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Speaking as Singing: Vocal Variety for Speakers

This piece by Barclay McMillan was dapted from an article written for The Inside Edge, an e-monthly of Ottawa Advanced Toastmasters, May 2005.

“If our speaking is to elicit from listeners the response our words deserve, our voices need to be intimately responsive to that neuro-muscular source of passion, pain, pleasure, joy, sadness, concern, hope, inspiration–the list of emotional colours is endless–that gives rise to our words”

Just a few weeks ago, as I was beginning to mull over what I might say in the article on voice I had promised to write for The Inside Edge, I came across an interview in the Ottawa Citizen with the renowned Canadian choreographer and dancer Margie Gillis who was coming to perform at the National Arts Centre. “For years I couldn’t articulate what I do,” says Gillis whose extraordinary ability to touch people’s souls with her dancing is celebrated the world over, “but now I know it is the neuro-muscular system. Everything-emotions, politics, spirituality-has a physical response. What happens in the body is this emotion turns into electricity and touches the muscles. It’s moving to internal landscapes. I choreograph from that place.”

That’s just like voice work, I thought-just like singing, just like speaking. It’s what’s in the body-that field where mind and spirit meet muscle and gut-that charges the voice with the ability to move people. Unless we find that place and learn to speak from it-no matter how well we have mastered the techniques of vocal variety-we will continue to fall short of our full potential to touch and move others with our message.

The Toastmasters International Communication and Leadership Program Kit offers a great deal of advice on using the voice in the section which helps beginning speakers prepare to meet the objectives of Speech Five, Vocal Variety. A good speaking voice, it tells us, should be balanced between extremes of volume, pitch and rate, while having a pleasing sound quality: if we habitually speak too loudly we should moderate our volume; if our usual voice is so quiet that it can be heard by an audience only with difficulty, speak up; vary the pitch to convey emotion; vary your speaking rate to reflect mood changes; relax your throat to produce a pleasing vocal quality. All that counsel is good common sense, practical and useful; it outlines steps that any one of us can take to make a noticeable difference right away in the way we use our ordinary voice.

There is a danger, however, of thinking that because we have managed to follow that advice we have done all we can do to make the best use of our voices. Wrong-that complacency can stunt a potential possessed by every speaker who aspires to high achievement. To be specific about the “vary the pitch” tip mentioned above: that recommendation, useful in the short run, can lead one into an attempt to consciously pre-program the upward and downward slides of the voice in order to convey emotion and conviction. In the long run, that does not work.

If our speaking is to elicit from listeners the response our words deserve, our voices need to be intimately responsive to that neuro-muscular source of passion, pain, pleasure, joy, sadness, concern, hope, inspiration-the list of emotional colours is endless-that gives rise to our words. We need to speak directly from what Gillis calls the “internal landscape” where our creativity resides. Then the variety of our voices, the changes in volume, pitch and rate are entirely automatic. Then they are able to impart an added dimension to our speaking-a quality that transcends the inherent limitations of mere words.

That is where “singing” comes in. Now I am not talking here about what most of us in Canada usually think of as singing. I am not talking about a cultivated singing style-country, blues, folk, rock or classical. I am talking about something much more primal than that-an ability every one of us possessed at one time of our lives-the ability to express ourselves eloquently without the use of words. Although most of us do not remember that stage of our lives, we have all been babies, and nearly all of us have had some experience of the wonderfully expressive quality of babies’ voices. Babies have no trouble letting us know when they are uncomfortable, when they need to be changed. They whimper their anxiety, sob their pain and scream their rage. And when they coo their contentment, there is not a one of us who can resist. The earliest humans, too, in the ages before the invention of language, had that ability to express themselves directly with the voice. Before words, the infinitely variable palette of vocal sounds gave fluent utterance to the constantly changing emotional fabric of daily living.

Then came words-a rich boon to human expression. But the gift did not come without cost. Before words, love had its sound, the shades and contexts of love, their own intricate, subtle singing. With the advent of words, people acquired the ability to express love without ever actually experiencing it. When we, ourselves, learned to speak, we gained symbols that could communicate emotion without our necessarily having to feel it. As Paul Newham, the world’s leading authority on the psychology of the voice and one of my teachers puts it, “When God gave humankind the gift of speech he gave us a language of the mind and we took it in celebration and delight. But in our excitement we came to forget the song of the heart.” To reach our potential as speakers we need to get back that song. We need to restore the pliability of voice we had as infants-and grow it up so that the emotional and spiritual bounty of our inner landscape, borne on our words, can sing itself into the hearts and souls of those who listen to us.

How can we do that?

Fairly obviously, I think, we can not do it all at once. Undoing a lifetime of unconscious, habituated vocal sabotage takes its own time and a great deal of commitment. But once that commitment is made and a course set, the rewards come early. Here are three approaches for the long term and one tip that can make a difference right away.

First, find a good book, one that expands on the notions I have outlined in this article. I heartily recommend Paul Newham’s The Healing Voice (Boston: Element, 1999) now in the inventory of most major booksellers. It will point you to an exciting new understanding of the voice. Its many exercises illuminate and lead you along a secure path to a fully expressive instrument.

Second, while it is possible to make great strides working alone, it is often difficult to maintain motivation and momentum. You might want to supplement your reading and private practice with the guidance of a reputable teacher, either as a member of a class or as an individual student.

Third, you might find it useful to pull together your own group to work through the challenges of Newham’s book while providing the mutual support and encouragement that you need.

Here is the tip: – give your vowels space. Make them big. Give them as much duration within each syllable as you can. In the split second after you have begun a syllable with a consonant, avoid closing down for the next consonant before the intervening vowel has fully opened. You see, when you are speaking a vowel, you are really singing it: the vowel is carrying the musical tone of your most authentic self, and it is carrying it on a breath that emerges from the deep inner landscape we spoke of earlier. That breath is so intimately in contact with body tissues that are the matrix of your emotional life that your tone can not help but be coloured by the zest that animates your words. And that music-uncensored, genuine, integrally you-is bound to find some resonance in the hearts of your listeners. As Margie Gillis says, “if I use what is inside me, I have a chance of touching what is inside another person.”

Sing your speech. Start right now!

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