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Voice Problems
by Dr. Ajit Harisinghani Bookmark and Share

Picture a class-room full of 40 to 60 boisterous ten-year olds. The suppressed whispers of the children; the noise in the corridors; the din of traffic outside - all building up an ambience which forces Usha to almost shout to be heard above it all. Add to this the chalk dust which rises every time she uses the duster to clear the black-board and you have an environment which assaults the vocal system of every teacher day in and day out. Indeed, it is surprising that Usha and her colleagues lose their voices only about once a year and not more often. Our vocal cords, situated in the larynx (or voice-box) are two bands of elastic tissue which vibrate when air is exhaled through them. Most speech is produced as we breathe out. As air from the lungs passes between the two vocal cords, sound is produced. This sound (voice) is then modulated into speech by the precise movements of the tongue and lips. The quality of the voice produced is dependent upon the ease (or effort) with which the vocal cords move. If they vibrate in synchrony, they produce a pleasing voice. However, if they are forced into moving in a stressful manner; if they are under constant operative strain, not only will they produce an unpleasant or even abnormal tone but they may well damage themselves permanently. 

When Usha shouts, her vocal cords are clashing against each other- ultimately causing them to become enlarged. This impedes their movements resulting in a periodic loss of voice. If this happens often enough, the cords develop small boils (not surprisingly called "teacher's nodules"). Treated early, such nodules may well disappear. But. as is often the case, the vocal abuse continues and brings in the prospect of surgical intervention. This does not really solve the problem completely. Vocal-cord surgery itself can cause an irreversible scarring of the delicate   vocal tissue leading to permanent hoarseness of voice. E.N.T. surgeons consider such surgery only as a last option. They prefer to first refer the case to a speech therapist who will attempt to help the person alter his or her 'vocal' manner

Modifying Speech Habits

Speech is one of our body's strongest habits. Even the quality of voice we produce is the result of a collection of body motions and could well be termed habitual.
For Usha, the answer to her recurring voice problem lies in developing an easier manner of speaking which will minimize if not prevent the trauma caused to her vocal cords every teaching day. This newer, easier speaking style will involve modifying her speech habits. She will teach herself to speak with a more relaxed muscular tonus. She will select a pitch level more appropriate to her laryngeal dimensions and therefore more pleasant. She will develop her ability to project her voice more effectively. She will also adopt a variety of other simple techniques which will all help her avoid losing her voice periodically 

Muscular tone plays an important role in the quality of voice produced. Our voice-box can be compared to a musical instrument and the tone of the voice produced is dependent upon the degree of tension in the muscles which envelope the voice-box - the muscles of the neck. If abnormally strained, these muscles change the quality of the voice for the worse. And teaching is strenuous work It is possible to develop the ability to be loud without overly straining the vocal system. Loudness is controlled by the amount of air exhaled and not by using greater force at the laryngeal level. So one of the first things Usha should do is to learn to focus her energy towards developing greater 'lung power' rather than tightening her neck muscles. Actually, tense muscles interfere with loudness rather than help it. Speaking with continually tense muscles has undesirable long term repercussions too. SELECTING THE RIGHT PITCH Any sound whether it is song or speech has two basic parameters. Its volume (or how loud it is) and its pitch (or tone or frequency). Men have a larger larynx and their vocal cords are longer. Therefore males generally have a low-pitched (or deep) voice. 

Women on the other hand, have smaller larynxes and shorter vocal cords which is why their voices are higher in pitch However, every larynx has the capacity to produce a range of pitches. Asha Bhosle can go from one pitch to another quite effortlessly because she has a trained singing voice. Maybe not to her degree of control, but all of us are also capable of producing more pitch levels than we do. 

Every larynx has an optimal pitch level depending on individual factors. If this optimal pitch is identified and used, the resultant voice will have a pleasant quality and the speaker will be able to produce it with a minimal of effort. The best voice is one which is produced effortlessly 

Vocal Projection 

To enable her to be heard even by students on the last benches in the classroom, Usha will need to practice voice projection which is one of the techniques taught to stage actors. Raising the mental focal point of vocal production; speaking with the mouth more open, pausing between sentences to replenish the air supply in the lungs, etc. are some of the areas touched Helping teachers and anyone else with voice disorders is the responsibility of a speech therapist who is trained to analyze the problem and suggest techniques which will prevent their recurrence. Considering that this problem affects many teachers in many schools and colleges, it might not really be a bad idea for the school authorities to conduct short courses for their teachers to promote better speech habits and thus prevent or minimize the incidence of voice-loss amongst their teachers. After all, every workman takes care of his tools and one of the lady teacher's main 'tool' is her voice

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