Jessica Hansen — NPR’s Vocal Coach on Finding Your Voice, Owning It, and The Art of Communication
Before I even introduce this episode’s guest, you’ll likely recognize her voice. Jessica Hansen (@JessActs) is NPR’s voice of underwriting as well as its in-house voice coach. In this episode of Outliers (which is brought to you by Flow), Jessica and I discuss:
- The importance of having a strong voice in both a professional and personal setting.
- The “ideal” voice. (Hint: It’s your own!)
- Techniques to hone your voice, including tongue twisters and breathing exercises.
No matter how old (or set in your ways) you are, there’s always room to improve your voice, and Jessica reveals some of her go-to techniques with me in this episode.
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Before any sort of performance, you might catch Jessica Hansen backstage laughing, crying, humming, stretching — even howling.
These are just a few of the techniques she uses to warm up. After all, voice work is like any other sport or activity; you’ve got to stretch, practice drills, and loosen up.
When Jessica isn’t performing, you can find her at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. There, she’s a voice coach and the voice of underwriting. (If you’ve listened to NPR in the past five years, you’ve definitely heard her.) She works with the organization’s journalists, hosts, and correspondents to help hone their on-air voices.
This work has been a lifelong passion for Jessica, who began acting when she was 5. (You may have caught her guest appearances on “Parks and Recreation” or HBO’s “Veep.”)
But if you’re thinking, It’s too late for me to improve the way I speak, you’re wrong. Jessica says the whole “old dog, new tricks” thing is a total sham when it comes to voice work. Whether you’re 12 or 92, you can work on your vocal skills.
On this episode of Outliers, I talk with Jessica about her experiences working with some of NPR’s most recognizable voices. She also walks us through some of her “secret” voice techniques, the ones she typically shares only with her coaching clients.
Jessica also reveals her go-to breathing technique for calming your nerves before a big presentation — it’s helpful even for just another regular day at work.
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Connect with Jessica
Links from the Episode
- Lean & Hungry Theater
- Voice coaching with Jessica
- Tracking session
- Guy Raz
- Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
- Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts
- Vocal fry
- “Reptile” brain
- 4–7–8 breath relaxation exercise
- Cate Blanchett in “The Gift”
- Jessica’s voice training YouTube video
- Voice training webinars by the Kristin Linklater Centre
- The Feldenkrais Method
- Certified teachers
- Patsy Rodenburg
- “Rodney Saulsberry’s Tongue Twisters and Vocal Warm-Ups” book
- The Morrison Bone Prop
“It’s not just how you sound. It’s your voice. It’s who you are. It’s what you want to say. And if you have a tool that can help you express yourself, isn’t that better?”
“I think it’s the quirks that make us the most interesting. That’s what’s interesting to listen to — is something different and unusual.”
“Most people tend to use about 50% of their lung capacity. Well, opera singers or horn players use 70% or 60%. You think of that and then, ‘Hey, what else can you do? If you’re only using 50%, you’ve got so much more.’”
“Step one is you have to shed the tensions. You have to open up the bodies, get the muscles soft so they’re not in the way, so you can breathe. The breath is under everything.”
“I can really help people change not only this technique but change how they feel in a boardroom or how they feel in their lives. People can feel more heard. People can feel stronger and more confident. People can feel like they’ve got control over the image they’re projecting vocally.”
Discovering the art of voice
“If you’re playing two, three, or four characters on a stage, you have costumes and body posture and all kinds of things to delineate you’re a different character. But if you’re doing it in audio, the only thing you have to make it a clearly different character is your voice. That’s when I really started to crystallize where you can place your voice, how you can use different resonances, different pitches, flattening the voice, and opening the voice to create really different sounds.”
Mastering your voice = more confidence in life
“I can really help people change not only this technique, but change how they feel in a boardroom or how they feel in their lives. People can feel more heard. People can feel stronger and more confident. People can feel like they’ve got control over the image they’re projecting vocally.”
The importance of voice in journalism
“The performance level is key. Journalists’ training is about reporting. They’re trained to cultivate their sources and get the story and to write the sentences and get all the facts in… Someday, if I have my way, journalism school will include how to use your voice — how to tell the story vocally. And for those who are on television, it’s more than just being able to read the prompter. It’s also being physically relaxed and engaged as well.”
You can learn “voice” (no matter how old you are)
“Coming in out of the gate with an interesting tone or a warm, relaxed quality is brilliant, but certainly not a nonstarter. … This ‘old dog, new tricks’ thing is nonsense. We can always learn. If we stop learning, we stop living. We’re always capable of learning something new, whether that’s kinesthetic learning or analytically or emotionally. What I’m looking for is a person who is willing to try something and has the flexibility to make the shift.”
The ideal voice: Sound like your best self on your best day
“A lot of people think to have a good voice, they need to sound like something else. And my goal is always: How can I help you sound like your best self on your best day? How can we unlock bad habits? How can we open up your voice? How can we free your sound so you sound like the best possible ‘you’ and not like somebody else?”
Using your whole voice all the time
“I actually spend a lot more time with women than with men saying, ‘It’s not about lowering the pitch of your voice, and it’s not about speaking in the very bottom of your range. It’s about integrating the bottom of your voice with the rest of your voice.’ So you have all of that warm, lower, deep resonance, but you also have your overtones and your brightness, and we want to marry those so that you’re using your whole voice all the time.”
The key: Mindfulness
“Really, the basics of my work are creating mindfulness. What are you aware of? Can you notice where you’re breathing? Can you notice how you’re breathing? And once you have the awareness of what you’re doing, then you can shift that and we can play with, ‘Oh, well, what happens if you breathe into this place instead?’ or ‘How can you navigate this tricky situation, whether it’s nerves or a hot flash or whatever? How can we navigate this? How can we be mindful of knowing how your body and your voice work to get you through this smoothly?’”
How to overcome nerves: the 4–7–8 technique
“There are myriad breathing techniques for how to calm your nervous system and how to override that fight-or-flight or freeze response. You can find them in meditation, you can find them in yoga, you can find them in voicework, you can find them in singing work. The one that I love… is the four, seven, eight breath. It’s super easy… You breathe in for four, suspend the breath for seven, exhale for eight.”
Keep folks interested by mixing your voice up
“You do need to keep variety for people to stay interested because even if you’re doing something beautiful, but you’re only doing it on two notes, those two notes get tiresome. People’s ears check out, the brain knows what to expect, and we meander off into, ‘What are we going to cook for dinner tonight?’”
Get your voice moving by howling and humming
“Before even thinking about how you’re structuring the delivery, step one is to get your voice warm. Don’t go into it cold. Shake it out. Do some lift trills, do some howling, do some humming, do some yawning and sighing, and get your voice moving. You can’t just in your brain say, ‘I’m going to move my voice around.’ You have to open it up. No NBA player goes into a game cold. You don’t park in the parking lot, go into the locker room, put on your uniform and start the game. You do the drills, you’re with the team, you’re passing, you’re shooting. This is the same. Why would you not warm up your voice? Your voice is your instrument and you are a professional voice user.”