You make sounds by pushing air through your vocal chords (or flaps, or folds). They vibrate, rather like your lips do when you blow a raspberry. They’re much smaller than your lips, and the sound they make is very weak. It’s amplified, rather like a guitar or violin, by various air spaces in your body that resonate in sympathy.
You make different notes by putting the vocal folds under tension – more tension and the note goes upwards. Your lips, tongue and teeth modify the sound, and the result is: Speech.
It’s not really much more complicated than that. But you do need to look after your voice.
Most of the time you just breathe. If you didn’t, you’d become unconscious! But if you’re over-conscious of your breathing, you might not do it very well at all. Take a deep breath. What did you do? If you raised your shoulders and tried to expand your chest, you did what most people do – and it’s wrong!
Try taking another deep breath, but this time, think about filling your stomach with air. Sounds strange, but that’s the way you breathe normally. The diaphragm lowers and inflates your lungs. And don’t be afraid to breathe with your mouth open; it’s all part of speech.
There’s another reason for taking in big breaths; your lungs feed oxygen into the blood. That helps you to relax and dissipates tension.
A low voice carries more authority than a high pitched voice. There are variations of perception in different cultures – for example, in China, a high female voice is felt to indicate higher class – but in most English-speaking countries, a low tone is percieved as more knowledgeable than a thin, high, reedy voice.
That doesn’t mean you have to sound like a tuba all the time, but don’t project a higher range than is normal. If you’re subject to nerves (and we all are, surely), your whole body will tend to tighten up, particularly your chest and jaw, and you’ll squeak a semi-tone or two above your natural range.
Try it: visualise yourself on stage in front of a thousand people, and you’ve forgotten your lines. Think about it for a while – you may get short of breath. Now record a short speech.
Now take a couple of deep breaths. Then hum. Hum up and down a scale if you can. Bob up and down on your feet. Keep humming, then open your mouth. You might be surprised at the timbre and the volume of your voice. Record your speech again and compare the two. The experiment isn’t guaranteed to work, but it does in eight or nine cases out of ten.
Practice, Practice, Practice
This is just the start. You can’t change your voice overnight. But you can easily prevent nerves from making you squeak.
Have a look at yourself in a mirror while you talk. Now open your mouth and put a finger sideways between your top and bottom teeth. Try to remember how your mouth feels. Chances are you’ll be a bit uncomfortable, but that’s how wide you need to open your mouth to enunciate properly. By the way, if a finger-width seems a bit much, consider that opera singers use two or even three fingers for the same purpose.
This is an interesting exercise: Find a large room or hall, preferably without too much in the way of reverberation (clap your hands to test), and reasonably free of extraneous noise. Get a friend to stand in one corner, and raise a hand. Talk to your friend in an ordinary voice, asking him or her to drop the hand when you’re inaudible. I’ve no idea how far you’ll get – maybe one third or half way across the room.
Now try again. Don’t raise your voice, but speak clearly, remembering to open your mouth sufficiently to enable the words to get out. Imagine those words travelling along a clothes line to your listener’s ear. Slow down, and extend the vowels. I bet you can get twice as far away as before. In a fairly quiet environment, you can almost whisper and still be heard twenty or thirty metres away.
I said (wrote) earlier, that the basic voice generating device, your vocal folds (chords) are tiny – less than two centimetres long in men, and even shorter in ladies. Take good care of them. For a start, they need to be moist to perform best. Keep them that way. Film and television studios can be very hot and dry places, so keep hydrated. Water is good, green tea even better, but avoid alcohol. Some experts say the best thing to sip if you’re doing a long read is flat cola.
Opinions are divided on milk, though. Some say it’s very bad for you. But if I’ve got to record a solemn commentary, I sip milk and nibble chocolate. They don’t dry your throat, and they tend to make your vocal folds fat and claggy – your voice won’t drop much, but it might acquire a gritty feel.
No – this isn’t a treatise on bank rates. But are you interested in what you’re saying? If you’re very familiar with a speech, you may not produce it as it should be – as if it’s the product of a brand-new thought. Especially if you’re reading from a script, not recalling a speech.
Try to think what it’s about. If you’re doing narration about a rare illness, think what it means to the people suffering from it. Imagine them lying in bed, coughing, and facing a very bleak future. If it’s a commercial for beer, think about running all afternoon across a dry parched landscape, then arriving at a country pub at opeing time, then watching the barman pull a cool, clear pint for you.
That’s a variant on method acting, I suppose. And not everybody does it. A very experienced narrator will add all sorts of runes to a script, indicating when to pause, drop a tone lower, breathe, speed up or slow down. Don’t worry about that for now – just think about the meaning of what you’re saying.
There are many exercises you can do to help your voice. A lot of them involve lying on the floor, or standing on tip toes, so a book is a better accompaniment than a computer screen. However, here are a couple of things you can do whilst sitting down – mainly to improve your jaw flexibility:
Step 1 Gently stroke your cheeks and jaw line, and let your jaw drop into an open position.
Step 2 Move your jaw up and down – quickly and then slowly, alternating. Remember the objective is to isolate the jaw and work the corresponding muscles.
Step 3 Hold your bottom jaw in the palm of your hands and lift the top of your skull away from the soft palate, back of tongue and lips. Sounds strange, but it’s interesting how much control you can develop from this simple exercise.
Buy a Good Book
This short piece will give you a start in voice production, but a qualified coach can do much more. Not all of us have access to a coach, so you might consider a good book on the subject. Cicely Berry’s ‘Voice and the Actor’ is perhaps the best work in this area. It’s full of good exercises and sound common sense. I hope Miss Berry won’t mind me including one of her most memorable bits of advice.
“What you are also doing is discovering the energy in the muscles you use to make vowels and consonants. It is by no means a matter of just being clear. It is also being aware of the energy and life that words have of themselves in their particular context. It is true that someone can have a grating and inflexible voice, yet, if the right kind of energy is in the word, and by that I mean if the word collects the emotion and thought intentions and relays them, then he (she) can be magnetic, and we are drawn to listen. It is again a two-way process: the speaker informs the words with his(her) own understanding and they can inform him (her) if he (she) listens to what they say.”