What if I told you that, with only one small change, you could permanently protect your voice from harm? No, it’s not a miracle warm-up. No, it’s not a lemon-and-honey super-hydration recipe. I’m not even going to try and sell you anything. I’m going to make a tiny change in the way you speak that will permanently make your voice safer and more efficient.
We are in an epidemic. 20% of teachers have taken time off work because of vocal strain or misuse. You only have to look at the stats on how many hours of hard voice work they have to do – often as much as 6 hours of loud talking a day, at very high volumes.
All this takes its toll. In terms of the amount of work on the vocal folds, teachers are having to work just as hard as opera singers. The difference is that a top soprano will have had decades of training; a newly qualified teacher will have had, at best, an hour-long seminar about drinking more water. It’s time to even the odds.
So, the one single change that will permanently protect your voice from harm? It’s not what you’d expect:
Pushing = Burnout
There is one main reason that a teacher’s voice will burn out: they’re using it very inefficient ways. Often, especially when shouting, they will use a very pressed, pushed sound. The trouble with this is that it puts a lot of strain on the vocal folds for not a lot of return: it’s highly inefficient. Listen to the sound below for what I mean.
Sound familiar? This voice, even though it is very loud and pushed, sounds quite dulled. It doesn’t have any carrying power. Over a gang of schoolchildren, it doesn’t stand a chance. But what is happening to the voice to make it so dull-sounding?
The Sweet Spot
The answer is in the overtones of the voice. People think the voice produces one note. It doesn’t. It produces about 25-40 at once, at higher and higher harmonies above the ‘fundamental frequency’, which is the name given to the sound we actually hear. It’s like we’re actually singing a huge chord. Now, guess what – human ears have a natural sensitivity to certain notes in this chord.
We have a sweet spot, around 2500 Hz-3500 Hz, which sounds louder to us than any other area in the sound spectrum. And if something in our immediate environment hits this spot, it’ll drown out virtually everything else. Check out this video to learn about vocal resonance (video by Jay Miller):
This is an evolutionary thing – we need to pay attention to some sounds more than others. For instance, tending to a baby’s cry will often be an evolutionary priority, since caring for babies leads to more babies, which helps to propagate the species. So, the baby produces a sound which is perfectly co-ordinated to hit this special part of our ear in order to give it the best chance of getting help. This is why you can always hear a baby crying on a train carriage, even above your own headphones. Check it out in the video above.
This quality of high, piercing resonance is called ‘Twang’. This is not to be confused with the ‘American Twang’ you hear on country records. This is all about concentrating the resonance of your voice into that sweet spot of resonance so that you can be heard better. But how do we do it?
The Aryepiglottic Sphincter (AES)
We get twang through the action of one muscle. Yes, only one. I couldn’t believe it either. So – no good beating around the bush. Let’s have a look at it. Here goes. It’s pretty gross:
Now, just to orient you a little bit: this lovely lady has had a camera inserted up her nose, through to behind the soft palate, and looking down at the top of the larynx. That thing that looks like a tongue is in fact the epiglottis, pictured in blue in the diagram below. The thin, white muscles that are jumping in and out in the centre of the picture are the vocal folds. You can see them jump together to make the sound, then leap sideways for the breath in.
The AES is the two bunches of muscle that sit on the top of the folds, connecting them to the epiglottis. Around 0:30, they ask her to do some twang. She obliges, and the muscles of the AES tighten, pulling the epiglottis in. You can hear the sound quality change – it becomes harder, brighter, stronger.
The action of the AES narrows the passage of sound at the crucial moment – just when it’s about to be released into the mouth. This means that the sound gets compressed, which produces the high, piercing resonances that we know as twang. This twang can cut through any amount of classroom noise. But how does it prevent vocal strain?
Let’s return to the pushed, pressed sound that we started with. You can hear in the sound example above that without twang, I am having to use a lot of force and energy to acquire volume. I call this ‘Expensive Resonance’ – expending a lot of power and pressure for not a lot of volume. Imagine if using the voice cost money: by the end of your teaching day, you’ve have spend all your credit, and you’re probably in your vocal overdraft! Your vocal folds are burnt out from all that hard work, and you probably don’t talk so much in the evenings to save up for tomorrow.
But with twang, your vocal folds don’t have to work so hard. The contraction of the AES means that with less power, your voice can produce more volume. In other words, you can buy resonance cheaply, and have plenty of credit left over at the end of the day.
We simply can’t say how important this is. You can have your social life back. You can talk to your spouse in the evenings. You can effortlessly drown out a class full of children. But how can you get this into your life?
Here’s a list of twang exercises to feel the action of the AES and to get it into your speaking voice.
The primary function of the AES is to close the passageway to the windpipe when you swallow. Swallow, and feel the sensation of effort just above your larynx. Use the diagrams above to locate the AES’s position. You should feel the whole larynx move up and down, but you won’t be able to feel the AES from the outside. It should feel like a feeling of lightly ‘holding’ the sound above the larynx.
Here are a list of triggers, also demonstrated below. Use these to practice making sound with twang. A playground bully chanting ‘nyeh’, a meowing cat, an American ‘oh my gahhd’.
Practice making the most relaxed twang sounds you can, as this is crucial for buying resonance cheaply. Try a mosquito buzzing, a Formula One car in the distance, or a harsh ‘nn’ sound.
Now practice adding this sound into your speech. Hold an extended ‘ah’, and try and turn the AES on and off. A great way of doing this is to imagine your AES is the hood of a raincoat, and that you are tightening and loosening the sensation of efford just at that hood. Try this with words you use regularly, like ‘Ok, Class’, or ‘Andrew, sit down!’.
Beware of tension! If there are any gritty or gravelly sounds in your twang, relax – use less force on your vocal folds and repeat step 3.
Learn more about voice problems among teachers here.
Vocalzone recommends for teachers:
Watch Simon Smith explaining how teachers’ voice and tone is vital