Vocal Makeovers

The New York Times
July 21, 2005

My Voice Has Got to Go

When the telecom bubble burst a few years back and David LaBerge, 45, found himself looking for work as an independent marketing consultant, he decided it was time to spiff up his act. New clothes. New haircut.

New voice.

“I was just not happy with the way I presented myself,” said Mr. LaBerge, who works in San Jose, Calif. “I’d hear myself on tapes of meetings or on my office answering machine and I had this monotonous delivery. The tone didn’t go up or down. Even when I was very enthusiastic I sounded dull. I would end statements with a rising pitch, which made it sound like a question, or like even I wasn’t convinced by what I was saying.”

The problem spilled over into his personal life. “You go to a party, and there’s always someone who can tell a story in this really engaging way. I’d tell a story and it always seemed to fall flat, even though I think I know some pretty good stories.”

Sounding dull wasn’t Cynthia Sam’s problem. “My voice is kind of unique,” said Ms. Sam, a respiratory therapist in New York, whose high-pitched little-girl’s voice sounds like a cartoon character’s. “When you talk like this, it’s sometimes hard to be taken seriously. People can be very cruel.”

Emily Schreiber, 25, a second-grade teacher in Manhattan who has to raise her voice above a roomful of 7-year-olds, suffered repeated bouts of laryngitis. “I was perfectly healthy but I couldn’t speak above a whisper,” Ms. Schreiber said.

A beautiful and commanding voice has always been important to actors and singers. But now many others want one. And why not? If gorgeous hair, sculptured torsos, flawless skin and sparkling white teeth are worthy of pursuit, why shouldn’t a richer, more sonorous voice be one more item on the checklist of perfection?

About a third of the members of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, an organization of professionals who originally focused on actors, now work with the public at large, said the association’s president, Lisa Wilson, a professor of theater at the University of Tulsa.

Speech pathologists, trained to treat speaking disorders, are also getting some of the business. “Fifteen years ago I rarely had people come to me because they simply didn’t like the sound of their voice,” said Thomas Murry, a speech pathologist at the Voice and Swallowing Center of Columbia University. His clients were people with medical conditions like polyps on their vocal cords. “Now about a third of the people simply want to sound better,” he said.

Dr. Murry estimated that of the 90,000 members of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, as many as 1,000 devote their practices to what he calls “voice styling,” helping people improve the sound of otherwise healthy voices.

With so much of our lives these days conducted on the phone, vocal quality is gaining attention as a factor in making friends and influencing people. “More and more of my work is done in conference calls,” said Grace Vandecruze, 37, an investment banker in New York who has worked with Lucille S. Rubin, a veteran voice coach. “The depth of your knowledge and the impact of your voice – the two are equally important.”

Voice quality matters in face-to-face meetings, too. “Studies show that in hiring situations, two things play a big role in who gets hired: what someone looks like and the sound of their voice,” Dr. Murry said.

Sometimes people don’t know that their voice gets in their way. Susan Berkley, a voice coach in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and the author of “Speak to Influence,” told the story of a friend who met a woman on an Internet dating site. “Her photo was drop-dead gorgeous. They finally set a time to talk on the phone. He’s convinced she’s going to bear his children, right? So he calls and she answers.” Here she produced a high-pitched nasal “Hello” that called to mind Lily Tomlin’s telephone operator. “It was over in five seconds. He couldn’t bear the thought of spending the rest of his life with that voice.”

To evaluate voices, speech therapists listen and look. Hoarseness can be assessed with a strobovideolaryngoscopy, which creates a moving image of vibrating vocal cords. Roughness, breathiness, weakness and strain are judged more subjectively using a 0 to 4 rating system.

How much can voice quality be altered? A lot, judging by how easily Carol Fleming, a San Francisco voice coach, made her own voice shift as she impersonated her typical clients. “You get people who talk way at the back of their throats, like this,” she demonstrated in her office, producing a strained, raspy voice that speech therapists call glottal fry. “Or people whose voices are way up here in their sinuses,” she said, speaking with a harsh nasal twang. “Or way down here in their chests.”

Her voice seemed to change location as she spoke.

“What you want is to teach people to place the voice here, at the front of the mouth, with a lot of resonance,” Dr. Fleming said, speaking with riveting authority. “That way, you literally sound like you stand behind what you say.”

Many coaches say they work to eliminate specific problems, not an entire accent. “The letter R is a problem in many dialects, for instance, so we’ll work on that,” said Susan Miller, a coach in Washington.

Kate Rice, 35, decided to change her voice when she was hired as a spokeswoman for a California retail firm. “I’m from Wisconsin, where people speak with a nasal quality,” Ms. Rice said. “Words get shortened. Swimming becomes swimmin’. Fishing becomes fishin’. You don’t even realize you’re doing it.”

Age can take its toll on how people sound, as voices become weak or shaky. Exercises can strengthen the vocal muscles. Dr. Miller demonstrated one, putting her lips together and blowing, making a sound in her throat while her lips fluttered. She also made a sound like a siren and then repeated a tongue-twister – “red leather, blue leather, yellow leather, red leather, blue leather, yellow leather” – at top speed. She recommended both exercises for anyone preparing to give a talk.

The ancient Greek orator Demosthenes is said to have overcome stammering speech by trying to speak distinctly with pebbles in his mouth and by reciting verses when out of breath from running uphill. None of the voice coaches interviewed mentioned pebbles. But Ms. Miller did say she runs in place to get her lungs pumping before a speech.

“Having a voice coach is like having a trainer at the gym; you work on intonation, breathing patterns, physical exercises,” said Jonathan Clemmer, 47, whose friends in the theater steered him to Dr. Rubin, who trains actors as well as doctors, lawyers and businessmen and women. Mr. Clemmer recently moved to San Francisco, where his job as a medical research consultant involves giving talks to scientists. “I find I have more power in my voice now and better inflection,” he said.

The cost of coaching ranges from $100 to $225 a session. Some people learn all they need in just three sessions. Others may require 12 or more. A typical “voice makeover” costs about $1,000, Dr. Miller said.

Working with Dr. Fleming, Mr. LaBerge read short stories aloud to give his voice variety and practiced ending his statements with a falling rather than rising pitch. “Now I’m learning how to put a lot more animation in my voice,” he said.

In her five sessions with Dr. Murry, Ms. Schreiber, the teacher, learned to breathe more from her stomach than her chest and to relax her jaw, which puts less strain on vocal cords.

People with weak voices are often counseled to stand straighter and to take a breath before starting a sentence. Simply hearing a good recording of their voices helps some people adjust for better pitch and variety, Dr. Murry said.

When clients first come to her office, Dr. Fleming begins by making small talk while a tape recorder spins silently on her desk. “After 10 or 15 minutes, I play people’s voices back to them so they can hear how they really sound,” she said.

It is a moment that can make them wince, often because they are not used to hearing themselves as others do. “We hear our own voices as sound waves conducted through bone, not through the air,” Professor Wilson explained.

The discovery is not always unpleasant. “People will come to me because they don’t like their voice on an answering machine,” Dr. Fleming said. “Well, who does? The recording quality makes everyone sound tinny. When people hear their voice on a high-quality recording, they often think, Hey, that’s not so bad.”

Not everyone who goes to a voice trainer decides to change the way he or she speaks. With the help of Ms. Berkley, Ms. Sam learned that she could deepen her voice. “I found that I do have more range, and that I can use it when I want to,” she said. But she also discovered that there’s gold in her little-girl voice. Since taking a voice-over class, she’s done the talking for several toys in an animated film and is now auditioning for more roles.

Copyright 2005 by The New York Times Company

About Kyle Meades

John Kyle Meades, CCC-SLP has practiced Speech & Language Pathology since 1993. Therapy Group of Tucson, PLLC provides private, powerful and effective speech, occupational, physical & ABA therapy services in Tucson, AZ


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  2. Email us so we can discuss.

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