Voice for Teachers – Mel Churcher

(This article was first published in The Times Educational Supplement August 2014)

Voice is the most precious and effective means of communication. Yet teachers often work in terrible acoustics. Modern rooms deaden sound, old halls reverberate and echo. Worst of all, you may need to be heard in a playground with no resonance at all. Your voice is your most valuable teaching tool. Here are some tips for using it without losing it.
1: Recognise Relaxed Breathing:
Sit back in your chair and close your eyes. Rest your hand lightly on your stomach. Don’t think about your breathing. Listen to the sounds around you, let your thoughts drift. Soon, you’ll feel the familiar rise and fall of your diaphragmatic-abdominal muscles under your hand. Let your breath out slowly on ‘shhhh…’ and feel your stomach going in. At the end of the breath, those muscles release and your lungs refill. Your stomach expands outwards as the breath comes in, and contracts inwards as you breath out: OUT on the IN breath; IN on the OUT breath. Relaxed breathing – we do it all day long.
2: Don’t go into ‘Flight and Fight:
Avoid taking a high preparation breath in before you speak. Trust you’ll have enough breath, and go. When you’re stressed or nervous, your body feels the adrenaline, and tries to protect you by tightening your stomach and drawing in a high breath. Your breathing goes into reverse: stomach IN on the IN breath and OUT on the OUT breath. But we’re only designed to do that for a brief moment while we fight the lion or run away. You are ‘fighting lions’ all day long and If you stay in this mode, you’ll get dizzy, nervous and out of control. Stay on relaxed breathing.
3: Sit or Stand Tall:
Your larynx is suspended by ligaments and muscles like a trampoline. If you scrunch it up, it affects your voice. Stand straight and breathe normally. Now lift your shoulders and you’ll find it harder to breathe. If you stick your chin forward – as we often do when we try to reach people – you’ll find it hard to breathe at all. Become aware of your posture. If you reach forwards, or slump in your chair, it will constrict your voice. If you read to children on the floor below you, sit them a little further away and hold the book high, so as not to tuck your chin in.
4: Project without Strain:
Let those abdominal muscles do the work. Stand tall and feel your stomach going inwards as you speak. Allow it to release as the air comes back in. Keep your neck free. A breathy voice can cause voice strain. This simple exercise helps to find a stronger tone: waggle your finger as if telling someone off and go ‘uh-uh’ at the same time. Do this three times, then count to five using the same strong tone. Hang your head forward, letting your neck go completely. Gently move your head in a half circle (not to the back) while you speak loudly. Balance your head back up to its normal position without changing your voice. You’ll hear a strong, centred tone.
5: Let your Voice Drive your Intentions:
Your abdominal-diaphragmatic centre is not only effective at powering your voice, but it’s also where you feel – passion, anger, pain. Before you go into the fray, find a quiet spot, shut your eyes and put your hand on your stomach. Breathe into your hand. Focus on the message you want to give. What do you want your listeners to understand and feel? What do you want from them? Linking body and mind will ensure your voice carries your thoughts and feelings.
6: Vary your Tone:
We remember beginnings and endings. Find a new energy, rhythm or pitch to start each new thought or section. Don’t be afraid to stop and breathe between thoughts. This means you will get people’s attention again and again.
7: Match Body and Voice:
Turn your hands palm upwards, weight on one leg, head on one side. This is the body stance we instinctively use to show warmth and sensitivity. Your voice will reflect this. Take a strong stance (don’t lock your knees), turn your hands palms down. You’ll notice a firmer voice. Use strong endings and consonants to exercise authority.
8: Know your Acoustics
Check out your space. Hold the sides of your hands against your head, like wings, in front of your ears. Speak loudly and you’ll hear your voice bouncing off the surfaces around you. You can judge whether your space is resonant or dry. Resonance carries the sound but muddles the diction, so take your time with strong enunciation. Dry spaces need diction too, especially consonants – and be careful not to strain since there is very little feedback to your own ears.
9: Be Heard Differently:
Instead of increasing volume – hum or call on a different pitch to get attention. Clap your hands. Use a whistle in large spaces to protect your voice. Different pitches or rhythms are heard better above the din than a loud voice.
10: Take Care of Your Voice:
Warm up before class: breathe out several times on a long ‘shhh’ feeling your stomach going inwards – at the end of each breath release your abdomen to refill. Clasp your hands in front of you and shake out a natural rich sound on ‘Ahh’. At the end of a long day, hum gently up and down a scale a few times to stretch out your vocal folds. Breathe in steam to soothe a sore throat. If your voice is tired, rest it completely or use full voice. Don’t whisper as this increases strain.
Finally –
Get your class enjoying their voices too. Create group soundscapes: storms, parties, a summer’s day, vampires – the possibilities are endless. Tell stories or act scenes with sounds first, then words. Act out poems. Explore pitches, rhythms and voice qualities and share the joy of using voice to communicate.

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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.