The Limits of Your Voice
Trees don’t live in the sky, and clouds don’t swim in the salt seas, and fish don’t leap in wheat fields, blood isn’t found in wood, nor sap in rocks. By fixed arrangement all that lives and grows submits to limit and restrictions
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, c. 99 BC — c. 55 BC
The same limits set upon matter apply to your voice in equal measure; and all things grow in a speed suitable to their nature. Pushing a voice beyond its limit noticeably leads to poor vocal health; similarly, when learning to extend one’s vocal range, one is wise to accept the speed at which the mind and body can learn, for there also is a limit applied to the speed of learning.
Understanding your learning curve is a difficult task, but the rewards for doing so yield a great harvest. Having been a voice coach for seven years, and a boxing instructor for six, the ability to delay gratification, deal with frustration and accept the learning curve made for the fastest progression. Not only that but the tossing aside of immediate gratification made it more acceptable for when the inevitable one step backwards occurs in the learning process. And make no mistake, the moment before we take that crucial leap — we fall the hardest.
In learning how to use your voice the learning curve is no different; indeed, one of the most common traits of people extending their voice skills is that they loathe the sound of it. We hear it, and because it sounds different to how we would like to perceive it, we berate it, we want to change it, we don’t want to sound like that, and on it goes.
Other than the bone conduction of formants and frequencies that feed into your inner ear that transform what we think we ought to sound like, we also lack the capacity to fully appreciate what is called “extra-linguistic cues”. On hearing ourselves through a recording, these cues reveal all the other aspects of the body and physiology that feed into your voice and it may not be what you expected. It may even reveal some of the more vulnerable aspects of your personality that you thought were locked away! These cues are can be things like inflection, pace, pitch and resonance which are largely controlled by autonomic responses if you haven’t been trained in voice. You can read more about these cues here.
Hearing the you in your voice commonly leads to negative self-criticism that can lead to what is called cycles of failure. You learn to despise your voice so many forms of public speaking become an area of dread and as a result, leadership roles remain out of reach, which leads to stagnation, and on the cycle goes.
Accepting and becoming a friend to oneself is one of the most helpful tools for beginning work on one’s voice. Too often we are drawn into the result-orientated process of learning, by which only the results of our effort are measured and analyzed; and similarly, we begin the task with the end in mind ignoring the process. There is no one way to learn, and perhaps for those that find their self-talk is negatively influenced by result orientated appreciation, it might be a better question to ask, “how did it feel for me? Rather than, “how did it sound to me?”
Why do I find frustration so difficult?
Accepting your limits, and growing at your own pace will fare you better in the long term, and remove you from short term horizons. But why is this not as easy as it sounds?
The ability to grow at your own pace means to ignore or consciously remove oneself from the movement of every other stimulant around you, for they are also growing at a pace equal to their measure, or, growing at a pace that is influenced by others. When you undertake a pace that is set by the majority it is testing to stay motivated to your strategies of learning, or discovery, as you can be inhibited by the concepts of group-think mentality and other pressure motivators. When you give up your position, the first thing to change is the voice, for, in one essence, it is an easily identifiable source of the “I”. There is only one sound made like it in the universe, therefore it is “me”, it is under my command, therefore it is “me”, “I identify the acoustical harmony as my identity I show to others”, therefore it is the “me”.
Why, therefore, is it the first thing to be given up so lightly to the whims and cultural biases of others? Everywhere, the voice is influenced and thwarts its distinct advantage. In joining the majority, by mechanically influencing the voice, is it an act of unity (to belong), or is it an act of monopolistic competition (to advance oneself in that sphere)? Once the “me” is made to converge within the limits set by others, naturally the self is split if that limit is below or above your natural inclination. This divergence, this separation, is one of the causes of frustration and negative self-talk because you have a natural rhythm or limit, that is fighting with an artificially created parameter.
This effect was seen in the educational system, where learners with dyslexia and dyspraxia were forced to learn methods that clashed with their natural learning style. Students were made to feel it was their lack of ability that informed their level of intellect; however, it was the method of instruction adopted by the institution that lacked insight and understanding. The burden that was laid upon the students forced them into the narrative self-talk that drew them into a cycle of failure, further aggravating the learning experience. Progress towards one’s voice, requires first and foremost, a philosophical and mindful inquisition into one’s learning processes, and an awareness of your beginning to have a yardstick of comparison that you can refer to in feelings of doubt and frustration. Therefore, a good place to begin is to learn how you learn and what are the influences surrounding that learning environment. The ability to delay gratification also stems from childhood rearing and play of which is too dense to pick apart here.
On the other hand, your voice is the byproduct of carbon dioxide and oxygen that existed aeons before you came to be alive, so how much, if any at all, of your voice, can you call your own? Your essence had no input into its anatomical complexity, it is not master of the breath that fuels it, and the phenomena of acoustical vibration probably existed at the very onset of the creation of the universe. Too much pride in the identification of the “me” in the sound of your voice can prevent you from exceeding limits that you have placed upon yourself. It is indeed harmful when the voice you identify so strongly with, is set like concrete in a habitually forceful and disadvantaged place.
See what your voice can teach you about you.
A voice can reveal status and gender, but it can also reveal so much more and the essential inherent materialism of these distinctions becomes the means of expression and your personality; an expression that one can be reluctant to give up. So the next time you hear yourself on a recording, rather than baulk at the very notion, listen, truly listen and see what lies behind the words? See if at all, there is a possibility to become a friend to oneself so that the voice itself leads the speaker to a discovery of the “I” that existed before the “I” was born in the voice, the “I” that existed with the nature of things? Like Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle, where the hero heeds the call or the call of music to take them beyond the realms of their circle, so too might there be a possibility to change how we perceive voice as something that is mastered by us to something that we become mastered by.
Andrei Schiller-Chan has been a voice coach for the last six years and has taught in universities around the world. He holds a Masters in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and currently resides in Islington, London, UK.
For more information go to www.oratorvoice.com