Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Women’s voices: Are you speaking too low?

(Editor's note:  When vocal coach Kate Peters and I got together here in Washington, we traded stories and tips about speaking--and she brought up an intriguing view, that women are more likely to lower their voices too much and cause damage. Since so many women focus on whether their speaking voice is pitched too high, I thought this would be an important issue to discuss here, and Kate has generously shared this guest post, addressing both issues. Read and learn!  You can follow her blog, Kate's Voice, for more vocal tips.)

When I was growing up, my mother was active in the feminist movement. After going back to college when I was in high school, she eventually took that experience and turned it into a career. She helped women get back in the work force. In a sense, she helped women find their voices. Today, we are out there in the work force raising our voices and being heard in places my mom and her generation only dreamed of. However, in order to be taken seriously, I suspect that we have made some adjustments in order to compete with men. When it comes to speaking, some of those choices are actually detrimental to success.

Are we trying to sound like men?

Since 1945, the pitch of women’s voices in the United States has dropped significantly, so that, on the average, women now speak only 2/3 of an octave higher than men instead of a full octave, which was the norm before 1945. Swedish women speak lower than Americans and the Dutch speak lower than all others. This indicates that in the western world, there is a belief that a powerful voice is a low voice. I realize that a small percentage of women have low enough voices to sound like men whether they want to or not. However, the average woman’s voice is a second soprano, not an alto.

But is the most powerful voice a low voice? A recent study at the University of Pennsylvania showed that men with a deep, masculine voice were seen as more dominant by other men. However, that study did not include women. For each of us, the most powerful voice in the world is our mother’s voice. This has been confirmed in many research studies. One study revealed that smoke alarms that use a mother’s voice instead of a bell wakes kids faster. . Another showed that just hearing the sound of your mother’s voice can reduce stress. . And finally, a recent study in Montreal showed that Mom’s voice is key to language learning in children. The point of citing this research is that the low pitch of a voice has nothing to do with power. It has to do with our perception of power.

Using an average speaking pitch that is too low or too high for extended periods of time (like all day!) puts a strain on the vocal folds, causing chronic hoarseness, limited range, and a husky vocal quality. You may like the ‘sexy’ effect, but it is actually a sign of a health problem. If not addressed, the vocal abuse that creates a husky voice will eventually manifest larger issues such as nodules or polyps.

Speaking too high is just as bad. How often have you heard someone complain about a woman’s voice that is whiny or shrill? Clearly a high, shrieky voice is powerfully irritating, but this is probably not the kind of power most women are seeking! In general, a voice that is pitched either too low or too high has less flexibility for expression, less resonance, and puts you at risk for health issues. So, how do you know whether you are speaking too high or too low?

A pitch perfectly poised to project your personal power

There is a speaking pitch that is best for your health, creates powerful resonance, and allows for true vocal variety. Centering your voice on that optimum pitch will create the kind of vocal power you want without damage to your vocal image or your vocal health. Better yet, you can easily find it. Here’s how: say “MMM-hmm (yes!)," out loud, with energy. Observe how it sounds and feels. When we say that as Americans, we usually say it at the optimum pitch for our voice. Try it. Listen to the pitch and also feel where it resonates. You will probably feel it vibrate in the front of your face, or “the mask.” Now start speaking at the pitch you just discovered and try to keep that buzzy feeling in the mask as you say a few words. I am not suggesting that you should speak in a monotone or on one pitch. Instead, center your pitch in the optimum pitch area, and use inflection to deviate from it as desired for expression.

How to cultivate the habit of speaking at the right pitch

Once you have found your optimum speaking pitch, there are two good ways to develop the habit of speaking there.

Get a pitch pipe,find your pitch on the pipe, and remind yourself of that pitch by sounding it on the pitch pipe often throughout the day, humming the pitch, and then speaking a few sentences on that pitch.

Begin a new sentence with MMM-hmm and focus on keeping the pitch of your voice at about that same pitch level after the initial MMM-hmm. Repeat several times. Do this several times throughout the day. You will gradually become more aware of pitch in your voice and be able to keep your speaking voice at your optimum pitch level.

Finding the right pitch for your voice is a way of centering your voice, much as you center your self psychologically. Finding your optimum pitch cultivates a healthy core to your sound that is resonant and vibrant. Through your vocal image, the perception given to others is that YOU are centered, vibrant and resonant, and that’s powerful!  (Affiliate link)

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