27 comments on “Are you in good voice?

  1. Jeremy, this series of yours is successfully making me scarder and scarder about presenting at IATEFL especially because yes, voices are super important!

    Only, I have a weird mixed up Caribbean meets USA meets UK with oZ and SA thrown in due to early influences… and… uh-oh, what you’re saying is so awfully true: I have definitely judged people based on hearing their voice, both ways!

    Warm timbres = warm hearts, I settle in for a good bit of paying attention whereas high-pitched = high maintenance, I can’t listen, brain switches off – it’s not even conscious, it just turns off by itself.

    Anyhoo… now I have to think about taking drugs beforehand in order to be calm (1st post), doing warm-up exercises and smoking like Dudeney (a diff post, I think)… worry about if anyone will come based on my now a little cheesy title and omg, was my abstract an adequate description and… my voice, my voice.

    Please keep these posts coming asap so I have enough time to cover all bases before April :-)))


    • Hi Karenne,

      oh no! Now I feel bad! I’m making you feel nervous!!

      My only defence is that these issues, all of them, concern really experienced presenters and novices alike. Even after all this years I worry about abstracts, nerves, my voice etc etc. And it just seems to me that so many of us are ‘in this together’ that it’s worth sharing our experiences.
      I like ‘warm timbres & hearts’ but some people just don’t have that vocal equipment!!What then?
      I just think we ought to ‘think’ about our voices and how to use them!
      Let’s hope more people come along and comment.


  2. I think I’m most engaged by a speaker who has a nice warm timbre too! I remember at drama school the radio tutor told us smoking would give us a nice deep timber to our voice. However, I’ve just stopped smoking and one of the reasons is teaching. I seem to get a sore voice if I smoke too much. Oh well goodbye thickened vocal chords and goodbye timbre! I think projecting is something you learn over time, but you always hear teachers complaining about losing their voice (perhaps too much nonessential TTT?).
    Like you Jeremy, I wonder if there is anything else teachers can do other than supporting their voice with their breath. I have done lots of voice training and actors are often told ‘think your voice to the back of the auditorium.’ I find visualising this often helps me be heard, but I do worry I’m too loud sometimes!

  3. Hi Richard,
    yes, you’ve hit the nail right on the head!By which I mean there are lots of tips (smoking – not a good one I think cause in the end it gets you!), voice training, projecting to the back of the room.
    But what interests me is how useful any of this stuff is! What specific kind of voice training did you do and how genuinely useful has it been to (a) make you a more effective speaker and/or (b) to protect your voice?

    • Hi Jeremy,

      Sorry for the slow response. I trained as an actor and I think voice training in general has taught me to ground my voice, but I understand lots of teachers who maybe aren’t familiar with voice training would be resistant to some of the techniques. On the CELTA course I work on, one of my colleagues runs a session on protecting your voice and apart from the general advice on protecting your voice, one of the areas that are covered is projection. She often does exercises on breathing and projection. A technique she uses is one that I was taught when working with text as an actor. It sounds a bit odd like most acting things which puts people off, but you stand close to a wall with a piece of text (one line being enough – could be a teaching instruction) and begin whispering the line, on the instruction from the workshop leader you take a pace back into the room and raise your voice with each pace until you are at the other end of the room and you can reach the back wall with your voice (this can be monitored by other members of the group). Understandably, many of the trainees generally feel a bit embarrassed to start with but by the end of the session most comment that they find it useful as this develops an awareness of the performance aspect of teaching. Granted these are CELTA trainees and not experienced teachers.

      This is similar to an acting technique called ‘circles of attention’, where you have to imagine 3 concentric circles: the inner circle – talking to yourself; the middle circle-talking to one other person and the outer circle – talking to a group of people. As with before you can use text or a teaching instruction or whatever! You have to mentally switch through each circle as you repeat the ‘line’. It’s a good activity to do in a workshop setting as the awareness of the different stages is reinforced by hearing others do it.

      Certainly, I admit you might feel a bit of an idiot doing this in earshot of anyone else, but in my experience I genuinely believe it does work if you want to gain a deeper awareness of how to carry and use different qualities of your voice. Many teachers liken themselves to being actors in class and I think we naturally develop these skills. Personally, I am open to learning any new techniques that might teach me to be able to do something new.

      With regards to protecting my voice – even after training when you have been teaching large groups for 6 hours (like today) my voice feels tired. I too would welcome any ‘doable’ suggestions on how to protect your voice!

      • Hi Richard,

        my turn to aplogise for not replying earlier. It’s a bit chaotic here in São Paulo trying to get onto broadband.

        I have just done 6 hours teaching and as if to punish me for hubris in raising this topic, I scratched my voice stupid; a visit to a noisy bar with a group playing hasn’t helped!

        I really like your projection exercises – thanks so much for sharing them. They speak to what I think is the main issue – getting speakers/actors/teachers etc to THINK about their voice, concentrate on it, make it a subject of intense scrutiny!

        As for what to do with our voices, you and me, well lukewarm water? breathing? Not speaking for a bit?

        A few hundred teachers waiting at 9 tomorrow morning! That’s the problem!


      • What a nice idea Richard, I shall try it as well with my trainees! Like you, I feel my voice has got very tired although I have received a lot of voice training – as a modern singer first and later as a classical singer. But unless you go back and retrain, it’s very easy for fatigue and lack of exercises to allow for the whole system to collapse!!!

  4. Hello Mr Harmer,
    I know perfectly well what you need. I’ve been practicing this approach when acting in a youth theatre. It really works and it helps a lot. And even now so many years after I never use a microphone and my voice is well-heard in the remotest seats of the hall.
    You might have heard of Strelnikova breathing exercise.
    This is usually understood as a kind of treatment practice but there are thousands of actors, singers, orators followers. Doing these exercises regularly may seem a bit tiring but once you get used you won’t stop.
    Good luck with your voice!

  5. I must admit I like a storyteller’s voice – that is, one with lots of modulations, changing octave, speed, and rhythm. I also, picking up on Karenne’s point, like situatedness in a voice, something that sounds like it is from somewhere and not anywhere.

    • Yes, I would agree with this. The point of vocal quality is to let personality shine through. Our voices convey ourselves and trying to deny that is pointless, I think.
      I completely agree that making voices interesting with modulation etc is vital. I was talking about this today in a fluency workshop. No one ever reads their children’s bedtime stories in a monotone!

  6. Maybe IATEFL needs a big choral session to start off with!

    I’ve loved singing in choirs, too, and find it really strengthens your voicebox.
    Singing’s clearly a good thing to cultivate. Our teachers’ association sounds pretty good round the piano at the Christmas party.

    • I LOVE the idea of starting a conference with a good voice-warming activity! Why didn’t I think of that?!!

      proper singing,done well! Nothing can beat it.

  7. Hello Jeremy,
    So true that the voice is a lot of what we bring as language teachers to a classroom. I’d echo your comments and those of the other posters regarding which voices I find appealing and the fact that a musical and/or acting background can help a lot in the development and maintenance of our voices.

    I have certainly gained from my own experience acting in our Am-Dram Society at university. I’d recommend a lot of humming (in the shower is good), and saying lots of vowel and consonant sounds (m-m-m-m, b-b-b-b, p-p-p-p) before a lesson or talk. Also, if you can, getting a colleague to gently drum their hands across your back and shoulders while you are bent over (still standing) and humming (you may have to use your imaginations to see that one).

    It’s got me thinking – how we adapt our voices to different contexts and situations. I know I change my voice when I’m teaching a group of teenagers to when I’m teaching motivated university-level students. Sometimes it can be worrying (that is, my voice is quite raspy after a class with the teens) but fortunately I haven’t had any serious problems, like losing my voice, touch wood. Also I started to think about how I use my voice when I’m with different groups of people, i.e. different in the classroom to when I’m with friends. But I’ve noticed an even weirder thing – if I speak with someone with a different accent (for example, a Scottish/Irish/Australian English accent), I sometimes find myself imitating that accent, entirely without thinking about it! Has this happened to anyone else??



    • Hi Mike,

      Yup! It happens to me too – it has something to do with Mirror-Neurons, something I’ve recently fallen head-over-heels for and have written about them too but you can just google them/see TedTalks and youtube for video lectures on the subject. Interesting stuff 🙂

  8. Hi Mike,

    yes, I have certainly, carelessly, started to try and imitate others’ voices in conversation – and then wished I hadn’t because it comes close to sounding like mockery.
    What I really like is your point about using different voices for different purposes. It is so important and helps to protect our voices. Today I forgot that and hurt my voice by hammering on at the same level for hours!

    I very much like the idea of vocal exercises before lessons. Actors do it before performers, singers before singing. Why not us?


  9. (My friend Helen says:) I do enjoy your blog. I’m changing my mind about microphones. As a presenter, I don’t like them .. they seem to restrict movement, and as I tend to use my teacher voice anyway, the technicians often have to turn me down. HOWEVER (she shouts ..) as a listener, I prefer it when people use microphones. They can use a far greater range of tone, they can sound gentler, you can hear every word even if they turn to face another section of the audience, and people who do not naturally have a voice which carries can also be presenters. We had an outstanding session about behaviour management from Bill Rogers .. part of his appeal for me is his gentle, kind, soothing voice .. admittedly, this is an intrinsic part of the message he is giving about how to treat everyone (including pupils) with respect. I am quite keen to see whether we can install more sound systems into classrooms .. especially for those subject areas where there is a lot of practical activity (music, drama, languages).

  10. Hi Karelia (and Helen),

    your reactions to microphones exactly mirror my own. I always hate them and think they create a barrier between me and the people I am talking to. But I also remember (with shame) someone forcing me to use a microphone in a big auditorium in Buenos Aires when I THOUGHT my ‘brilliant voice’ was strong enough but it just wasn’t!!
    Yesterday I did a talk in a large room for about 85 teachers here in São Paulo. It turned out I didn’t need a microphone and I really preferred that. But I wasn’t concentrating on using my voice properly so I strained it a bit and had to live with the consequences today.
    But today I spoke to about 500 teachers in a beautiful theatre with exceptional accoustics and a good sound system, and the microphone really worked and helped.
    I guess everything depends on how good the microphones are/how good the engineers are etc. But I HAVE learned not to be so ‘proud’!!
    So yes, install more sound systems – but make them ‘good’!

  11. Hi Jeremy,
    I think it’s a shame how few people in general really get to know and enjoy their voice. Most people hate to hear their voice recorded – that’s probably a natural reaction because it sounds different to how you hear it yourself – but I think you can get to know and like your voice if you persevere through the initial discomfort. Maybe it might be nice to do voice warm-ups with learners. Lots of people don’t trust their voice when speaking their own language, so no wonder it can be so hard as a learner to speak in front of the class.
    I agree with you that a microphone always creates distance, but there’s nothing worse than struggling to hear what the speaker is saying.

  12. Hello Jeremy,
    What a great topic to discuss! You know, I’ve often wished I could carry a tune. I have a terrible singing voice. But if you asked me to trade my teaching voice for a fabulous Celine Dione-like voice, I’d have to decline. I love the art of speaking as a teacher. We need to know when to project, when to slow down, when to articulate, and when it’s okay to rattle off words at a natural speed. We don’t always get it right, but with time we more or less learn to master this necessary tool for instruction. As you said, the voice is a precious thing. Personally, I think a good speaking voice is one that carries a smile. My preferred beverages while teaching (or doing voice-overs) are tea and water at room temperature, by the way.
    Thank you for posting on this topic. (I will add you to my blogroll!)
    Best wishes,
    Jennifer Lebedev

    • Jennifer,

      I am so sorry for not replying to your comment before.

      I like your comments about singing (not) and speaking. Yes, I think trying to keep the smile in speaking is a must if you wish to attract and engage your listeners.

      Room temperature is much better than ‘cold’, I agree.

      All I know is that we have to preserve the voice, our voices. They are a large part of what we have to offer!

      (I wonder, as this kind of communication gathers pace, how we put the smile in this!)


  13. Hi Jeremy,

    Have you heard about BBC Radio 4’s recent Vox Project? http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/vox-project/

    I downloaded it a few weeks ago and have just got round to listening to it now and thought of your post. Not sure whether you can still access it from the UK, but apparently there’s a new series on its way as well.

    According to the report we should ALL, not only actors and singers, warm up our voices and do all manner of other breathing and humming exercises before we even open our mouths to say anything! As I recall, I think Alan Maley made the same suggestion in his book (which I read when it came out but have forgotten much of the content – what does that say about me?), but how many of us do you think actually do these exercises on a daily basis (except for Mike above)?

    If you can’t access the programme and are interested in hearing it, let me know and I’ll try and send it to you (3 x 25MB mp3 files).

    Thanks for posting the topic.

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Helen,

      thanks for this. I’ve just had fun looking at the site – but I don’t think I can get the audio so I’d love the MP3s (do u have my email?)

      As for vocal warm-ups, it’s a bit like going to the gym. I know I SHOULD, but…!!


  14. Hi, Jeremy
    I joined a choir simply because I wanted to learn how to project my voice. After a while I didn’t make any progress because I’m terrifying to be the only one who is always off-key in the group. You can tell, singing in a choir doesn’t help me.
    Do you think people need “good ears” before they actually speak? 😛


  15. mie,

    you don’t need good ears to speak – but you probably do to sing/play music. I think fear often ‘gets in the way of’ musical performance. The brain stops us reacting properly/performing etc.

    But singing exercises, and the activity of singing ALWAYS helps I think.

    Keep singing!


  16. Depending on what you are doing and the audience provides the answerer to a suitable voice. For a singer a good voice is perfection, no cold, swollen glad, temperature or any other medical problem. In good voice could be giving a presentation or as a teacher in the classroom providing instruction on a certain topic. When a student says that “What is wrong with you voice” then you are not in good voice.

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