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No Voice, No Preach

Safeguarding and improving your voice

Average Rating: Not rated [see ratings/reviews]No Voice, No Preach

Many ministers fill their weeks with sermons, committee meetings, and countless conversations. Unintentionally, they abuse their voices. Voice fatigue sets in. Even if they don't develop chronic hoarseness, weakness, or vocal nodes, their effectiveness as speakers may be diminished by weakened or forced voices.

Not everyone has "golden pipes," but everyone can improve the sound of their voice. The point is not to develop a "stained-glass voice" but to strengthen the natural voice we've been given. Here are some things to improve the voice.

Good posture

Since our bodies house our voices, good posture becomes an important prerequisite for the best use of our vocal instruments. Proper external posture means your head lines up with your back, causing your rib cage (not your shoulders) to lift. Your feet will be flat on the floor with the weight evenly distributed, your knees unlocked. Poor posture crowds the breathing process. After adopting good posture, one speaker's voice stayed strong to the end of his sermon for the first time.

The internal posture maintains a space inside your mouth for a perpetual "Ahh." This helps relax your jaw and tongue and opens your throat. The volume of speech determines the size of the "Ahh"—the softer your voice, the smaller the "Ahh."

Reduced muscle tension

Tension is an enemy of good performance, whether we're speaking, singing, or trying to sink a putt. Reduced tension means we'll be free of tightness in our bodies generally, tightness in our shoulders, jaws, and tongues specifically. If the muscles above and below the vocal cords relax, then the breath can freely vibrate the vocal cords in the larynx, or voice box.

Incidentally, a mirror works well as an effective, but inexpensive, teacher. Speakers can use a mirror daily as they practice to monitor their posture and watch for signs of tense muscles.

Proper breathing

The vocal process that produces sound can be divided into three basic areas: (1) the breathing technique—the activator of the sound; (2) the vocal cords—the source of the sound; (3) the resonators—the reinforcers of the sound, adding quality, volume, and control.

Breathing should be free and silent with no obstruction in the way. Any tightening of the muscles above or below the larynx can inhibit the breath and keep it from carrying the sound into the resonators. Here are some steps that can help ensure effective use of the breath:

  • Open your throat as if to begin a yawn ("Ahh"),
  • Relax, then open your jaw, inhaling through both your nose and mouth.
  • Think of aiming the moving air about three feet in front of you. This helps keep the sound from hanging in the back of your mouth, projecting it out instead.
  • It also helps to imagine your lips not touching your teeth. This keeps the muscles around your mouth from tightening and allows enough room for consonants to flow over your tongue and for vowels to resonate in the chambers.

Good vocal health

Friedrich S. Brodnitz, M.D., says, "To no group should the preservation of physical health be more important than to men and women who make professional use of their speaking and singing voices." Here are some things to do to keep your body and voice in good condition:

  • Get enough rest to restore body energy.
  • Never yell or force your voice.
  • Drink lots of liquids, preferably not too hot or too cold. Many speakers request ice water, but tepid water would be better. Cold contracts muscles—and vocal cords are muscles. They'd do better to be kept warm and flexible.
  • Avoid clearing your throat. Often this is simply a nervous habit, but it irritates your vocal cords.
  • Avoid medicated lozenges, mint, or menthol. These dry the throat and tend to create more phlegm. Drink warm tea or water instead.
  • Avoid extended time in a loud environment, such as basketball games. When I attend a Portland Trail Blazers basketball game, I wear ear plugs. This protects both my hearing and my voice. Ear plugs automatically cause me to cut down the volume of my voice. Because I hear it louder inside my head, I'm not so apt to push my voice to be heard above the noise.
  • If there seems to be a chronic voice problem, consult a throat specialist.

Exercising your voice

Vocal exercises will help develop your voice. They should be done consistently, even on days when you have no sermon to preach. Spend five to ten minutes doing the following exercises before speaking or singing:

  • Loosen your jaw: Take your jaw between your thumb and index finger and shake it up and down rapidly without moving your head. Repeat, "Yah, yah, yah" vigorously. Move your jaw from side to side.
  • Massage your face from the hinge of the jaw to the temples. Place a finger at the jaw hinge on each side, move your fingers in a circular motion from there, up to the side of the forehead.
  • Move your head slowly to one side as far as possible and then back to the opposite side. Drop your head slowly back to the shoulders and then on to the chest. This isometric exercise should be done often. I do this in the car when I stop for red lights or at my desk.
  • Maintaining good posture, inhale slowly. Then let out a slow, breathy sigh, starting in a high voice and going down, much like a descending fire siren.
  • Do the same descending breath exercises as a short sentence: "How are you? I am fine." If you produce these sounds freely, you should have the sensation that your vocal cords are doing nothing at all. Your breath should move your voice, and the resonators should reinforce the sounds. Learn to trust these sensations. When you can visualize the correct technique, the sound will take care of itself.
  • Practice humming a scale (from high to low) maintaining a relaxed jaw and tongue, keeping an "Ahh" space inside your mouth. Keep your lips together, but not tightly. If your breath freely moves your voice, your lips will vibrate noticeably. My husband, a preacher, always hums during a hymn before his sermon to make sure his lips tingle. This assures him he has the correct room for the breath to bring his voice forward in the mouth.
  • Read aloud when practicing a sermon or speech. This helps make the procedures a natural part of your speaking process.

With daily practice on these techniques, your voice can be strengthened and revitalized. You might wish to evaluate your progress by recording your voice.

Rick, a pastoral student, listened carefully to his voice on tape. As a result, he gained new appreciation for the value of good vocal technique. His voice felt more relaxed the next time he preached, and his wife noticed a marked difference in its sound.

If possible, studying with a voice teacher can provide another set of ears to listen for things you cannot hear. Because the techniques for singing are so similar to those for speaking, singing instructors can often help speakers.

Recommended reading:

Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit (Moody, 1999), pp. 263–290

Emily E. Shive was speech and voice instructor at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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