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How to Exercise and Change Your Voice

Updated on November 2, 2017

"Most people go to their graves with their music still inside them"

This was expressed by George Bernard Shaw.

Many of us feel the need to bring into the world what we have inside, to be authentic, to grow.

Have a voice. Give voice to your passions. Give voice to your dreams. Raise your voice. These are beautiful prompts.

How do we do that, though? This is a universal human problem or wonder.

In my 20s, I was haunted by the belief that I have a Stradivarius but I don’t know how to use it. Years later, questions as What is my music? and How do I best introduce it in the world? still, mark my existence.

Searching for answers, I compiled information from 4 Ted Talk speakers on the subjects of voice and the better use of it. Also, I include suggestions from one of the speaker’s book, Barbara McAfee’s Full Voice: The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence”.

Why focus on voice?

First, why focus on voice? According to Barbara McAfee, the voice is:

the way you sound when you speak or sing, an essential relational skill, a reflection of who you think you are, the primary vehicle to giving your gifts to the world

Therefore, the voice has intrinsic and extrinsic importance. The same author reveals that

your voice says so much about you, it has no sense of data privacy whatsoever. Researchers have found that just by the sound of your voice, a listener can determine your physical stature, gender usually, cultural background often (...) your mood.

So then, the voice is a door to our inner experiences and to a better understanding of them. Also, Barbara McAfee states that most of us use a small part of our vocal range when we talk, when we sing that range extends, still the complete range is much wider. She says we explore that full voice only in extreme situations as in sporting events or when birthing babies. Therefore, another intrinsic reason for being curious about the voice is to explore your full range. The extrinsic reason is found in a study presented by Laura Sicola. The study showed that audiences interpret what you say based primarily on the intonation of your voice, only additionally on the words you use. The percentage is 38 for voice and 7 for words. The other 55 percent are directed to the importance of posture and body language. As Nietzsche put it

We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.

Laura Sicola states that

we tune out a person that does not display the voice characteristics we expect from a certain role.

We do this subconsciously. Barbara McAfee agrees that when faced with an opportunity to speak, we often worry about what we are going to say, when in fact how we are going to say it might be more important.

Why is the voice overlooked?

Furthermore, Caroline Goyder and Julian Treasure also underline the idea that

the human voice is the instrument we all play

Why is the voice overlooked then? Because it is ubiquitous, it is with us all the time, because we are fatalistic about the voice, explains Barbara McAfee. Yet people reflect that their greatest challenge professionally is communication and that is also the number one skill employers look for. In a general view on self-expression, Julian Treasure talks about habits we should move away from, in order to develop a better presence. These habits are Gossip, Judging, Negativity, Complaining, Excuses, Exaggeration, and Dogmatism, which is the confusion of facts with opinions. Also, he states that powerful, change-inducing speech, stands on four pillars.

1.The first one is Honesty, we should talk clear and straight.

2. The second is Authenticity, we should be ourselves.

3. Integrity is third, “be your word”.

4. The fourth is Love, “wish them well”.

Practice is key

Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle

I found this quote in Brené Brown’s book “Rising Strong”, it is a saying from the Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. It resonated with me because I often found that information, even very interesting one, when not applied, is forgotten. There are many 100 days projects available for inspiration, even 30 consecutive days of practice can have value. That is why the advice presented below would be better incorporated through exercises. Caroline Goyder says that you have to practice your instrument. In her view, the simplest way to practice is to sing. After focusing on the foundations on which speech should be built, Julian Treasure names the relevant qualities of the voice.

1.First comes Register. The depth of a voice is given by using the diaphragm. Depth translates into power, authority. Caroline Goyder agrees that the more relaxed the breathing pattern, the more powerful a person appears, or actually is. She also names the diaphragm as the king of confidence and offers an exercise (min. 13.49) for identifying the diaphragm in our bodies. Barbara McAfee also presents a breathing exercise.

2.Timber. Julian Treasure explains that people prefer rich voices, ones that feel like chocolate.

3.Prosody. Many are guilty of speaking on just one note. That gives the speech a repetitive pattern.

4.Pace. We might go too fast or too slow, we should pay better attention to this.

5.Pitch. Laura Sicola shows that you should emphasize the most important ideas with a higher pitch, because the mind hears the tone units that it can remember easily. For a positive first impression pronounce your name in an intonation pattern easy to remember (min 8.19).

Let your voice go up on your first name, have a pause at the top, and go down on your last name.

6.Volume. People broadcasting all the time are tiring, learn to use volume appropriately.

7.The 7th voice quality is added by Caroline Goyder. That is Breath, air. She states that inbreath is thought and outbreath is speech, and her advice for a confident speech is to not open the mouth on the inbreath.

Julian Treasure also presents a good voice warming exercise (min. 7.45).

Work your prismatic voice

Additionally, Laura Sicola points out some problems with vocal presence. She presents the use of voice in professional environments, yet the ideas may be applied in diverse situations. A problem she identifies is the disconnect between the choice of words and their delivery. That creates a “problem of credibility” (Sicola). Furthermore, we need to recognize which part of our personality should shine through in a certain moment and transmit that. She defines this model as working your prismatic voice.

When the white light of your personality passes through the prism of some situational context you need to look at all of the colors that are available in order to be most effective and appropriate for that moment.

The 5 elements framework

Lastly, Barbara McAfee helps us better understand what colors are available in our voice. She defines her work as “being a midwife for voices”. She developed the 5 elements framework that offers an opportunity to step into our full voices. Mostly, she created the framework

by listening to patterns in people’s voices and noticing how they reflected their qualities as a person.

She exercises the vocal range by using 5 aspects of the voice, presenting an exaggeration of each one. She urges the readers or practitioners to pay attention to their own “brain rats”, biases triggered by any of the voices. My favorite parts in her book were the questions she encourages the reader to ask about their own voice. What about our voice we like and what not? Where and in what moments did we feel connected to our full voice? The invitation is to opt for curiosity over judgment. I will list the types of voices, their importance, and the exercises, but the information is better understood by watching her videos or reading the book. The five voices are:

1.The earth voice. This voice is exercised by imagining how a cave person would talk. It is deep and, well, earthy. Its positive traits are relaxation, gravitas. It is useful for projecting authority, for getting grounded. From the public figures that mostly display this type of voice, I retained Leonard Cohen’s name.

2.The fire voice. It is exercised by imagining you are a passionate Italian. This one is loud, it offers energy, passion, personal power. It is good for public speaking. Use as inspiration Mick Jagger’s voice.

3.The water voice. Talking in a British lady’s voiceis a good exaggeration and a way to practice it. It is a caring, warm, flowing, soothing voice. Therapists and psychologists usually master this voice. It is used for affirmation, compassion, apologizing, empathy. Inspiration: Marvin Gaye's voice.

4.For the metal voice, imagine you are an irritable cat. This voice is good for projecting, when you suffer from a hoarse voice, or if you mumble. It is bright, sharp, nasal, piercing. It offers clarity and focus. A good inspiration is Bob Dylan’s voice.

5.The air voice. When you talk in a baby’s voice you access it, you remember your inner child. The speaker states that many people reject it, maybe because it reminds us of being forced to mature. It opens up to inspiration, possibility, connection, storytelling. The inspiration is Jim Morrison’s voice.

Finally, these voices, Barbara McAfee says,

are all great and terrible, depending on the circumstances: water voice is great for speaking one on one and terrible for public speaking; metal is great for projecting in a big or loud space, not good in one on one; fire voice is not good in intimate spaces.

The practice implies constantly noticing your voice; using the different elements; listening to other people; singing or, if that is uncomfortable, reciting poetry.

All in all, I found that a good vocal presence has to do with being more involved in your life and not letting yourself be overwhelmed by interior struggles or exterior desires. It is an act of balance that demands intention and work.


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