Speaking up without wearing down

Preserving and developing your voice as a pastor

Richard Rice, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at La Sierra University, La Sierra, California.

Have you ever noticed how many public figures have problems with their voices? President Clinton often sounds strained and sometimes has to rest his voice completely. Several months ago Pete Wilson, governor of California, underwent surgery to help him with his.

If speaking has ever made your voice tired or hoarse, you can sympathize with these people. I know I do. Not long after I started teaching, my voice gave me so much trouble that I wondered if I would have to leave the profession.

I had a premonition of things to come during my years as a pastor. A half-hour sermon left my throat dry and tight, but preaching didn't take that much of my time, and I recovered without difficulty. When I started teaching, however, things were different. On an average day I had to speak two or three hours, sometimes four or five. In an hour I was forcing every sound. At the end of the day I was exhausted.

The problem mystified me. I was young, in good health, and did a lot of swimming and running. There was apparently nothing that should prevent me from standing up and talking without tiring out. So I tried various things. Remembering what I'd always heard about the importance of the diaphragm, I made an effort to relax my throat and tighten my abdomen. I tried pitching my voice in the lower part of my range. I tried to forget about the mechanics of speaking entirely and just think about what I was saying. But nothing changed. Whether I concentrated on my voice or ignored it, it still failed me. In my condition I could understand Ellen White's sobering observation: "Many have died who might have lived had they been taught how to use the voice correctly." 1

Approaching desperation, I turned to professionals for help. But the results were disappointing. Speech pathologists told me there wasn't much they could do. If my problem was saying "wabbit" instead of "rabbit," for example, they could deal with that. But I was enunciating perfectly. No one ever said they couldn't understand what I was saying.

Next I saw an ENT specialist. After hearing my tale of woe, he warmed up a small mirror and slid it gently down my throat.

"Whatever you're doing," he said after the examination, "it hasn't damaged your vocal cords. You don't have a medical problem, so I really don't know what to tell you." Though relieved to know I had no serious affliction or faced a radical procedure, I was now more frustrated than ever. I had a real problem, and no one seemed able to help me.

On an impulse one afternoon, I called up the Drama Department at the local cam pus of the University of California. I told the secretary the general nature of my concern, and she put me through to one of the drama teachers. I made an appointment and went to see him a few days later. He served as a voice coach for students involved in the school's drama productions.

After hearing an account of my troubles, he said, "I think we can help you." I eagerly awaited his solution. I thought it would be something simple and easy that would instantly solve the problem, like five minutes of deep breathing before a lecture or running an extra mile every morning. Boy, was I wrong.

Before I knew it, I was lying flat on my back on the linoleum floor of his office, not talking, but merely breathing. And not breathing exactly, but trying to observe what happens to the breath when you aren't trying to breathe.

Demanding path

It was the first of a long series of appointments. What I thought would be a simple step to effortless speaking turned out to be a long and demanding path to recovery. I visited the voice coach once a week throughout the fol lowing school year nine whole months. And in between our visits I spent an hour every day on the various exercises he prescribed. I had never imagined that something so complicated was wrong with me.

The basic problem, it turned out, was that I was trying to do something that naturally happens without trying. I was exerting my self to perform an action that is basically effortless. As parents well know, babies can cry for hours at full volume. Dogs can bark all night long without losing their voice. When the voice functions as it should, there is virtually no effort involved. Speaking is as easy as breathing. As my teacher said: "The breath is the blueprint of the sound."2

For a variety of complicated reasons, how ever, typically emotional rather than physical, many of us interfere with this natural process in one way or another. And once the practice becomes a habit, it is very difficult to reverse. For one thing, when we are accustomed to using our voices artificially, it is hard for us to imagine any other way of speaking. So we have to work hard to recover the natural voice. It is no longer readily available to us. Second, we can't stop speaking until we learn how to do it right. For social and professional reasons, we still have to talk. So we have to start where we are and work our way out of a thicket of accumulated problems.

Third, as I found out, it is much more difficult to acquire a passive skill than an active one. The challenge I faced in trying to speak without difficulty was not to do some thing, to acquire some new technique for producing sound, but to stop doing some thing to get out of the way of what would happen perfectly on its own if only I could stop interfering. When you are the kind of person who is used to taking charge of your life, solving problems and accomplishing things through energy and determination, it is vexing to discover that this approach utterly fails when it comes to voice problems.

Speaking without strain

Further complicating all this is the fact that most of us are very self-conscious about our voices. After all, our speech is an intimate expression of our personalities. Criticizing someone's voice is like criticizing their looks. So we can't face the prospect of changing the way we speak without a deep-seated fear that we are tinkering with some thing central to our identity.

Modern technology contributes to the problem too. It's easy to see why people in the nineteenth century said so much about speaking properly. Years ago if you weren't speaking properly, you simply couldn't be heard by an audience of any size, at least not for very long. But public-address systems are so efficient now that you don't have to speak correctly to be heard. There's enough watt age in the average amplifier today to carry a croak throughout a stadium, let alone an average church or auditorium. So people can still communicate even if they are subjecting their voices to terrific abuse.

There was no sudden turnaround in my journey to the natural voice, but eventually the effort paid off. In time I could speak without strain as long as I needed to, no matter what the occasion or how large the audience. I kept up the exercises for a while and then gradually let them go. But when ever I feel things begin to tighten up when I speak, I return to them and find that they continue to help.

Attending to your voice

Some people have never messed up their natural ability to speak properly. My wife, who is also a professor, can lecture for hours without the slightest strain. But if you are someone who finds it tiring to talk, either in public or in private, you should consider giving your voice some serious attention. Here are some suggestions.

1. Get professional help. The challenge of recovering the natural voice is too demanding to meet on your own. That's one reason I am not offering a list of steps or exercises here. The path to vocal freedom isn't a do-it-yourself project. You'll need competent assistance.

2. Expect to invest some time and effort. The path to vocal freedom requires commitment and intense concentration. The regimen I went through worked because it was so detailed. The production of vocal sound is a natural process, but it involves many different elements. So an effective program for solving vocal problems needs to isolate each facet of the process and provide exercises designed to develop it. This is why it doesn't help to have people tell you to "relax your throat" or "tighten your abdomen." The advice is so general that it's useless.

3. Remember that the goal of the process is freedom of expression. Proper speaking should not be confused with oral interpretation or theatrical training. The purpose of freeing the natural voice is not to change you into someone else or to produce an artificial or affected sound. You can tell by the way some people talk that they want the audience to admire their voices. I have friends who use a pitch several steps below normal whenever they pray or preach. It's not impressive; it's distracting.

The ideal is speech that perfectly expresses your ideas and a voice that is perfectly responsive to your sentiments so people hear you and what you have to say, not the words you use or the voice you say them with. If that's your goal, you'll find it worthwhile to get some help with your voice.

1 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents and
Teachers
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press
Pub. Assn., 1943), p. 297.

2 My teacher followed the program elaborated
in Kristin Linklater's important book Freeing
the Natural Voice
(New York: Drama Book
Publishers, 1976).


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Richard Rice, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at La Sierra University, La Sierra, California.

November 1997

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