When I suffered vocal nodules in college, based on stupidly tackling difficult opera on a tense body, I took speech therapy to heal the damage. I remember doing a lot of breath work on the floor and staying silent for two weeks, so the nodules could go away and the cords return to their natural length. (They had become bowed.) After my treatment, I sounded like a baritone to myself because my speaking pitch dropped from relaxing the throat. A grew a lot in those months and, once I got past “It’s a tragedy,” I actually had fun. I was a church choir director at the time and had to give my instructions on a chalkboard! I also learned how much more interesting life is when you stop talking and listen to others.
Now, as one who gives singing lessons for kids and adults in Marin County, I can help both singers and speakers because I’ve been there and have experienced every snap, crackle, and pop in my own voice. What I find most interesting is how few people really understand the intricacies of speech. Often, one of my speech students will say: “I had no idea the tongue does that!” We take speech for granted. It’s unconscious and “natural.”
However, in the Alexander Technique work, we learn that what is often “natural” is simply habitual – and may be inefficient and downright counterproductive. So, speech lessons, embedded in the work of balancing the whole body, freeing the joints, and realigning and using the energetic power of the spine, can undo those poor habits and teach the essentials: Proper breathing, vocal support, how the vocal folds work and resonance.
We often interfere with our reflexive breath. For instance, notice whether you are holding your breath while you are reading this. Lots of people do this when they think, perform a household task, or play an instrument. When you start to notice how often you hold your breath, you will let it flow and start to weed out those moments. It will do your body a world of good.
Also, many people under-support their speaking voice and hold a lot of tension in their diaphragm and other breathing muscles. Shy people might feel strange speaking with good vocal support because they might feel “too loud” to themselves. So, they “pull off” their support, the vocal folds can’t adduct cleanly and the voice either becomes breathy or the root of the tongue gets involved and vocal glitches occur. In the voice lessons, we establish what it means to support the voice efficiently.
And, the most fun part of speech lessons, in my opinion, is resonance. Are you talking in your nose (the soft palate is down instead of up) or is your sound hooty? Learning the tongue’s acrobatics – how vowels and consonants are shaped – is its own journey. Who knew that an “f” – a fricative – is made by putting the top teeth to the lower lip? We do it a million times a day but when we start to look at it carefully, what’s the tongue doing while that’s happening? Is it pulling back, closing the throat?
Yes, adult speech lessons are an adventure because ultimately, we must put all we’ve learned together in a coordinated fashion. There is a mountain of tongue-twisters and exercises that challenge that coordination. Some of my favorite “end of lesson” exercises are the “Geographic Fugue” or “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from “Pirates of Penzance.” They’re both mouthfuls – conquer those and you’re in good shape!