Recently I was contacted by a character actor in his 70s whose voice was giving out. He had just lost an acting job on a major TV show as a result of his fatigued and constantly cracking voice. When we spoke on the phone, he told me he'd never had any trouble with his voice until a bout with pneumonia left him with a lengthy cough. Even months after the cough had disappeared, his voice was still in very bad shape. When he was told it was probably due to his age, he became extremely discouraged.
When we met in person, I found him to be vital and young at heart but with his spirit a bit broken and a voice that was failing him. In situations like this, there are a few obvious things to look for: poor placement, incorrect breathing, and improper pitch. In this case, all three were evident. His voice was being pushed from the lower throat, his breathing was high and shallow, and his pitch was too low. The cough had been abusive to his vocal cords, and in an effort to take the pressure off his voice he'd changed his breathing and dropped his pitch, which only made matters worse.
His vocal problems clearly had nothing to do with his age; they were a result of incorrect speaking habits brought about by the effects of pneumonia. This was a simple case of poor vocalism that developed in response to an abnormal condition. These habits then became his normal speaking pattern long after the abnormal condition was gone.
After coordinating his breathing, finding the right pitch, and correcting his placement, there was immediate improvement. He began to recognize his natural voice. As we got to know each other, he told me that as a young man he'd been a singer. When I had him vocalize, we discovered a vibrant, solid singing voice with the quality of a man significantly younger. His sound was rich, and he had a beautiful vibrato. This delightful man was well on his way to recovering his natural voice.
Unfortunately, problems like the ones this man developed are all too common, but they can usually be avoided with a little knowledge. For actors, voice artists, and musical theatre performers, having a vibrant, healthy speaking voice is essential. To handle the rigors of these professions, it's vital that an artist find and use his or her natural voice.
Here's What You Do
What are the hallmarks of a natural voice? It's comfortable and easily produced, able to carry and modulate over a wide range of pitches (for expression), and centered on your optimal pitch. It has a buzz and a ring brought about by proper placement in the facial mask, and it's well-supported by diaphragmatic breathing.
To find your natural voice, let's start with your breathing. Here's a good way to experience diaphragmatic breathing:
- Sit on a straight chair a little toward the front of the seat.
- Place your elbows on your knees, right on right and left on left, while resting your chin in the palms of your hands.
- Relax and breathe normally. You should be aware of your tummy coming out a bit as you inhale. You'll also feel the sides of your lower back expand.
- Take a slow, relaxed, deep breath while relaxing your chest and shoulders.(Usually the chest and shoulders will not move during this exercise.)
Once you've felt this coordination, sit up straight and try to duplicate the feeling.
Don't be too concerned with the activity in the lower back, as it's subtle. The belly is your main focus. As you inhale, you want the belly to release and protrude a bit, and as you exhale, the belly will pull in -- as if you're panting like a dog. There shouldn't be any pushing or pulling. This is correct breathing coordination, whether speaking or singing. And it is the only way to project the voice properly.
It is possible that your everyday voice, or what I call your habitual voice, is not your natural voice. We all learn our speech patterns through imitation. Our parents, the culture, and the people we admire all influence the way we speak. But the habits you develop may not be in your best vocal interest and may lead to an ineffective voice. Your habitual voice may be weak, unfocused, and lack personality, but your natural voice, when released, will be strong, focused, and beaming with personality. Even if your habitual voice is your natural voice, problems can arise when you're asked to do a character voice, even for a short time: Incorrect vocal production in creating a character voice can begin to seep into your natural voice and cause difficulties.
The proper pitch and placement of your voice can often be found with energized humming. In his book Winning With Your Voice, renowned Los Angeles speech therapist Dr. Morton Cooper explains how "humming often is your vocal 'private eye,' your built-in radar system to help you locate your true, normal speaking voice." He suggests humming as a quick way to feel the buzz in the mask (the area around the lips and nose). This combination of oral and nasal resonance gives the voice a vibrant ring and buzz, and the mask is the area you'll feel when you hum. When the resonance is balanced in this way, it allows you to project with ease and power.
Dr. Cooper suggests this exercise:
- Hum the first two lines of "Happy Birthday."
- Hum the words to yourself with your lips closed -- "hum-happy-hum-birthday-hum-to-hum-you," etc.
- Now use the same voice and just say the words aloud. You should feel a more vibrant, energized voice with a nice buzz.
Creating a Character Voice
Whether you're engaging in everyday speech or character work, it's important to know what to watch for. One of the most challenging and potentially damaging voices is one that's produced in the lower throat. This husky, usually hoarse sound, although sometimes thought of as sexy, is the most abusive to the voice. The lower throat is not an effective resonator, and therefore it is impossible to project such a voice. Whether you're using it as a natural or character voice, vocal fatigue and lack of carrying power often result, with nodules or polyps a possibility. It's in your best interest to avoid this kind of voice whenever possible, especially on stage. Attempting to project a voice that resonates predominantly in the lower throat can be very damaging. If you must use a lower-throat voice -- in voiceover work, for example -- return as often as you can to your natural voice. When you do this between takes, it rebalances all the vocal elements, which can be more therapeutic than vocal silence.
Certain characters require a more nasal voice, which isn't as abusive and usually won't pose as many problems as a lower-throat voice. When employing a nasal voice, however, it's still wise to apply the same principle of returning often to your natural voice during downtime. It's also a good idea to be aware of the position of your larynx, which houses the vocal cords: When it rises too high, it strains the cords, and if the voice is forced or used for a long session or demanding role, damage can result. Ideally, the larynx should remain relaxed during normal, natural speech. Avoid either extreme (larynx too high or too low) when creating characters -- or anytime, for that matter.
To recapitulate, here are the key points to be aware of when creating a character voice:
- Don't stray too far from your optimum pitch in either direction.
- Nasal voices are less potentially damaging than lower-throat voices -- but be careful of a high larynx.
- Always maintain your proper breathing.
- Return often to your natural voice.
Whether you use your voice for characters or just everyday speech, these principles should help you maintain a clear, relaxed, strong, healthy, and effective voice.
Michael Goodrich is an internationally known vocal instructor and lecturer based in Los Angeles. He works with singers and actors in all areas of the entertainment industry, including Broadway, movies, television, voiceovers, and recording (www.goodrichvocal.com).