The 16th of April commences WORLD VOICE DAY (dun dun duunn… cue the music) I thought I would take the opportunity to spread awareness of voice and celebrate! Feel free to pop a cork when you get home…
Before I studied to become a speech and language therapist I had little idea about what makes the voice work and what the voice box looks like. I vaguely remember picturing a little harp with lots of little strings… I’ve since found out that’s not the case.
Here’s what I learned in 4 years at uni in a nut shell: Essentially, the voice box (or larynx) is made up of two tiny flaps of tissue (vocal cords) which vibrate together to create voice. The muscles which make this process work are very intricate and small. When air comes up from the lungs it accelerates through the small space and creates a suction, which brings the vocal cords together. This process is called Bernoulli’s principle. A wee fact for your next dinner party: Bernoulli’s principle also makes planes fly!
Not all speech therapists work with ‘voice’. It’s something that I’ve always been interested in and I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to exercise my enthusiasm since working in Dumfries and Galloway. I’m the newest member of the team and have been working for just over 6 months. I’ve always had aspirations to move to the countryside, so I threw the cat, the boyfriend, and all my worldly possessions in the car, drove down from Glasgow to the middle of nowhere and bought a puppy… I’m living the dream!
As a speech and language therapist I work with swallowing, language, speech, and communication. Voice is only a small part of what I do. Essentially ‘voice’ is the quality of the sound of your speech. Is your voice husky? Breathy? Loud? Rough? Do you sound more like a Joanna Lumley or Lisa Simpson? A Rod Gilbert or a Paul O’grady?
People use their voice for different purposes. Are you a singer? The next xfactor wannabie? A shouter? A parent?! A quiet listener? The quality of your voice can depend on how you use it… and if you abuse it! Some voices are sturdier than others and can withstand more abuse, others run off at the slightest hint of a football match, or Karaoke night! Losing your voice can be a sign that you are hurting it in some way. Similarly, having a gruff or rough voice for a number of weeks without having a cold or other cause can be a sign of vocal misuse.
A lot of emotion can be held in the voice. How often have you picked up the phone to call a friend, and as they’ve answered ‘hello’ you’ve immediately said ‘what’s wrong?’ The moment you hear their voice you can tell that there’s something up. This emotional holding pen can get strained at times and begin to affect the physiology of the voice, causing tightness or soreness. Psychology and voice are interrelated and the relationship can be complex.
Not using the correct techniques when pushing the voice can sometimes cause problems. I often have to remind people that the ‘power’ of the voice comes from the breath, not the throat. If your shoulders move when you take a big breath in…. you’re doing it wrong! Breath control can produce lovely strong voice without putting any strain on the voice box. Breathing and relaxation exercises can help to keep the voice healthy. (That’s why when you pop in to the speech therapy department, you’ll find us all practising our relaxation techniques with a big slice of cake… its therapy… honest!)
There are lifestyle changes we can make to help look after our voice. I find myself giving the same advice to most of my patients having voice therapy. One of the most important is to increase our water consumption. “Gallons and gallons” I cry! “Think of how beautiful your skin will be!” I cry! No one ever listens…! Maybe it seems too easy? Too straightforward? When I recommend complex vocal exercises, people are ardent. I’d be interested to know why people find this one such a stickler to put into practice? Is it the taste? The inconvenience? Thinking it’ll make you run to the loo every 5 minutes? Please feel free to leave some comments! It’s recommended that we drink up to two litres a day, very few of us do. How much do you manage?
Some more advice that I often nag on about is throat clearing… it’s the little seemly insignificant things that can affect the voice. “Throat clearing? HURUMGH No I never do HURUMGH that. What’s that? HURUMGH I’m doing it right now? I never HURUMGH noticed….” Don’t ask yourself if you throat clear, ask your exasperated colleague across the desk…. As well as being an annoying habit, throat clearing is bad for your voice box. Essentially creating a vicious circle; a wee tickle makes you feel like you want to clear your throat, which bangs your vocal folds together violently, which creates mucus, which causes a wee tickle… and round and round we go. Instead of clearing your throat, try sucking a sweetie, taking a sip of water or gently humming to get rid of the tickle (although that might also annoy your colleagues, there’s just no pleasing some people!)
I also find myself advising people that their voice problem could have links to the environment that they spend their time in. Air conditioning and central heating can be very drying. Sometimes it is necessary to get humidifying equipment to help to moisten the air. The vocal folds are happiest in a botanical gardens glass house. Perhaps the hospital board will consider this when planning for the new hospital? Get your pot plants at the ready people.
I’m hoping that you are reading this, first thing, with a cup of steaming beverage (followed by a glass of water, caffeine is so drying darling, don’t you know?!) and contemplating starting your working day. Before you do, before the tension, the throat clearing and the air con kicks in and throttles your little vocal folds… take 2 minutes to do a quick vocal warm up. We are all professional voice users to some degree or other, some professions use their voice as their main working tool for the whole of the day.
Be nice to your voice.
Read this in your most soothing, inner head voice (the one that says “it’s okay, have some chocolate, you deserve it”… ):
Sitting in your chair, both feet on the floor. Rotate your head all the way around, stretching the neck. Slowly and gently, both directions. Tuck your chin in, and then raise your head and look at the ceiling do this once or twice. Pull your shoulders up to your ears and let them drop again, do this a few times. Gently hum a few notes, feeling the vibration in your throat and enjoying the wide open feeling in the throat. Lastly do some soft vowels… aaaahhhh eeeeeee ooooooohhhh.
We will have some info out in the foyer and a stall on the 16th so please pop along and say hello.
All the best, Becky.
Becky Davy is a Speech and Language Therapist at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary.