Vocal tumbleweeds
June 3, 2014 12:56 AM   Subscribe

After a long period of near-silence, help me learn how to speak again!

So for the past...half-decade, due to a variety of reasons (including mental health issues), I was somewhat of a hermit. I barely spoke to anyone except cashiers and the like ('yes', 'thank you', etc). I had no friends, not much contact with family, and no employment. As a result, my voice has become croaky, breathless, and most unpleasantly of all, emotionally flat. I'm overweight and have a thick tongue, and I find that that has given me a bit of a lisp. I mumble and am generally not a great enunciator. I find it hard to put my emotion into my face and my voice when I talk, even if just to myself. I am also one of those people whose thoughts run faster than their mouth does, and in the past I tended to talk too fast and thus very inarticulately.

I've always wanted to have a strong and commanding voice, one that is uniquely and confidently mine. A voice that is calm, mellifluous, self-possessed...something like those old-time radio speakers, but that is true to who I am. So I guess my question is really, how do I develop such a voice? How do I learn to speak again?

At the moment I don't have the money or really the will to go to public speaking classes or speech therapists or the like. I'm hoping to get some advice on how to strengthen and develop my voice at home, by myself. How to develop a voice that is not so dull and lifeless and monotone. I'll never be a gregarious loud-talking person, and I'm not looking to become one either. I suppose that part of the emotional flatness does come from my depression and so on, but I feel like while I've started to improve mentally my voice still reflects that old flatness, and I want to work on my voice specifically.

So in essence: if you have an advice on how to (a) strengthen/develop my voice mechanically and (b) infuse my voice with authentic personality/emotion (or any speech advice in general) I'd be very grateful.
posted by parjanya to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Record yourself reading aloud. Try different voices, learn all about what your voice does in different conditions, learn what it takes to control it. Try singing if you can, too. Knowing your voice will give you more confidence when speaking around others.
posted by Dragonness at 1:29 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

What about language sites? You can practice speaking with people over skype with less pressure. Here is a discussion. I'm pretty sure you can just help in English without having to also learn another language on some of them.

Also try singing along to the radio to give your voice a gentle work out. Songs are good for emotional range.

And most of all - congrats on taking small and big steps! I have a kid with social anxiety who is making progress after some hard years, and while it's a wonderful world out there, it's even more amazing when I see how much courage and effort it takes for him to get out there. Best wishes.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:35 AM on June 3, 2014

It might be a bit much for you, but your local toastmasters could be exactly what you're looking for.
posted by smoke at 1:44 AM on June 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

Thirding singing, especially in the shower of course, get big and start from the diaphragm. Maybe yell into a pillow too.

I struggle with this a bit myself. My friends used to accuse me of speaking in monosylables but the friendly idiots really meant montone.

Inhale and exhale. [If you watch any sports you'll notice that immediately before the pressure they take a deep breath and then exhale.]

Judging by your post parjanya you are quite far from inarticulate. Best of luck.
posted by vapidave at 2:15 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The voice is a pretty interesting area to work on, and getting better at in-person communication has huge benefits for you.

There are various ways to do it: video lessons (some paid programs add a few skype sessions as well), in-person lessons (singing lessons involve the same skills and increase your chance to find a cheap group rate), books and audiobooks.

With a good program, you should learn to breathe slower and deeper, hold your ribcage open for more regular flow, keep your throat relaxed and open, stretch your jaw, explore the resonance of various cavities in your chest, behind your nose and in the rest of your head, and work the muscles of your tongue, lips and face for better articulation. Generally you'll start with breathing (also good for anxiety) and lay down some foundations for the other areas; then the throat, then range, fullness and articulation. Some of these areas improve volume, others are for bringing more variety and dynamism in your speech patterns. Personally I'm into a few months of daily practice (using books rather than in-person lessons; while excellent the resources I used aren't available in English) and it's transformative.

Also, for a simple daily routine, the national theatre's vocal warmup is pretty good.
posted by Tobu at 2:52 AM on June 3, 2014

I would recommend against recording yourself — our voice always sounds very different when recorded, and it might be jarring to hear yourself before you're confident with how you sound.

Do you enjoy reading? I love reading out loud, to myself, when I'm alone in the house. It's a different experience to quiet reading. I prefer reading nonfiction, as I feel a bit silly reading dialogue out loud by myself.

This is a wonderful way to take care of yourself. Good luck.
posted by third word on a random page at 3:13 AM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I taught myself a lot about how my voice works, at a young age, by imitating characters from cartoons, especially ones voiced by Mel Blanc.

Doing impressions of confident voices, like the announcers you mentioned, won't work when you're confronted with people, but if you do those kinds of things with your voice alone, with nobody around to judge you, you can explore the kinds of sounds your voice can make. Do impressions of ridiculous voices, too, get used to the sound and the limits of your voice.

Or, pick a movie, or even one scene from a movie, that has an actor with a big or distinctive voice, like, say, Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, or maybe Nicol Williamson, and try to get those resonances, those sounds, out of your mouth. Pick a scene and play with it. Once you have the words memorized, you can play with pitch, volume, speed.

As far as what to say to people, I have trouble with that myself, but I find that having a job where I have to be around people I have to talk to, saying the same things over and over, has made me both quicker to respond, louder to respond, and less stingy with the words around strangers.

And singing helps, too.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 5:04 AM on June 3, 2014

I like to read poetry out loud, not specifically to practice my voice, but that's a pretty clear side effect. Especially more free verse type stuff, like Walt Whitman, or translations of Rimbaud, etc. It's a type of acting. To make the poem sound good and interesting, you have to enunciate, vary your tone, adjust your rhythm to the grammar, and stuff like that. It's fun.

Also, just reading authors with a distinctive voice, who express things in interesting or fresh ways. If I spend a bunch of my spare time reading certain authors, I notice my whole way of expressing myself being sort of modulated, almost like I take on some parts of their personalities. Dunno if this is just because of my unformed personality and chameleon-like tendencies, but it seems quite natural.
posted by mbrock at 6:15 AM on June 3, 2014

Maybe pick up Freeing the Natural Voice by Kristin Linklater who is a renown voice coach.

It's a book geared towards actors, but can be useful for anyone looking to develop, protect and own their voice. Lots of very practical exercises with a significant focus on understanding and working on the body to free the voice.
posted by brookeb at 6:35 AM on June 3, 2014

Listen to books on tape read by speakers whose voices you'd like to sound like. Buy a copy of the same book and read along with them concentrate on getting the rhythm and inflection. Put audiobook on headphones and then record your own voice reading along to give you some more feed back on how you are doing and keep practicing
posted by wwax at 7:01 AM on June 3, 2014

Radio voice training on YouTube. Voice over training. I imagine that working through some of these will also teach you some industry terms that might lead you to other interesting niches of vocal training.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:23 AM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding Toastmasters! If you want to try giving a prepared speech, they are just about the friendliest group to give it to. They will give you both mechanical/delivery advice as well as constructive feedback on making a speech. There are a lot of people who go to Toastmasters who are learning English or working on their speaking skills, and it's usually a great practice environment. My stepfather had a fantastic time and made friends.

I know public speaking of any kind is maybe intimidating, so if Toastmasters isn't for you today, it might be later. One thing that helped me trust my voice was reading out loud to cats. They like the attention and it's good practice.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:32 AM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Read books to kids. The younger and sillier the better. Put everything you have into it, voices for the characters, the works. You'll be less self conscious and you'll be able to have fun. Kids are the best audience. And their love of repetition means you'll get to try different approaches. Play with pauses and emphasis and tone and everything you're curious about how it might sound.
posted by bigbigdog at 10:26 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always feel weird talking out loud at home by myself - that may be one of the things you have to get over. Use some mental tricks: know that this is a lesson for practice, so that gives you permission to override that "is this ok?" nagging voice - YES, it's ok, because I'm practicing my lessons. Or find someone/something in your house to talk to - cats/dogs if you have them, or a stuffed animal, a pillow, a soccer ball (Hi, Wilson!) whatever. Address your practice to them.

Another idea for voice practice is to pretend you are an opera singer. Read a story but sing it using high highs and low lows and drawn out dramatic crescendos. The princess went into the casTLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLe. We used to do this as kids and it sort of guarantees that you will start using a big deep bass voice and breath from your diaphragm, even if you hadn't thought of it before singing out.

While you are practicing, don't forget your facial expressions. They tell phone operators to smile, because the customer can hear that come out in your voice over the phone lines. It's true. Think of it as an actor playing a role if you have to. As you practice, imagine that other person you are talking to, and try to show as if you really care about what you are saying - share the joy and the sorrow. So maybe choose some passages that have that kind of emotional range, rather than practicing with something like a technical manual.
posted by CathyG at 6:53 AM on June 4, 2014

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