Lecturers, students, everyone: learn to love your voice

Few academics use the full potential of their voices, yet speaking well allows us to be alive and connected in the moment, says Joe Moran

February 25, 2016
Huge mouth yelling from lecture podium

Sometimes I slip off to Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, just over the road from where I work, and sit at the back while a service is on. My Catholicism is long lapsed, but the cathedral dean, Anthony O’Brien, has one of those soft Liverpudlian voices that bring out perfectly the sonorous cadences of the King James Bible. As his words resound in the light-filled space, I let them wash over me and I reflect on the eternal power of the human voice to connect us through the air.

My long connoisseurship of other people’s voices is driven mostly by envy. As a lecturer, I know that my voice is, with the possible exception of my brain, the most important tool I have – as crucial as dextrous fingers are to a concert pianist. But I have spent most of my career being ignorant of how to use it and how to look after it. I began teaching with all the usual bad habits, such as shallow breathing, dropped consonants and a falling inflection, that we acquire when we are unsure if others want to hear what we have to say. Gradually, through trial and error, I learned to drink enough water, to breathe from the stomach, to pronounce each bit of a word. But my teaching voice still has a habit of sinking into my throat or dying a slow, rasping death, leaving me feeling defeated and not up to my job – which, in a sense, I’m not.

The traditional neglect of voice training in academia presumably derives from the idea that universities are all about the life of the mind. For the voice is all about the body: it is simply an exhaled breath, vibrating in the vocal folds but affected by every aspect of our carriage and posture. Any bit of tension in our shoulders, chest or abdominal muscles, even locked knees, a sprained ankle or high heels, can affect the sound that comes out of our mouths. A voice is just a breathing body trying to make itself heard.

By releasing words into the space around us, we cannot help leaking evidence of our moods, fears and failings. A classic symptom of depression, for instance, is dull vocal tone. That permanent lump in the throat that I get when I am very low feels as if my voice is lodged in my windpipe and I can neither gulp it down nor release it. Vocal coaches all have stories about their students sobbing uncontrollably when they finally learn to breathe properly and free their true, buried voices. Our voices are so closely identified with our deepest selves that it is no wonder that some students find it daunting to speak in class.

A baby will scream for hours without straining its voice, and young children clearly find vocalising intensely and physically pleasurable. But along the way to adulthood, most of us become estranged from our bodies and mislay the full potential of our voices. Traditional oral cultures think of the spoken word as sacred or magical: spells are spun through speech, and rituals revolve around humming, chanting or singing. Ours is a more visual culture, ruled by what Coleridge called “the despotism of the eye” and more likely to see language in instrumental terms, as a way of conveying useful information. Just occasionally, though, we reacquaint ourselves with the “word-magic” of oral cultures – the capacity of the voice to seduce, soothe, inspire and uplift both speaker and hearer. In the late 1960s, the French doctor and voice therapist Alfred Tomatis was called in to treat a sudden outbreak of collective depression in a Benedictine monastery in the south of France. When Tomatis arrived, he found 70 monks “slumped in their cells like wet dishrags”. He learned that the new abbot had recently cut short their regime of eight hours a day of Gregorian chanting. After Tomatis ordered that this regime be restored, the monks were soon back to their robust selves. He became convinced that using your voice fully had physiological and psychological benefits, and advocated reading aloud for at least half an hour a day.

The modern university encapsulates our culture’s neglect of the voice. Our teaching rooms seem to have been designed with little thought to acoustics. Anyone who has had the pleasure of speaking in those older, Royal Institution-style lecture theatres, where the audience is arranged in a banked semicircle all around you like in a Greek amphitheatre, will know how the space holds you in a warm embrace and welcomes your words. But most modern lecture theatres just have long rows of seats sweeping down to the front – a particular problem when students fill up the seats from the back. The lecture console, meanwhile, is almost always located to one side so it won’t get in the way of the data projector and the gigantic screen. The PowerPoint presentation is the main attraction, and the lecturer is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a desk working all the buttons and levers. If only our voices could boom out like the Wizard’s: a good microphone can cover a multitude of vocal sins and build intimacy between lecturer and audience. But those spindly, gooseneck mics with the spongy black heads that you find on today’s lecture consoles are, in my experience, uniformly useless – worse than useless, in fact, because they fool you into thinking that your voice might be carrying when it isn’t.

Our universities have inherited from US business culture, and especially from human relations management theory, the idea that dialogue and collaboration are inherently healthy and creative. But this new ethos favours interaction over oration; it is as if the one-way transfer of knowledge through a compelling single voice is somehow too hierarchical and undemocratic. So we assume that communication will occur just by putting people together in open-plan environments – “hubs”, “break-out spaces” and “social learning zones” – when many of these spaces actually dampen the individual voice or drown it out in group chatter and ambient noise. Add in deafening and voice-knackering air conditioning, heating that you can’t control and windows that won’t open and a university building comes to feel like a conspiracy against the true resonance of the human voice. Oddly, I have usually found that the areas of a university with the most convivial acoustics are the stairwells and the toilets.

Nothing I have read or heard about teaching has helped me as much as the books by the great theatre voice coaches Cicely Berry and Patsy Rodenburg, or a little gem of a guide by Stephanie Martin and Lyn Darnley called The Teaching Voice (1996). By contrast, the vast literature on teaching and learning in higher education greets anyone wishing to learn how to use their voice with a deafening silence. I completed a year-long course on teaching in higher education that did not touch on the subject once. On the website of the Higher Education Academy, the main body for promoting the quality of teaching in the UK, the keyword “voice” gets more than a thousand hits, but I could not find a single discussion of how lecturers can better use their actual voices, or can help students to make better use of theirs.

Instead, “voice” is used solely as a metaphor, notably in that now ubiquitous incantation, “the student voice”. The problem with this construction is that it assumes that the student body always speaks with one voice, so it can be homogenised into a hypothetical consumer whose feedback can be straightforwardly listened to and acted on. But there is no such thing as a singular “student voice” – because students are also people, and people are all different, with often conflicting ideas, needs and desires. And there is no better marker of that difference than their actual voices, which are as unique to each person, in their pitch, tone, timbre and range, as a fingerprint.

Many students, brought up in a culture of what Cicely Berry calls “technological indifference to the emotional roots of language”, do not know how to use their voices properly. It’s hard to say this without sounding like a middle-aged relic, of course – “Young people, sit up straight and stop mumbling!” – but we do students a disservice if we don’t show them, if only by example, how to be heard without straining other people’s ears and their patience.

As an English lecturer, I’ve also found that getting students to use their voices is invariably a good way of getting them to think about what they are reading. Only by reading it aloud can you feel the sensuousness of Shakespeare’s language, for instance, and the way that his vowels and consonants never quite come out in ways you expect. Actors such as Simon Callow, Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale are such insightful critics of Shakespeare because they have to speak him aloud in a large space and know how much sheer effort and skill is needed to say the words. The sound of his words is all: voicing them both expresses and discharges the feeling. No actor would ever make the mistake of thinking that a voice is simply a neutral conveyance for the contents of our brains.

Using one’s voice is often the beginning of good writing as well, for only when students read aloud what they have written can they hear where they are going wrong and begin to see that, in prose as much as in poetry, metre is what George Steiner calls “the controlling music of thought and of feeling”. Weaknesses in student writing generally derive from the same thing: a tin ear for the internal sound of sentences, powered by a mistaken belief that grown-up writing should get as far away from speech as possible. Of course, students also need to know that the syntactic structures of writing are not the same as the prosodic structures of speaking. But, as Peter Elbow, emeritus professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, argues winningly in his book Vernacular Eloquence (2012), the rhythmic arcs, varied sentence lengths and breathing pauses that the voice produces naturally are also the basic elements of good prose.

In his book Piano Notes (2002), the American pianist Charles Rosen writes of his physical need to play the piano, which he compares to the simple thrill a tennis player gets from hitting the ball. For Rosen, it is not enough for pianists to love music: they must have “a genuine love for the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard”. He rejects the idea that composers should be able to write music in their heads rather than at the piano as part of a snobbish idealism that deems the body always inferior to the mind. Just as Rosen enjoyed the feel of the keyboard, lecturers should learn to enjoy the callisthenic exercise of their vocal cords and not think of this as somehow ancillary to the exercise of their brains. Just as a pianist practises scales, actors devote themselves to vocal work: why shouldn’t lecturers, who use their voices just as much, do the same?

It is an insult in academia, as it is elsewhere, to say that someone “loves the sound of their own voice”. As someone who has spent most of his teaching career hating his voice and feeling hampered by it, I should like to be so insulted. And I should like my students to learn to love the sound of their own voices, to savour words as they leave their mouths and feel the pleasure of making a space resonate with their thoughts. A voice, which is a series of vibrations of air created simultaneously by many different parts of the body, is pure action, existing only in the moment. Learning to use it properly allows you to be an alive and sentient body, fully present in a classroom at that instant in time, experiencing the shared attention on which any kind of collective learning depends. Using our voices freely isn’t just a way of ensuring that everyone in the class gets a chance to speak and be heard; it can be a joyful and thrilling thing in itself. A voice is, after all, only audible air. It is the very stuff of life.

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. He blogs at joemoran.net

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Reader's comments (1)

Brilliant article! I grew up in South Wales in the chapel tradition where a good speaking voice is a vital asset, and have found it a great boon in some 15 years of teaching in further and now higher education. Being able to fill a room without shouting, to use your voice as an instrument to convey far more than mere words, is indeed a joy and a pleasure... and makes what you have to say far more interesting, even when it's half-past opening time on a Friday and the students would rather be someplace else.

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