Keeping Yourself Heard
A Progressive Series on the Aging Voice
byNancy E. Harris, M.H., Vocologist
This isn’t a political treatise…it’s about how we “disappear” in a conversation because our voices have weakened over time. How does it happen? And what can we do about it, if anything?
While part of the problem is the changes that occur with aging, there are many poor habits that we have formed over the years that can be reversed. Today, I will explain the vocal results of aging, and in coming articles, I will give you progressive steps to practice for a healthier, more vital voice.
Some of the outward symptoms of the aging voice are breathiness and/or hoarseness, losing breath control, losing your range, developing a wobble in your sound (tremolo), tiring easily, and pitch mistakes when/if you sing.
Why do these things happen? With aging there is decreased lung elasticity, less strength in the respiratory muscles, and more stiffness in the rib cage—all affecting your breathing. The cartilages in your larynx (voice box) become less flexible, muscles involved begin to atrophy, tissues become thicker and stiffer, joints deteriorate, and blood flow drops. As our hormone production drops, we usually gain weight and retain more fluid, which can lead to less activity. Other ailments like hyperthyroidism can also increase these changes.
But there is hope! Watch for my next articles on things you can do to counteract some of these effects. In the meantime, drink more water—80 ounces a day for Coloradoans!
In my first article, I explained the causes of loss of vocal vitality as we age. At the end, I suggested that you drink more water: a minimum of 80 ounces a day for Coloradoans. Why?
As we age, it becomes more difficult for our tissues to retain the fluid. In addition, we live in a very drying high-country desert, and, as we get older, we lose our sense of thirst! Many older people get headaches, but just don’t realize that they may be caused by simple dehydration. Flu or other illnesses can also dehydrate us, as well as some medications, and we just don’t notice. This can be ultimately catastrophic, of course, but our focus here is the voice.
The vocal folds are tiny, thin membranes about the length of a dime for women, a quarter for men. They must vibrate extremely quickly to produce sound…around 110 vibrations per second for men and 220 for women. (To get an idea of that magnitude, try tapping the back of your hand as fast as you can for one second—was it perhaps 7 or 8 times?) In order to do this without injury all day long, the folds and surrounding muscles must be very moist and flexible.
Therefore, I drink an 8-oz cup each waking hour, not counting mealtimes, even if I’m not thirsty.
Next time: posture!
In my last article, I explained the need for a minimum of 80 ounces of water a day, then suggested thinking about posture. Why?
Remember when youngsters were told to walk around with a book on their heads? There was great value in that practice. When the spine goes, the entire body follows. When our muscles weaken, or we slump from habit, our rib cage sits on our waists, sometimes even the pelvis. This interferes with breathing, and since we burn oxygen as fuel, that’s a bad idea! The voice depends upon the breath (explanation in next article), so we look and sound exhausted and totally without vitality. Bucket seats, soft couches, too much tv and/or computer time—all contribute to our slump.
To find the correct position of the rib cage, raise your arms above your head without raising your shoulders. Note the location of your chest. Without dropping your chest, lower your arms slowly. Maintain this position whenever you are erect, standing or sitting. The spine enters the skull underneath the ears (not at the back of the neck….those are bony extensions). Tilt your head back and forth to verify where that top hinged vertabrae is. The head weighs from 12-18 pounds, and that weight must travel down the spine to the pelvis or the neck muscles clench. So imagine a plumb line from your ears through the center of your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles for correct placement.
Next: Breath Support
In my last article, I explained the need for good posture for “breath support”. What does that really mean?
Sound is vibration that the ear receives and the brain interprets. Only a miniscule amount of air is needed to start our vocal folds vibrating. However, sustained sound, with vitality and volume, requires control of the breath to the folds. That is the definition of “support”. It does not mean “to push up”! In fact, it is the opposite.
Breathe through your nose most often because it cleans, warms, and moistens the air, allowing twice as much intake as by mouth. This is because there are nerves in the nose that trigger the intercostal rib muscles, which aren’t triggered when you breathe by mouth. Test this: Put your hands high around your rib cage under the breast and breathe in as deeply as possible--first with the mouth (then exhale); then with the nose. Notice the difference in your back and the total volume you could inhale?
Relax all of your exterior muscles; they interfere with breathing. Test this by locking your knees and inhaling deeply with your nose. Relax and breathe again. Try again with tight buttocks; again with a tight abdomen; and finally with lifted shoulders. Even jutting your chin forward or tightening your lips can constrict your ability to inhale. Practice breathing without lifting your shoulders or holding your muscles tightly until the next article.
Next: Breath support, part two
In my last article, we began to explore breath support. Today we will continue that discussion.
Ever heard, “Use your diaphragm”? So you really have any clue what the diaphragm is? Most people don’t! It is a muscle that sits cave-like from the front of your body, under the lungs, and somewhat down the back. It is your primary breathing muscle. (The lungs aren’t muscles, but just like balloons….something else has to make them inflate.)
When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts downward, and the lower ribs are pulled upward to create a vacuum under the lungs. The lungs then respond to the greater air pressure from outside and expand. When you exhale, everything relaxes and pushes the air back out. If you put your finger right at the bottom of your sternum (chest plate) and say “Huck!”, you will feel the diaphragm engage. To speak with strength, we should expand with breath, and then keep the diaphragm engaged continuously through the sound.
Because there are over 80 muscle changes for each second of speech, we obviously cannot focus on all of them. So, we use images to help us. Imagine that your diaphragm is a trampoline across the middle of your body. Your job is to breathe in through the nose, aim all of your words down to this “trampoline”, and let it bounce the sound out. Practice this regularly for a stronger sound.
Next time: Correct speaking pitch.
In my last article, we discussed the use of the diaphragm. Today we will find your optimal speaking pitch.
What do I mean by that? Just as each instrument in the orchestra has its own best sounding range (ex. high piccolo versus a low bassoon), so do we. The shape and length of your vocal tract and the size and thickness of the vocal folds and the surrounding muscles will all affect which vibrations are easiest to create. Let’s find your best speaking pitch.
First, answer every question here with “um-hmmm”: Are we in Colorado? Are you reading a newspaper? Are you interested in improving your voice?
Guess what? THAT was your optimal pitch. When you speak, you should try to pitch most of your words in the area of your “um-hmmm”. It may sound too high to you, but I promise you that the sound will be much more pleasant for the listener if you stay near this pitch when you speak. You might think it sounds too child-like, but, in fact, Americans, particularly women, have lowered their voices to the very bottom of their ranges. This causes our voice to have a gravelly sound called “vocal fry”…a bit like frying bacon. It is not a pleasant sound to others, even if what you hear in your head sounds good. Ever heard yourself on a recording? What you hear is not what others hear!
Next time: Better enuciation.
In my last article, we discussed optimal speaking pitch. Today we will explore enunciation.
Isn’t that a fancy word? It refers to how we shape our words with our mouth. Actors have a saying to remind themselves of the best way to speak, with: “The tip of the tongue, and the lips, and the teeth.” Notice that it says “tip” of the tongue, not the back, and the jaw is not listed at all. Nearly everyone who comes into my studio has three problems that interfere with creating their best sound: the jaw is too rigid and forward, the tongue is too tight and retracted, and the diaphragm is never used. We’ve already talked about the diaphragm, so lets focus on the jaw and tongue.
First, let’s move some consonants more forward. Say “T”. Did the tongue touch the roof of your mouth (hard palate) about halfway back? If so, move it forward just behind your teeth. Do the same with “D”. Use the tip of the tongue on the teeth for “L”, pulling it out of your throat. Say “Ah”, and without pulling your tongue back, say “K”. It should lift to the back teeth. Do the same with “ng” and a hard “G”.
You may feel as if you have a bit of a lisp, but I promise that the words with these consonants will become more clear to others.
Next time: More enunciation exercises