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Breath, Voice, Speech

by Edwin Alan Salter(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 135 - May 2007

Talk is perhaps the most distinctive of human activities and it contributes immensely to everyday life, our personal and social wellbeing. Yet we know how we look far more clearly than how we sound. In a visual age, image dominates, especially the still image which we see in the mirror and record in photographs. Appearance can be changed on a daily basis as we consume the products of cosmetics and fashion. How we sound is less in our awareness – after all, we hear others but rarely listen to ourselves. To change voice and speech requires persistent effort. Rather like the thoughts spoken only in our heads, how we sound is deeply entangled with our origins and personality. All sorts of prejudices and doubts surround the very idea of altering this key part of our identity.

Yet there is every reason why a man whose adolescence happened to produce a weedy thin voice should want to change it – and I did. And if a woman has a flat nasal speech of origin, out of keeping with how her mental and social worlds have developed – well, she is right to be changing it with my help now.

You have very likely experienced the shock of first seeing someone and then hearing them in a totally incompatible way, and there are celebrity examples which make one think that the sound is better evidence than the much contrived appearance. But often, our sense is worth more than our saying gives it credit for, and we are not living up to our proper selves.

Worse still, there is the negative feedback from poor expression which diminishes us. Inadequate breathing can act rather like background anxiety, an internal loop affecting the production of speech. And if the sounds we make are forever hesitant or croaking, if we become identified as ‘the Shouter’ or ‘Mumbles’, few will give a fair hearing to the content, and this disregard by the world loops back to undermine us.

Conversely, expressing ourselves fully helps us to clarify our own thoughts and to be interactive with others. Much of counselling depends on helping people to find what they really mean, and sometimes it is necessary to begin by enlarging the ability to communicate. “I didn’t know what I thought until I said it” can be the route to the healing power of truth.

Breath

For the pioneers of physical education, deep breathing was a key to health. Nowadays breath control is more widely associated with yoga and esoteric practices. Basically, our body function requires use if it is not to be lost or become vulnerable to disorder, and our biology is not adapted to a still life of screen gazing.

Lungs expanding

Normal breathing at rest has an in-out air volume (tidal flow) of around 0.5 litre, and a rate of very roughly fifteen breaths a minute: the maximum usable volume is about 4 litres (with about 1.5 litres unavailable residual volume). Vigorous exercise is one valuable means of maintaining the range, but the breathing is incidental and may not be well managed. The direct instruction ‘breathe deeply’ can produce absurd tension and the inaccurate response of shoulder lifting. Better the instruction “slowly, smoothly, expel all the air – and then breathe in naturally”.

It is worth remembering that we don’t force air inwards; atmospheric pressure simply fills the space created by the diaphragm pulling itself flat and the rib muscles adjusting the rib cage to a more voluminous shape; and air is driven out by elasticity when the active muscles relax. Our breathing apparatus is very economical and can easily be overwhelmed by force.

It is helpful to understand the distinct diaphragm and rib processes (Please see diagram opposite). First, practise to blow out gradually through rounded lips, aiming the breath slowly into the distance: keep a contact with fingers and thumb on upper abdomen and lower ribs respectively and note what happens. Now, after a full in-breath, blow out slowly, allowing only the diaphragm to relax (it curves up into the chest) so the abdomen seems to sink in. The ribs, which have been kept relatively extended, are only allowed to sink as a second stage until expiration is complete.

This controlled breathing has practical importance for singers and others facing extreme demands, and if breathing is largely diaphragmatic (with the ‘extended rib’ position maintained), a more resonant quality of voice can be obtained for such special purposes. But it is also usefully done for a few minutes as an occasional exercise for control and awareness.

The ability to alter the depth and speed of breathing gives us a way of influencing other body processes, such as heart rate and blood pressure, and the general balance of the autonomic nervous system and central arousal. Many people know, for example, that panic attacks are connected with hyperventilating and the disconcerting sensations which result from low levels of carbon dioxide (the acid/ alkali balance gas which physiologically triggers breathing changes). Many of us could sensibly reduce stress by daily quiet breathing with relaxingly slow and gentle air flow.

It is possible to suffer from under-breathing (e.g. sleep apnoea), but too much air (sometimes it is swallowed) is the common source of various discomforts. Corrective training in calm breathing is particularly helpful in reducing asthma symptoms.

If you find it difficult to go off to sleep, it can help to fade attention away with the soft drift of air… undemanding of effort… almost dreamlike. In hypnotherapy work, I often include the suggestion that the body can safely be left to take care of its own adjustment free from our mental worries and disturbances.

Voice

Humming (a single note on one comfortable out-breath) is a good way to begin. Safe and easily pitched, it encourages attention to vibration and resonance. A hum mmm can literally be felt by touching sternum, larynx, lips, nose and cheekbones. Lie on your back, quite relaxed, allowing your posture to unknot and correct itself: try easy hums, noticing how the placement of sound can be heard and felt to change, deep notes in the chest to high in the head.

Phonetic Vowel Diagram

Gently open the mouth to let the hum out into a warm full aah sound which finally fades without strain. Now repeat this standing and making imaginary eye contact on the mmm and perhaps moving forwards as if to greet with a wide opening gesture on the aah. As you become more confident, allow more variety and range, and you may eventually find that your tone centre shifts somewhat as habitual strains are allowed to disperse. You may literally ‘set the tone’ which is appropriate to your personality.

The musical quality of speech is mainly carried by the vowels, sounds like ah and oo which can be sustained as notes. The consonants, on the other hand, typically narrow (sh, v, etc.) or interrupt (p, dg, etc.) the air flow. Each vowel has a characteristic tongue position, and this marvelous organ is relatively huge in its allocated brain area: the variety of accents and languages illustrate just how subtle the gymnastics of the mouth are. (Please see diagram overleaf).

English has only five simple long vowels (called monophthongs – there are also short vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs) and sounding these accurately helps to build attractive and clear speech. Initially each vowel is released from mm into a full and resonant tone, and later simple patterns of rhythm can be added. The vowel sequence I use creates a continuous path for the tongue within the mouth cavity, and the lips and jaw also move in a smooth way: moo – maw – mah – mer – mee. In this sequence (as a boat-builder says “Cool. Call Carl. Curl Keel.”) you will note how the jaw opens and closes, the lips go from rounded to open to widened, and with practice, you can sense the path the tongue follows.

One further factor important enough to deserve mention is that of nasality. Too much or too little sounds unattractive and may be due to lax muscle habit or congestion. The nasal sounds in English are m, n and ng (as in ‘singing’) and you can check this by trying to say them while pinching your nose (the vowels and other consonants should be relatively unaltered by this). Alternating between ah and ng reveals the mechanical difference due to the soft palate (and is also useful, lying supine, as a decongestant).

Eventually it should be easy to sound the vowels in an expansive way that seems to fill the room with sound. Now imagine that you are to speak in a larger space, perhaps even to an audience, and that you are testing the acoustics to find the best tone and projection – do it like a very confident actor trying out the different monophthongs (mm-ah, etc.) in various directions on an unfamiliar stage. For a totally different experience, sustain a long note through a series of ah-ng-ah-ng transitions. Perhaps do this repeatedly on a high pitch with a sense of great remoteness and distance, rather as though on some eternal and mystical plateau.

Both these exercises work well with others participating, and create very contrasted relationships – the first may range from the humorous to the conflicting, the second from the contrapuntal to the meditative. Creating such different effects not only helps on the practical levels of range and confidence but also opens windows of appreciation.

Speech

What is it that we want to say? What is it that we are hearing? Especially if you are somewhat shy or diffident, it is good to remember that actors are mostly paid to stand around listening, and that people are often thought of as good conversationalists because they are perceptive and trustworthy listeners.

With the socially anxious I begin with listening skills. Often not much more is required than giving the other person your full attention and forgetting for a while yourself, the clock and other distractions. They recognize this by your not fidgeting, by eye contact from time to time, by small encouragements of sound and gesture, and by comments and questions that genuinely arise from what they have been saying and which allow them to express their feelings or develop their line of thought. Learning to give closer attention to words is also some defence against highly skilled deceptions, from family intrigues to the often nonsensical rhetoric of politics, religion or business.

Conversation has a rhythm of sharing, of changing pace, of developing, transforming and recurring themes. It can be exciting when one person finds ‘take off’ and leads talk forwards, as long as they know when to drop back. It is usually irritating when much sound has little content, but that judgement depends greatly on the participants’ expectations. Sometimes the open channel is emotionally important with a shared flow of feeling, rather than a more restricted imparting of information. There may be some differentiation by gender here, but the skills should not be exclusive.

I recently worked with a rather glamorous young woman whose talk was indeed irritating for what may seem a rather odd reason: she chattered freely but with virtually no sentence structure, so her meaning was almost impossible to follow and disentangle. Such formless speaking seems to be on the increase in various cultures and linked to the very impoverished dialogue of homes dominated by television, computers and unshared lives. It is the easier option to placate children temporarily in isolation with an off-the-shelf distraction than to engage with them in real interest.

One of the simplest ways to enrich your own manner of speaking is by reading aloud. Choose a paragraph or verse that you like and understand and give it your best. Tape it and try variations, making sure that the key words and emotions emerge. The global features of speech are the three Ps of pace, pitch and power. Every reading has a centre and a range for each of these factors, with more or less contrast as you go along. Simply noticing and enjoying the alternatives which can be found, will pay off and ultimately enliven the spontaneous talk of everyday life.

Values

As we get older some of our expressive possibilities diminish. But voice and speech hold up remarkably well and can be improved even late in life. The pleasures of conversation remain available and words can continue their power. The most dramatic illustrations of this are the many ‘famous last words’, final gifts which continue in the heritage of culture because they are so penetrating and so revealing at a moment common to all.

In terms of health, it is important to notice the things said which are damaging or beneficial. Some people have the misfortune of bad habitual thoughts – talk in their heads (perhaps in parental voices) which conveys damaging messages of being without value, hope and so forth. Others always seem to begin with “It’s only me…”, or to grind the same axe or misery perpetually. Such habits should be stopped, if necessary with therapeutic help. For those who talk themselves into trouble (“whatever next… I can’t cope… it’s going wrong”) positive and calm self-talk (“so far, so good… I am coping… near achievement now”) can be taught and rehearsed.

Others simply fail to speak truly, perhaps because their situation effectively prohibits that. In such cases the only remedy is to try for a different situation, and the only temporary relief may be truth in privacy, spoken aloud or written in a diary.

Sometimes the problem is no more than a bad habit which can be corrected once the facts are clear. One research I supervised examined the classroom talk of a particular group of teachers, when they used praise and when they used criticism. It was found that while academic activity mostly had praise (for right answers), general behaviour was always grumbled about as less than ideal. Adjusting this, so that careless knowledge responses were discouraged, while acceptable and helpful behaviour received generous praise, provided much improvement.

Effective communication depends on cooperation and a mutual respect. It is not useful to claim, “But you must know I never mean to upset you” or “I do speak clearly, it’s just that no-one listens properly nowadays.” The focus is on what actually happens rather than on righteous justification.

Many years ago the idea of self-encouragement produced the therapeutic formula (due to Coué) “Every day, in every way, I am becoming better and better,” which now seems too simplistic. But a few appropriate positive thoughts, clear words in the mind just before sleep, are generally a helpful habit. As for self-discovery, that is a greater task which often lapses into inertia. The adventures of experience may move us forward, and there are therapeutic perspectives from the psychoanalytic to the existential. In specific techniques, from personal constructs to trance imagery, it is possible to prompt change in self-perception and presentation.

In my own work I try to combine psychotherapy with development in personal expression (as in Moving Well, Positive Health Issue 107, Jan 2005). The aim is a holistic form of ‘expressive behaviour therapy’ which will aid individual fulfilment. When we consider the immense promise in almost every infant, we surely feel that there is a great shortfall from what could be achieved.

On this larger scale of life it is worth highlighting the maxims which can guide us. Imagine you are saying cheerio to a dear friend who is off on a long adventure. At the moment of departure your friend seems to hesitate as though lost. You have just a moment for a few key words of advice and encouragement. What would you say? Perhaps these are words that you should often say aloud – boldly and well of course – to yourself.

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About Edwin Alan Salter

Edwin Alan Salter MA MSc PhD now lives in King’s Lynn and has worked in diverse fields including dance and psychotherapy, biochemistry and education, with recent writings on language, humanism and climate. He may be contacted via kl.humanfactors@talktalk.net.

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