory way. Often, this results in muscle tension in the head and neck, tongue-base, jaw and throat, as we are adding chores to structures not used to be worked this way. An end result is often vocal fatigue and hoarseness.
More on "expectant voices": Late in pregnancy, women may notice some heartburn. This may mean that acids from the stomach are backing up the esophagus. If they spill over onto the larynx, they can harm vocal tissues, usually resulting in hoarseness. The reflux is often due to lying down soon after eating, over-eating, or eating fatty or acidic foods and/or drinking carbonated fluids. A big, near-term belly may also hinder the amount of air you can breathe in for voicing. Try not to speak at the end of your breath. Instead, opt for short sentences and more frequent breaths.
Breast-feeding: In simple terms, breast-feeding mimics the pregnancy hormonal state. Following childbirth, the hormone prolactin (responsible for stimulating breast milk) skyrockets. In a hormonal sequence of events, prolactin ultimately reduces estrogen production. So — just like menstruation — estrogen drops may cause voice breaks, breathiness or hoarseness, fatigue, difficulty phonating on certain pitches, a lack of vocal flexibility, a loss of high notes, and vocal instability.
Once breast-feeding ceases, hormone-related changes disappear.
Menopause: Menopause to most women means the (often welcome) end of monthly periods and the (often unwelcome) beginning of hot flashes. Also it brings:
- drier larynxes;
- less lung power;
- weakened laryngeal muscles;
- stiffer laryngeal cartilages;
- thickened vocal folds;
- more "man-like" voice;
- fewer elastic and collagen fibers.
Unfortunately, menopausal voice effects haven't been studied as much as the premenstrual phase. Often reported changes are breathiness, a decreased range, less breath control, vocal fatigue, and — for singers — pitch inaccuracies and vibrato changes. Until recently, women were often offered hormone replacement therapy to combat menopausal body changes. However, recent links to an increased incidence of cancer may make hormone replacement unsafe. Women should address concerns to their doctors.
Before you take these...
Aspirin warning: Women who need relief from menstrual cramps should be aware that aspirin or aspirin-based pain relievers intensify the risk for vocal fold hemorrhage. Blood vessels in the vocal folds - already swollen due to hormonal changes - become even more vulnerable if aspirin is used and can burst from vigorous or overly enthusiastic speaking or singing.
Birth control pills: Some combination pills may cause a temporary lowering of the voice, making it somewhat difficult to sing in the upper part of the voice. Teachers who are singers should be aware of this. Most changes due to the pill are reversible. However some pills formulated outside the U.S. are less regulated and could contain androgenic agents that can permanently lower the voice.
And, finally, what makes us sound masculine or feminine (besides pitch)?
Vocologists have had the unique experience of working with transgender or transsexual voice clients (those who surgically change sex). These clients usually seek advice about matching their voices to their new gender identities.While hormone treatments usually alter pitch somewhat, often transgender clients are still unsatisfied with the way they sound. These clients challenge vocologists to consider: what makes a voice feminine versus masculine?
Aside from pitch,
- Women tend to make swooping pitch changes during speech, while men tend to use their full pitch range conservatively.
- Women tend to have more "breathy" voices as compared to men.
- Women tend to use their articulators more than men. Sometimes voice coaches describe this as "increased energy" around the articulators, especially the lips.
- "Feminine" communication isn't defined just by sound. Women tend to use more hand gestures, gentler articulation and "softer" word choices.
Your personal (voice) trainer
Stand straight, speak easy
Your personal (voice) trainer says: Poor posture not only causes back aches and shoulder pain: slumping affects your voice.
When your midsection droops, your lungs cannot fully inflate to give your vocal system a steady air stream to fuel your speech. Slouching also leads to unnecessary tension on muscles and joints, making them tired and poorly prepared to support your voice.
When standing, balance your body's weight equally on both legs. Separate your feet slightly with one foot a bit in front of the other. Align hips below the shoulders. Slightly bend your knees to put more weight on the balls of your feet. Let your head "float." Working with students? Crouch, or bend at the hips and knees. Don't bend at the waist with your knees straight.
Feed your voice well!
Your personal (voice) trainer says: Nutrition and vocal health are as interconnected as nutrition and overall good health.
The good nutrition, healthy voice link: Vocal fold tissues constantly replace damaged cells with fresh ones. Good nutrition facilitates this process. Speaking requires well-orchestrated, energetic movements of many small muscles. Muscles work best when they are well-supplied with energy sources and when waste material is promptly removed. Too much fat limits muscle coordination, strength, and endurance of vocal functions. Make this your nutrition mantra: Eat a well-balanced, varied, low-fat diet; drink sufficient liquids for adequate hydration; and match caloric intake with calorie output.
Move, stretch, sweat and sway!
Your personal (voice) trainer says: Exercise promotes efficient breathing, relaxation, increased vocal flexibility, and good body alignment.
Try for at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. It probably does not matter what type of exercise you do (other than the fact that people tend to stick to exercise regimens they enjoy). Try something new: kickboxing, Pilates, square dancing, badminton, a co-ed volleyball team, rock climbing, speed walking. Explore exercise patterns: work out first thing in the morning, or just before bed, or break up your session into
Go to bed and wake up about the same time each day (even on weekends). Take frequent mini-stretch breaks during the day to relieve tension. Your fitness shows in your voice!
Free your voice from tension
Your personal (voice) trainer says: Unquelled stress is an enemy of the voice.
It causes your shoulders to rise, neck to constrict, and belly to tense all of which work against an ample intake of air and easy, well-coordinated voicing on the out breath. Research shows that in high-stress situations people raise their pitch and have more fluctuations in their voices. These conditions are tough on the vocal anatomy and even rougher on the psyche. Teachers and most voice patients report similar feelings when the voice is impaired: diminished vocal flexibility, range, loudness, or ease of voicing.
Many people become hoarse. In some cases people actually "lose their voices" for a time due to their distress. Even quick, simple strategies keep undue tension at bay. Look for "vocal stress-busters" sprinkled throughout the Voice Academy.
The fluid factor
The relationship between drinking water and vocal health is complicated and not fully understood by scientists. Must we drink 64-80 ounces of water per day?
- We don't store excess water. It simply passes from the body as urine. You can't super-saturate or preventatively hydrate body tissues.
- Drinking a lot of water causes frequent urination, but teachers get few bathroom breaks.
- The water we drink travels down the esophagus. It does not pass by the vocal folds to directly hydrate them.
- While scientists don't have all the answers, they suspect vocal folds are a low priority in terms of where the body directs fluid.
- A diet rich in water-based foods (fruits and vegetables) makes water drinking less important.
- People are not the same. We have varying hydration needs.
What is adequate hydration? One barometer for adequate hydration is urine color. Dark urine indicates less hydration than clear or pale-colored output. The truth is, water does keep the mouth and throat lubricated, facilitating speaking. Therefore, thirst is a reasonable barometer of water need. Some people report that speaking is easier when they drink more water. If possible, teachers should keep water close by to sip when needed, if only to keep the mouth and tongue moist.
Here's a secret from singers: munching an apple can ease your speech. Pectin, found in apple skin, has been reported to stimulate the salivary glands. The extra moisture in the mouth will likely make speaking easier.
Liquids to use with caution
Alcohol and caffeine: Some liquids, such as coffee, tea, colas and alcohol, dehydrate the body. In other words, they draw fluid from tissues. Research has shown that dehydrated vocal folds do not vibrate efficiently. So, if you enjoy your morning java, go ahead, but follow it up by refilling your mug with water.
Mouthwash: Alcohol or mint in many mouthwashes may irritate the tissues of the vocal system. If you like a morning swish of mouthwash, go ahead and rinse just don't gargle. If you need to gargle, use salt water instead. Also, understand that persistent bad breath could be a symptom of a low grade infection, gastric reflux from the stomach, or possibly some other medical trouble. Mouthwash won't cure these problems.