Mattias Martens wrote a beautifully eloquent post on his own blog about a talk I did at a Friends in Wonderment Atheist Group Meetup in Vancouver, BC. I have included the full text below, but I highly recommend you check out his blog and his other writing. In fact, he's looking for Beta readers for his new novel! If you (or anyone you know) is interested please sign up now to get first peek at the new novel.
The Science and Practice of Speaking and Being Heard - February 19, 2016
Danielle, a professional voice coach who deals frequently with the challenges of public speaking, delivered a talk on human acoustics. First we heard some of the history of acoustics, beginning with the architectural techniques the Greeks used to make their actors and orators heard in crowded amphitheatres. Then we moved on to the acoustics of the body itself. Through the body, it’s possible to apply some of the tricks the Greeks used to make their actors boom, and unpack an amphitheatre wherever you might need one.
The ancient Greeks were pioneers in the projection of voice. The amphitheatres constructed between the seventh and fourth centuries BC saw steady adjustments and improvements to every aspect of their design. The amphitheatre of Epidaurus, finished near the end of this period, still stands today and is well-known for its ability to carry sound to its 55th and final row. It seats up to fifteen thousand people—no modest achievement for the pre-microphone age. Usually, modern professional speakers can minister to an audience of up to about fifty or sixty before needing some kind of performance-enhancing technology.
The builders of the amphitheatre had help from the limestone they were using. This rock has the property of absorbing the low frequencies of audience and background noise—below around 500 Hz—while reflecting the higher frequencies of the performers’ voices. On a packed night, the bodies of the spectators themselves would have provided a further dampening effect. At the same time, the circular construction plan and careful positioning of steps and surfaces ensured that sound was channeled to spectators at like volumes regardless of where they were seated.
The acoustic needs of oratory are different from those of music: reverberation can help amplify and extend the effect of musical notes, but in speech this reinforcement can hinder the recognition of ensuing syllables. To accommodate this the Greeks had two types of theatre: amphitheatre and odeon. The odeon had a roof to contain the vibrations of music, while the amphitheatre was open to the sky and behind the stage.
One of the less understood aspects of Greek performance was their equivalent to the modern microphone. Performers in theatre always wore masks, not only to take a new identity but also because the masks themselves were powerful projection devices. Sadly, only replicas remain. But study of the masks suggests that they powerfully amplified sound by creating a space of air between the head and the mask that resonated sympathetically with the actor’s voice, before the vibrations were projected out of the mouth opening in the front. The techniques perfected by the Greek dramatists may have amplified the actor’s natural projection to earsplitting volumes.
Even with all of these aids, there is no doubt that Greek actors had to be incredibly skilled at being heard. With the modern over-reliance on microphones, acoustics has been neglected in everyday contexts. Speakers today can expect to be called to work their craft in all sorts of buildings, very few of which are likely to be of any help in getting their message across. Danielle’s work as a voice coach gives her an insightful perspective on this problem.
Part of the impetus for this talk came from a nagging problem with our meeting arrangements. After the main talk in a Vancouver Public Library meeting room, the Friends in Wonderment retire to a nearby pub to continue their discussions. Unfortunately, the noise of the typical Vancouver pub combined with the clamour of fifteen to twenty Friends can make it very difficult to hear. Maddeningly, the difficulty of being heard tends to make people raise their voices, which increases the general noise level and intensifies the problem.
There is a simple solution to this. It’s a fairly consistent rule in English speech that the consonants carry the meaning while vowels carry volume (and hence pitch, which can carry emotional valence—or in some other languages, additional meaning). By over-articulating their consonants, a speaker can get across more meaning without being louder. Since their speech contributes to the general noise level, this practice benefits everyone else as well.
For example, the Canadian accent has a tendency to drop the ts and ds at the end of a words, as in thought, thawed, bought, bawd, etc. Paying a little extra attention to that final consonant can make a big difference in comprehensibility. As Danielle emphasizes, “speak up” doesn’t have to mean “speak louder.”
But part of the reason we don’t want to speak louder is that we find it wears on the throat. We take it for granted that we can’t amplify our voices without making ourselves hoarse after an hour or two. This hoarseness is not inevitable, however. It comes from putting excessive strain on the throat instead of amplifying the voice in the natural way: by increasing the flow of breath.
The terms for the voice-producing part of the larynx create some confusion as to how they actually work. “Vocal cords” is particularly wrong: it brings to mind the vibrating strings of a guitar or piano. “Vocal folds” is certainly closer and is the more accepted term, but it has to be emphasized that the two folds work together like a valve, holding back air before releasing it once the pressure passes a threshold. (I almost prefer “vocal flaps.”) It’s this cycle, which the lips can imitate by going pphhhhhbbbbbbtttt, that shapes the flow of air coming through the trachea into sound waves.
The arytenoid cartilage controls the tension in the vocal folds. When they’re entirely released, you’re simply breathing. The tenser they get, the more pressure is required to break the seal and the higher the amplitude of the resulting sound waves. When this tension gets too high, however, it puts a strain on the folds. In the short term, this strain can cause inflammation that prevents the folds from working properly. In the long term, it can cause parts of the folds to cease vibrating, producing vocal nodes that substantially alter and weaken the speaker’s voice.
The volume can also be increased by increasing the pressure of air through the larynx. The process to increase this throughput requires engaging the whole body, but it’s ultimately all about breath capacity. When the sufficient amount of air is drawn in on the in-breath, the out-breath will produce the desired volume without any extra strain on the throat. In order to do this, however, most people will have to correct their posture to increase the capacity of their chest cavity. Poor posture pinches the abdomen, preventing the lungs from expanding fully and preventing the diaphragm from extending as far down as it could. Both of these things limit the amount of air that can be taken in in the first place; most of the problems with being heard are the result of this.
Another important aspect of the voice is resonance. When the air is set to vibrating by the vocal folds, these vibrations produce sympathetic vibrations throughout the body, especially in the mouth, face, and sinuses, that modulate the sound before it is finally released.
There’s surprisingly little variation in the lengths of human vocal tracts: they tend to range from 150 to 200 centimetres. Resonance accounts for most of the differences in human voices—the speaker’s habitual muscle positioning, the shape of the roof of the mouth, the arrangement and proportions of other resonance chambers, etc.
Direct resonance is the name given to things that vibrate because they are connected to a vibrating thing. For example, the vibration of the vocal folds causes a direct vibration in the cartilage that emanates through connected tissues. Indirect resonance is resonance produced by vibrations that have traveled through a medium such as air. As the vocal folds produce sound, both types of vibration are produced throughout the body. Primary resonators, the ones in the larynx and higher, produce the main layer of sound; secondary resonators, lower down in the body, enrich the sound.
Sound can be redirected by the shaping of muscles like the soft palate (the part of the roof of the mouth that moves when you swallow or yawn), the mouth, the tongue, and the larynx. One final way to be heard at a greater distance is by speaking through the cheekbones: it produces a more directed sound with a higher overall frequency that is easier to pick out over background noise.
For those interested in learning more about how they might use their voices to greater effect, Danielle offers a free monthly seminar at the Alliance for Arts and Culture. Through her company, Inspired Coaching, Danielle offers in-depth workshops on breath capacity and other aspects of an empowered voice, as well as private coaching and free one-on-one consultations.
Speaking of Speaking...
Valentijn Dhaenens came to Vancouver BC with his touring solo show, BigMouth, a tapestry of the world's greatest speeches woven together with snippets of song. The results was riveting. I wrote a review for Plank Magazine, I have included a snippet the text below. READ THE FULL REVIEW HERE.
Plank Magazine is a fantastic resource for honest and down to earth peer reviews on live performance. We're always looking for more reviewers so if you have opinions and would like to share them online, let us know!
BigMouth - Makes You Think
"Valentijn Dhaenens explained to the audience in the opening night talk-back of BigMouth that he wanted to provide an unfiltered experience, full and unapologetic, leaving his audience free to think what they please. I must admit, going into the performance at the York Theatre earlier that evening, I was expecting something of a dramatized lecture, speeches interspersed and contextualized by commentary. Instead, Dhaenens plunged headfirst into his material, transitioning from one oration to the next with only a live soundscape, a whiteboard projection and his chameleon physicality to keep us on track.
It was a strong choice. If presented any other way, this piece could have been dustily academic, scattered, or overly biased. Instead, the speeches came to life. They shone and burned so brightly that the darkness between them provided a startling depth of perspective..." READ THE FULL REVIEW.
If you're like most people, you experience some jitters around the idea of public speaking. These 5 steps won't make your nerves disappear completely, but they will make your life on stage A LOT easier.
1. Rehearse your links:
You don't need to know your speech word for word. You don't need to spend hours rehearsing every day either. All you really need is to know which points to hit when. But you need to know that backwards. Make sure you have very clear, logical links from one point to the next. Practice them out of order to make sure it's a logical link, not a memorized one. If the links have a logical progression it doesn't matter how blank your mind goes you will never get lost. You don't need to hold the whole speech in your head from beginning to end, all you need to know is the very next step.
2. Read aloud daily:
Or at least read aloud every day for the week leading up to your speech. Read from a newspaper or a book you've never read before, so that you're seeing the words for the first time as you're reading them (actors call this a “cold read”). It doesn't need to be much, half a page will do. Reading aloud is magical, the most important thing it does is speed up the brain-mouth connection. If you ever feel like your brain is goes a mile a minute and your mouth stumbles trying to keep up, this is a great way to smooth out those bumps. The other great thing that reading aloud does (providing you're reading something that is well written) is that it actually improves your vocabulary and grammar. You're essentially training the language part of your brain. Reading aloud daily will not only help you feel more comfortable in a performance setting, but it will help ease the overall flow of your speech patterns.
3. Add a pencil:
If you know you are prone to stumbling, stuttering or speaking too fast, put a pencil between your teeth when reading aloud. Of course, the aim of the exercise is to sound like you DON'T have a pencil in your mouth. Once your muscles become used to perfect diction around a pencil, speaking normally will seem a breeze in comparison. Another great trick is to read your speech with a pencil in your mouth. If there are any words groups that are particularly difficult to get your mouth around you may want to reword that section to avoid tripping over them on stage.
4. Wear unrestrictive clothing:
And don't wear anything brand new. Just like you want your mouth to be familiar with the shape of the words you are going to use, you also want your body to be familiar with the clothes you are wearing, the size of the stage and the way you are standing. You don't need any surprises or distractions when you're strutting your stuff. You want to be able to gesticulate and breath freely. Wear something that looks good, but also something that allows movement and that you feel comfortable in. If you usually wear high heels make sure you wear a pair you know how to walk easily in and make sure the heel isn't too high. If you are already high up you don't want any extra wobbliness.
5. Chat during set up:
Half of what is so scary about being on stage is that you're not used to it. How can something you never do in your normal life feel easy? Get to the venue early and stand on the stage. Walk around and get to know it. More importantly chat to people who are in the auditorium. Chat to the person setting up the sound, bring a friend and get them to ask you questions on your subject. Avoid the temptation to “perform” this is less about rehearsing and more about making the stage your home. Talk to them like you would on the street, notice how natural it feels. This practice will also help break down some of the “us – them” mentality that comes from standing on a separate level to your audience.
There are of course many other habits you can build to reduce stage fright, these are just a few of my favourites. The best thing you can do is get up there as often as possible. Even if you aren't speaking regularly, if you are able to build a little ritual for yourself around preparation for the event, the more you will feel like you've done this a million times and the more your anxiety will fade.
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Have you ever wondered what the point of tongue twisters was? Ever felt like they don't do very much? You probably learned tongue twisters as a child. When you're a kid the entire point of tongue twisters is to go faster than the kid next to you. So what possible application can they have in real life?
Contrary to popular belief the point of tongue twisters is NOT to go a fast as you can. Not initially anyway. The point is to limber up your facial muscles in order to create greater dexterity and precision. Tongue twisters are extremely effective. When done properly.
Start slow and big
At the beginning want to over articulate a much as possible, use your entire lower face. Engage your cheeks, your lips and your tongue. (Your eyebrows, jaw and neck should not be involved.) Do this in the mirror and see how big and agile your mouth can get. Really over enunciate and warm up those stiff muscles.
Never sacrifice clarity for speed
You do want to speed up, you always want to be challenging yourself to go just a bit faster than is comfortable. But there are two things that are always more important than speed:
1. Precision. You should always sound as clear a you did when you were slowly over articulating. If words start to run together or muddy around the edges, slow down agin and revisit step one. This sin't about making sense, it's about being clear on every syllable, so you will pronounce some letters that you might gloss over in everyday speech like the T in “at”. Be especially aware of consonant clusters (like “ts” or “kt”) this won't always sound like normal speech. The point is to exercise your muscles and improve your articulation, not to reinforce your existing habits.
2. Keep the breath free. When you were doing it slowly you probably had enough breath for every line of text so breathing was pretty natural. As you speed up the temptation will be to hold your breath. Holding your breath will introduces tension and in order to be dextrous you need to be relaxed. We don't want to do any damage. Let the breath come and go freely, see how much you can separate the actions of your articulators so they work independently of your neck, breath and eyebrows. Still. Pronounce. Every. Single. Consonant.
Got it? Try these:
The swift flew through the thistle
Give me the gift of a grip top sock
Red lorry yellow lorry
I am the very model of a modern major general
Test yourself by building momentum until you trip up, then dial it back just one notch from there. Continue to check in with yourself and be vigilant about those consonants. Be a perfectionist and resist the temptation to be the kid who wants to go faster and faster and win the competition. This should be a workout for your lips, tongue, cheeks and brain.
Do 5 minutes of tongue twisters a day (properly) for 2 weeks and you’ll notice a difference in the ease and clarity of your speech. Not only will it be easier for people to hear you when you’re on autopilot, but your sight reading and thinking on the spot will improve too! Keep switching it up and you’ll notice it’s not just your articulators that are getting some exercise it’s your mind too.
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The applause fades away and you're standing at the podium looking into a sea of faces. You've got this. You glance one last time at your notes, fill your air with lungs and begin speaking. Your voice is strong and clear and you can feel the crowd listening intently to what you're saying. About a minute in you notice your mind is wandering, you see someone shift in their seat, you get distracted and look back at the notes you were certain you wouldn't need. By the time you get to the end you are tongue tied, your palms are sweating, your voice is wavering and all you can think of is how wonderful it will feel to get the hell off this podium and back into your seat.
So what went wrong?
People always say that starting is the hardest part, the more you do the easier it gets, you'll “hit your stride” or “get into the swing of things”. So how did everything go downhill?
You forgot to breathe. Obviously you were taking in oxygen, you didn't faint or fall over. But remember that lovely big breath you started off with? You didn't get another one of those.
“But I can't take a deep breath while I'm speaking!” I hear you protest. “That will take way too long! No-one wants to sit there and watch me breathe. I'll lose my audience.” The truth is exactly the opposite.
Firstly, the time it takes to take a top-up breath is almost exactly the same as the time it takes to breathe in fully. You don't need to suck it in slowly, just let the air fill your lungs. Remember that first lovely breath you started with? Yes, more of that.
Secondly, the audience prefers it if you pause every now and again. Instead of choreographing in your pauses and having yet another thing you need to remember, why not just use the natural pause of your breath? The beauty of this is that you naturally want to breath at the end of a thought, which means it will always make grammatical sense. It also means that the pause will be perfectly positioned for the audience to absorb whatever nugget of information you have just imparted to them. You may know this information inside out, your audience is hearing it for the first time. If you race through your presentation their ears will struggle to keep up and they will miss half of what you're saying.
There is a big difference between a natural and unnatural pause. We fear the pause because we don't want to be standing up there doing nothing. We don't want to forget (or appear to have forgotten) what we are saying. We don't want to appear manipulative. We don't want to be boring. So don't manufacture your pauses, just allow them to happen.
Remember: the more time you give yourself to breathe between each thought, the more relaxed you will be. The more relaxed you are, the less likely you will be to forget what you are saying and the more likely you are to remember why you enjoy your topic to begin with. The more confident, relaxed and engaged you are, the more receptive, relaxed and engaged your audience will be.
As Shirley Manson would say: the trick is to keep breathing.
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Rest is hands-down the best thing you can do for a damaged voice. But how do you know if you're actually resting it?
Simply “not speaking” isn't really enough. Vocal strain caused from overuse is due more to tension in the neck, jaw and tongue than the action of speaking. It's the way you've been speaking that is damaging. If you hold your muscles in the same position when you're not speaking (or if you clench them even tighter in order to stop yourself from speaking) are you really doing any good? Sometimes being silent can close your throat even further as your neck becomes a storage area for all the excess tension in your body when you aren't using it.
So how do you relax your throat? It's not always easy to isolate a specific muscle group. If you can bring your awareness into your shoulders, neck, jaw and tongue and mindfully relax them, great! But if you could do that you probably wouldn't have strained your voice in the first place, so let's operate from the assumption that some additional exercises would be helpful. . .
1. Breathe Deeply
Now this is not a muscular “big” breath, just a relaxed breath that travels aaaall the way down your torso into your pelvic floor. The higher the breath in your body (ie if you breathe a lot with your shoulders) the more tense your breath is. The lower you breathe in your body (ie if you can feel it in your belly or pelvis) the more relaxed your breath is. Your body knows that breath creates sound so there's an unconscious link between your breath and your throat. What you do with one will have an automatic effect on the other. Since it is so much easier to consciously relax your breathing than it is to consciously relax the little muscles around your vocal folds, relaxing your breathing will go a long way to relaxing your throat. And you can do it without making a sound!
It really doesn't matter how you steam. You can sit over a bowl of boiling water with a towel over your head. Or you can go relax in a sauna. Or just breathe with extra care when you take your morning shower. All steam is good for your vocal folds, the more steam you can breathe in and the more relaxed your body is, the more relaxed your throat will be, so take this as an excuse to go sit in that hot tub.
3. Be Gormless
You may not want to do this in public, but any chance you get when you're on your own inside (so no passing bugs fly in by mistake), especially if you sit at a desk for any part of the day, just let your jaw drop open. The key to this is letting the jaw RELAX open, you're not muscularly pushing it open, just letting it go. The jaw muscles are connected to the tongue muscles which are directly connected to the muscles around your vocal folds. Relaxing the jaw is such an uncommon thing that five whole minutes of gormlessness a day will change your life.
When doing any or all of the above you may feel the impulse to yawn. Let yourself yawn! This yawn is the rejoicing of your muscles at the freedom you are giving them. If you suffer from jaw tension make sure you smile a little as you yawn, it will help prevent that horrible popping that happens if you over-extend.
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Today I'm listening to the New Model Army.
Family off the album Thunder and Consolation is my favourite of the day:
The morning part of the challenge didn't really happen today. I overslept, jumped straight into work and only looked up from the computer screen after noon. I tried to sing along to iTunes while I was working but the frog in my throat didn't take to that idea so I only got around to some serious song when I took a break and moved around a bit.
I can feel a lot of tension in my jaw today. And in my whole body. I've been in serious "get things done mode" since I woke up and that doesn't leave a lot of room for authentic vocal expression. Yesterday I could really feel the progress, although I my throat and shoulders started creeping together as soon as I stopped singing joyfully and started doing admin. If only I could get a doctors note for anything computer related. . .
I'm feeling more open now, I'll keep at it. We shall see what tomorrow brings.
Inspired by a post on Facebook I have decided to embark upon a 30 day singing challenge: to start each day singing and to see how it affects my life.
Over the past two months between the stress of moving, diet changes and the late nights out with the Macbeth cast my poor voice has taken a lot of abuse. I've been singing a lot less, too busy to make time for vocal exercises, choking back emotions and sleeping in a newly painted room. I must admit part of me has been morbidly fascinated with the different ways these circumstances have been affecting my sound, but the experiment is over and the time has come to get back on track.
Yesterday I was talking aloud to myself in the car (like you do) and I finally (unexpectedly) let out a flood of tears I didn't even know that I had been holding back. As I spoke I could hear my throat open and relax and it hit me just how long it's been since I've taken the time to nourish this part of my life.
And so the 30 day challenge begins. My voice takes time to wake up in the morning and right now due to the high emotion of the last month I can only really access my lower register anyway, so I will be taking it slowly and gently.
When I woke up this morning I had the sun on my face and this song in my head. If I bump it down an octave it meets me exactly where I'm at.
I'd only ever heard Kirsty Maccoll's "He's on the Beach" on mp3 before, but I looked up the video for this post. It's quite different from how I imagined it, probably because I can't imagine anything more joyful than a life on the beach. Every time I hear it I swear I can smell the ocean. Enjoy!
Candee and I got together with the fabulous Lori Watt to record a little video blog about the upcoming Expo. We had waaay to much fun, but we managed to get a take in between all the giggles.
One of the participants in the Meisner Acting Lab that finished Phase One yesterday shared an entry from her journal. I liked her perspective so much that I asked if she would mind recording it to share on my website and she generously agreed. Here are Hannah's thoughts on the structure of the Meisner work:
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Danielle Benzon coaches entrepreneurs and performing artists in voice, acting and audition technique. She is also certified to teach the Meisner Approach through the True Acting Institute. Danielle is based in Vancouver, Canada.