Your voice is your most important teaching tool. Without it you are lost. You may be using the most innovative methodology, a well-thought out lesson plan, sophisticated materials, the latest technology, but if, when you open your mouth, a muffled, choked sound emerges, which can barely be heard and invites no one to listen, your lesson will fall flat. Many teachers learn the hard way. Teachers are far more likely to suffer voice-related health problems than other professions. Newly qualified teachers are particularly at risk. In England and Wales about half suffer voice loss in their first year of teaching. This has serious consequences, not only in terms of teacher well-being and quality of teaching, but also in terms of pupil well-being and learning, and in financial terms. The bill for cover for days off sick with voice-related issues is high.
The real sting in the tail lies, however, in the fact that the vast majority of voice issues are avoidable with vocal training and self-care. Teachers do not need to suffer as they do. Trained actors and singers, on whom much greater vocal demands are often made – think of performing a whole summer season at an outdoor theatre without amplification – can get through their careers without vocal strain, provided their technique is good. Yet although teaching is a vocally challenging profession, most trainee teachers are given little or no training to equip them for what lies ahead. Some are lucky and have robust voices, but many are not so fortunate and need help.
Thankfully, even if teacher training lags behind in this respect, teachers can learn to look after their voices later, let’s hope before any lasting damage has been done. On several occasions now I have been invited by Pädagogische Hochschulen to run voice care workshops for teachers as part of their continuing professional development, particularly to address this issue. And the fact that so far all workshops have been over-subscribed is proof that teachers increasingly recognise the need for vocal training. Although, of course, it is much more effective to have hands-on tuition (and one-on-one guidance is best of all), I would like here to share some activities I do in the workshops.
The Foundation: Your Body is your Instrument
We cannot speak easily and make a good sound if we have lost our innate physical poise and go through life either habitually slumped or, conversely, holding ourselves up with a lot of muscle tension. Both postures lead to vocal strain. In both cases, your deep postural muscles, which are intended to keep you easefully upright, are not working properly. As a result, other muscles have to compensate to stop you falling over, but they are then not fully available to do the jobs nature intends them to do, including breathing and vocalising. Your whole instrument is compromised.
Instead of slumping or stiffening, we need to stand (or sit) upright, but without unnecessary tension. We need to learn the skill of centering ourselves. This is the absolute foundation for speaking without vocal strain. And this is as much a mental skill as a physical one, based on the fact that our thoughts can speak to our muscles.
Exploring Centred Standing
- Contact with support: Stand on a firm surface, with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Notice your contact with the ground. Imagine the ground is coming up to meet the soles of your feet, as they go down to meet the ground. Avoid locking your knees back.
- Lengthening spine: Imagine that your head is swimming away from your heels, as your heels swim away from your head.
- Balancing head: Invite your neck muscles to release and allow your head to balance freely on the top of your spine. Make sure your head stays over your body and does not poke forwards, tortoise-fashion.
- Widening shoulders: Invite your shoulders to soften and widen, front and back.
- Awareness of space: Be aware of the space behind you as well as in front. Make sure you do not look down but ahead at eye level, staying aware of your peripheral vision. Allow your gaze to soften. Be aware of the sounds around you. Allow your breath to flow freely, preferably through your nose.
I have frequently taught centering in my voice workshops and participants regularly report their astonishment at the difference it makes to how they stand, feel and breathe. Suddenly they are standing upright without a lot of tension, they feel stronger and more alert, and notice that they are breathing more freely and deeply.
Like all skills, centred standing needs to be learnt and practised, and everyday life is full of opportunities: standing in line at the supermarket check-out, waiting for the bus, talking to colleagues. The more you practise, the easier it will become and the more it will feel normal and natural. And the more it will be there for you when you really need it.
Making more Sound with less Strain
One of the most common challenges teachers face is the need to make themselves heard easily. And one of the most common responses to this is to take a so-called “big” breath and tighten the abdomen, tense the neck and jaw, and attempt to push the voice forwards with shear determination. This is often accompanied by a visible jutting forwards of the head and a lot of facial tension.
This is often a result of a mistaken idea of “projection”. However, it rarely succeeds for very long and far more often leads to vocal damage. We do not speak louder by tensing up and preventing muscles from working properly. In order to speak louder we need to allow the breath to move freely, keep centred and poised, and use our internal amplification system, that is, our resonators.
Exploring your Resonators
Sound waves are amplified as they meet surfaces of different shapes and textures. The harder the surface, the greater the amplification as the sound waves bounce off the hard surfaces. The result is a larger sound. Soft, flabby surfaces will have the opposite effect of absorbing and dampening sound. You can test this out by singing in a tiled, hard-floored bathroom compared to singing in a carpeted, curtained living room.
The human body is full of hard-surfaced hollows and caverns which can act as resonance chambers. In practice, one of your largest resonators is your oral cavity. In order to use it efficiently it is important to learn how to increase its size. This is not the same as opening your mouth wider, useful though that very often is. Your oral cavity includes the whole internal oral space from your teeth back to the top of your throat (pharynx). It’s good to get to know it.
Run your tongue or clean finger back along the roof of your mouth, as far back as you can without gagging. You will notice that the front of the roof of your mouth is hard and bony, domes up in the middle, and that if you go far enough back, it becomes soft. The soft bit at the back, your soft palate, is muscle and can be contracted and raised at will.
In order to have a healthy, resonant voice it is essential to have a toned and responsive soft palate, neither stiff, nor sluggish. If it is sluggish and collapsed your voice will sound dull, under-energised and muffled, often leading to problems with audibility. Your soft palate is acting like the carpets and curtains in your living room, soaking up the sound and preventing it from getting out into the world. Your voice stays trapped in your throat. And that is how it sounds. By learning to raise, i.e. contract, your soft palate you can both increase the space in the oral cavity thus giving your voice more space to grow, and also create a harder surface for the sound waves to bounce off. You are creating internal bathroom acoustics.
Exploring raising your soft palate
- Center yourself. Look into your wide open mouth with a mirror. Let your tongue rest on the floor of your mouth throughout, but don’t push it down. Say “ah” and notice what happens. Yawn heartily (just breath) and notice what happens. Sing “ah” on a high note and notice what happens.
- Ideally, in all cases you have seen an upward doming movement at the back of your oral cavity. This you can monitor by seeing if the uvula (the fleshy appendage hanging down from the roof of your mouth) is going up. If not, persevere. Stay centered.
- Hum with your soft palate raised. Keep your lips lightly together. Many people find it useful to think of an internal smile at the back of the oral cavity. That idea often activates the soft palate. It also brightens the eyes and face.
- When you can feel muscle action of the soft palate, repeat step 3 and then just open your mouth to sing an “ah”. Keep thinking of your inner smile (don’t smile with your lips, keep your smile internal).
- Once that is going well, think the sound up into your forehead and out from there into the world as you make the “ah”. This helps to activate resonance chambers we have further up in the skull.
- When all that is going well (don’t rush it), try speaking a simple sentence with your soft palate raised. Keep thinking of your inner smile, and keep thinking your voice up into your forehead as you speak.
Again, practice makes perfect. Learning to use your resonators is an essential part of voice care. Their skilful use is a huge chapter, but even using them in a basic way can make a noticeable difference to the ease with which you can make yourself heard. And in addition, a resonant voice has a lot more colour, making it more likely that people will want to listen to it.
You can find out a lot more about the issues touched on in this article and how to look after your voice (and much more besides) in my book The Thinking Teacher’s Body: A Practical Guide to Teacher Well-Being, Vocal Health, and Development available direct from the publisher via my website http://www.harrietanderson.com/
After many years teaching at the English Department of the University of Vienna Harriet Anderson (Ph.D., MSTAT) now teaches the Alexander Technique and voicework in Vienna and Brighton (England). She is particularly interested in vocal health for teachers and has run workshops for Pädagogische Hochschulen and teachers’ organisations. Her book The Thinking Teacher’s Body: A Practical Guide to Teacher Well-Being, Vocal Health, and Development appeared in early 2015. She has a website at http://www.harrietanderson.com/