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It's no joke if you croak

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 7 May, 2010 | By: Phyllida Furse

Teachers use their voice more than actors do. Voice coach Phyllida Furse offers tips to newly qualified teachers on protecting this natural asset

As a new teacher you may be looking forward to your first appointment - but have you considered that you will be using your voice day in, day out, in all weathers and in a whole range of physical, acoustic and emotional environments? That you will be communicating to varying numbers of people at any one time, in a variety of spaces? And that you will have to be at your best whether you feel like it or not?

With lessons effectively being a series of ‘performances,’ and by virtue of continuous use of the muscles that produce sound and speech, teachers are ‘professional voice users’, often more so than actors. This is physically and vocally demanding. And as any experienced teacher who has ever had a voice problem will know: no voice, no job. Odd then, that unlike actors, teachers generally receive very little voice training. But there are some things you can teach yourself.

In class you’ll need crisp consonants for a clear message. In addition you will need to adjust your pitch, pace, inflection and tone, according to the situation. The mood and meaning of our message is derived from vowel sounds, which are governed by the shapes we make with the tongue inside the mouth. There is real physical work behind an effective communication.

For a healthy, communicative voice:

  • Stretch, hum and hiss before work.
  • Stretch up and wave the arms from side to side to raise the ribs and open the chest.
  • Exhale then breathe in deeply on the recoil.
  • Exhale slowly to ‘ssss’ then ‘shhh’ then ‘zhhh’. Imagine your lungs filling from lower down like balloons. Feel the rib cage expand further with each new intake of breath.
  • Hum gently to ‘mm’, feel the vibration in the upper chest, throat, nose and chest. Start off very quietly, gradually increasing volume. Let the hum fill your mouth like a drink. This will warm the muscles powering the vocal folds safely, and help increase resonance. Best place for this is in the shower, or as you drive to work.
  • Practise vocal slides up and down on ‘ng’ to eliminate pitch breaks.

Energise the articulators with a few tongue twisters. Repeat rapidly, about six times each:

  • Mixed biscuits.
  • Rubber baby buggy bumpers.
  • Peggy Babcock.

At work

Stand tall - shoulder blades sloping down the back, head comfortably balanced at the top of the spine to increase breath support and give both you and the class the reassuring feeling that you are in control.

You will not feel or convey confidence by standing in a ‘sag’ position. Claim your territory in the classroom and walk forward, leading with your legs, not your chin.

Remember to breathe (sometimes we forget) - allow yourself to breathe deeply and easily before you have something important to say. Big breaths generate volume, enabling you to power the voice from lower down, keeping tension away from the throat. Think of speaking from the belly rather than your neck. Be focused on where you are sending the sound.

Speak less - non-verbal signals will save your voice: try rhythmic hand clapping plus gestures for children to copy; counting down to silence with the fingers of one hand or using an egg timer icon on the whiteboard; stand still raising your hand slightly as you look round the room; use the sound of a tambourine, castanets, triangle, rainstick etc, or hold up a picture.

For older students, cultivate your stillness, and ‘presence’ by ‘waiting’ for them to be quiet, using a ‘look’ rather than words to indicate silence. Gesture can help, or even a normal bell. It is essential to establish the rules from day one regarding non-compliance and stick to them. Know what the ladder of sanctions is in your school should things get out of hand.

Articulate and relax

Over 60 per cent of what we say is interpreted with the help of consonants. Enunciate clearly and bother to use word endings. Avoid over- attacking on words starting with a vowel, eg ‘Umm’, as it brings your vocal folds forcefully together, causing painful inflammation.

Tension towing is the enemy of the voice. A tight neck gives a tight sound, which is uncomfortable to listen to and turns off the class. Take advantage of any staff breaks in the day, and schedule time for rest and relaxation during the busy working week. Cultivate a hobby.

If possible, take regular exercise. Keeping the body supple and flexible through pilates or yoga will help keep you mentally supple. The endorphins released will mop up adrenaline and be a better solution to stress than pills or alcohol. Sleep is your best friend - only then can cell repair take place.

To prevent problems, avoid:

  • Smoking, or cut down if you can;
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeinated tea, coffee, fizzy drinks (they dry you out);
  • Medicated lozenges that kill pain - (pain is telling you to stop talking); suck non-medicated pastilles instead;
  • Heavy/spicy meals last thing at night (can cause indigestion and acid reflux, which inflames the vocal folds);
  • Dairy products which can cause over-production of mucous around vocal folds;
  • Talking above background noise or yelling in excitement (causes strain);
  • Talking in a whisper when your voice starts to go (folds are held in tension and the problem is made worse);
  • Clearing your throat unnecessarily or as a mannerism (smacks the folds together, increasing mucous production, which makes you clear your throat again).

Early warnings

These may include breaks in the voice (sudden stoppages), unexpected changes of pitch (voice all over the place), changes in vocal quality (hoarseness), changes in the body (sore throat), increased effort to talk (voice tires easily), regular loss of voice, and a sensation of lump in the throat (usually emotional tension).

What you can do:

  • Voice rest - stop talking when you get home.
  • Body rest - relax - take steamy baths.
  • Steam inhalations to moisten the back of the throat, and ease pain.
  • Gargle with boiled, cooled salty water to reduce pain and fight infection.
  • Hydrate by drinking lots of water (1.5 litres/day).
  • Stop taking medicated lozenges that kill pain and dehydrate the vocal folds. Suck non-medicated pastilles instead.
  • Early nights.
  • Take time off to allow inflammation or swelling of the vocal folds to subside.

If a problem persists for more than 10 days, seek help from GP. Be persistent. The GP can refer you to an ear nose and throat specialist who will be able to direct you to a speech and language therapist as appropriate. Alternatively, contact the Voice Care Network UK, who may be able to give you some support straight away.

Phyllida Furse is voice coach and development officer of the Voice Care Network UK

Resources to help beat the strain

Useful reading for help at primary and secondary level

  • There’s No Need To Shout, by David Wright, published by Nelson Thornes.
  • The Teacher’s Voice, Stephanie Martin and Lyn Darnley, published by Singular Publishing Group.
  • More Care For Your Voice, published by Voice Care Network UK.

To see vocal folds in action, visit You Tube and search for ‘transnasal endoscopy’.

Find out more with Voice Care Network UK

Voice Care Network UK offers a range of INSET workshops on voice care and voice skills for the whole school workforce. These range from an introductory session to a full day.

Contact: VCN UK for details on:

01926 864 000

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