Find Your Real Voice

Last week I watched the film In a World…. It’s a gem of a movie that my colleagues, friends and former students have been insisting I see for months. Lake Bell, writer, director and star of the comedy, captures a segment of Los Angeles film production that the characters take very seriously: the competitive world of recording movie trailer voice-overs.

Ms. Bell plays a struggling vocal coach, Carol Solomon, who ultimately wins a major contract to voice the trailers for an upcoming film series called The Amazon Games. It was interesting to hear her vocal change for the trailer voice-over audition. She released her jaw, dropped the back of her tongue, and created a more resonant space inside her mouth in an imitation of the male voices, her father’s in particular, that dominate the genre.

And even more interesting to me was the through-line of Carol’s vocal coaching business. In the final scene of the film, Carol is holding a class for women who wish to deepen their voices. After one woman reveals in a squeaky high-pitched voice that she is a corporate lawyer, Carol compares her vocal production to that of a “sexy baby.”

Philosophically, I believe that all voices are valuable and beautiful. But it is often necessary to code switch from one kind of voice to another to fit into a a culture different from our own. (If most people spoke with a “sexy baby” voice, we might be longing to sound that way ourselves.) We unconsciously change our pitch, tone and placement, as well as vocabulary and pronunciation, based on who we are talking to and what we want to accomplish. Vocal training helps give options to ask and answer, “What kind of voice is best to fulfill the task at hand?”

The “sexy baby” voice has three distinct components: a continuing rise at end end of each phrase, glottal fry (the crackly sound made when air flow is restricted) on elongated vowels, and placement that cuts off the lower frequencies, in other words, a tight voice. If you wish to change your voice, or help someone change theirs, the following are some ideas of how to do that.

The continuing rise, “uptick” as it is currently called, is an upward inflection at the end of a phrase. We need the upward inflection in American English to indicate that we aren’t finished speaking a series of words or ideas. We use another kind of upward inflection to let people know that we are asking a question. When a thought is complete, we use a downward inflection or “end-stop.” When the continuing rise is used at the end of every phrase, it becomes difficult to know if a sentence has ended.

This vocal pattern is somewhat gendered and somewhat generational, in other words, used by primarily by young women. The questioning quality of the “uptick” creates a sense of uncertainty, or a quality of asking permission to continue. But it’s not only young American-born females who use this pattern. Other languages have a continuing rise embedded in their inflection. For example, Scandinavian speakers of English sound like they are asking questions because of the inflection of their native languages, a pattern that has influenced the regional dialects of the Upper Heartland (Upstate New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas.)

The melodic pattern of how American English is spoken in the dominant culture is just like the toss of a tennis ball. The ball starts upward in its arc and then lands solidly in the receiver’s hands. You can physicalize the melody of a sentence with a game of catch, first with just an elongated “ahhh,” then your name, then a sentence. I suggested to a young Pakistani woman who was preparing to defend her PhD that she practice her presentation throwing a tennis ball against a wall for each sentence. She did. Her research didn’t change. What did change was how the team of professors heard her.

Glottal fry is a little more difficult to alter. If you limit your breath to a tiny stream and make the back of your throat tight, you can create a crackly voice on the vowels of each word. Essentially, the vocal folds are hitting each other rather than vibrating smoothly. Communication seems to be restricted. I have heard any number of exceptionally intelligent Harvard undergraduate women use this vocal pattern, not even aware that they are restricting their voices in this way. Even Lake Bell, as she is speaking in Carol’s non-recording voice, has a strong glottal fry.

Why is this production problematic? It has to do with mirror neurons, I believe. Mirror neurons are the synapses in the brain that allow us to feel what others are feeling by internally and unconsciously mimicking their outward physical action and therefore their inner emotional content. When we are in the presence of someone who is restricting their breath, we do the same. We then experience the holding back of communication that the glottal fry engenders. We subtly feel a lack of connection.

How to change this? I start with what I call “hot potato breath.” Imagine that you have just eaten a potato that is too hot. It’s resting on your tongue and you must cool it with your breath. Then slowly add in vowel sounds. Gradually build up to actually throwing your vowels across the room with a gesture — again, the tennis ball trajectory can describe the journey of your voice. Lengthen the vowel so it continues until it lands at some distance. Then it’s time to practice phrases and sentences landing them further and further away from you.

The third aspect of the “sexy baby” voice is not just its pitch, but how tight it is. You can see the facial tension in the taut smile of the corporate lawyer in In A World…. I can hear the tension in the back of her tongue and tightness in the soft palate. All of these contribute to her high pitch. She is using a tiny space for resonance that doesn’t allow any of the lower frequencies in.

Why do we respond so strongly? I think it’s not only an audio response, but a physical one as well. When someone speaks in a truly relaxed resonant voice we actually feel the vibrations on our skin and in our bones. I’ll never forget sitting in a small wood-floored room at the American Conservatory Theater years ago listening to James Earl Jones speak. It wasn’t his words or his presence that made it memorable. It was feeling his voice through the soles of my feet.

In a delightful sequence earlier in the movie, the three competitors for The Amazon Games trailer voice-over job are getting ready. They are stretching their tongues, blowing through their lips, and shaking their faces. Of course, as a voice professional, I’m both laughing at and delighted with this preparation. This segment of the film is a course in how to get the voice to relax. And this relaxation offers more space inside the mouth, more breath, and therefore more resonance.

The point is not that women need to sound like men. The point is that we need to claim our space with our voices. I’d like to use Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as an example. Her voice is light, slightly breathy, and somewhat high-pitched, what one might characterize as a typically feminine voice. Yet when she speaks, she is powerful because of her openness, intent and clarity.

We, too, can can do this. Use a strong downward inflection when you need to make a point. Send your energy forward and land what you want to communicate. And then speak with the relaxed resonance that gives your communication both freedom and the power to touch others.