Tum's the word

9th December 2005 at 00:00
Your voice is your greatest asset so you should speak from the stomach not the throat to preserve it, says Sara Bubb

Sounding a little husky? Is your throat sore? Don't think it's a simple matter, something that goes with the job. Such ailments need to be taken seriously. How you are feeling - depressed, sad, stressed, nervous - is reflected in your voice and will affect your teaching.

Your voice is your greatest asset, but not using it well can cause lasting damage. One patient in nine at voice clinics is a teacher. Some people are forced to leave the profession after suffering permanent damage to their vocal chords.

Record yourself teaching for 10 minutes. Are you using enough intonation to keep attention, unnecessarily repeating things, talking over pupils, or talking too much? If you need to shout, do you yell the first word and then quieten down? Do you have to talk so much? The look, the smile, the glare, the raised eyebrow, the tut can be so more effective than words. As can a theatrical silence or the closing of a book.

Teachers use their voices as much as the busiest professional actor, but do so hour after hour, day in, day out, and often without any training. Graham Welch, professor of music education at the University of London's Institute of Education, says: "Voice management is a critical element of successful teaching. When people understand how the voice works, they can use it better."

He explains more in a useful book*: speech is produced when breath passes over your vocal chords (folds), causing them to vibrate. The sound is amplified by the cavities in your chest, mouth and head. Your lips, teeth and tongue shape the sound into recognisable words.

Breathing is fundamental to powering the voice. Kim Insley, cohort leader on the institute's part-time primary PGCE, recommends that people "speak from the stomach rather than from the throat". Deep regular breathing from the diaphragm, in through the nose, out through the mouth, helps you stay calm and works wonders for the voice. When you're stressed and dashing around you snatch shallow breaths into your mouth or chest. Your tummy doesn't move at all. This means there's not enough power to project the voice, so you strain the weak muscles around your neck and put too much pressure on the chords. Poor posture and tense shoulders and neck mean that the passage of air is blocked.

We all know that dehydration is bad for the body, but if you're speaking a lot you need to drink even more water because you're constantly losing vocal tract surface lubrication through evaporation.

The other areas where more attention can go a long way are using your mouth, lips, teeth and tongue for clearer articulation. Saying vowels A, E, I, O, U or a tongue-twister should remind you of all the muscles that can be used.

Secondary PGCE students at the Institute of Education in London can opt for voice development workshops, run by Heather Kay every October and February.

Roz Comins of Voice Care Network UK says that although people often start by knowing nothing they soon realise the importance of voice management and want to find out more. They go from wanting to cure recurring sore throats to wanting to learn new skills, to make more of their voices for greater intonation.

* Teachers' Survival Guide, by Angela Thody. Barbara Gray, Derek Bowden (Continuum). Voice Care Network UK has nominated September 2005 to July 2006 as Year of the Teacher's Voice. For pound;25, you can book a Saturday morning or afternoon session in Birmingham (November 26) or Sheffield (December 3). See www.voicecare.org.uk; tel: 01926 864 000

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