How to Protect Your Speaking Voice

Full vocal production helps make the most of the gift God gave you!

The vocal strain so often heard among preachers is more a result of misuse than overuse. The preacher's voice is as essential to his work as the motor is to a vehicle. Pushing either one beyond its limits leads to major problems. A motor, however, can be replaced.

Vocal abuse and misuse take a toll on effective preaching. Full vocal production is achieved in much the same way most physical disciplines are achieved. We need to understand which muscles and organs are involved and how they function, then do some exercises to make those muscles and organs work for us.

Learning to Breathe Again

Full vocal production begins with diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a thin band of muscle located just beneath the lungs. As the lungs expand upon inflation, they push against the diaphragm. The diaphragm in turn pushes against the abdominal muscles. The abdominal muscles push back against the diaphragm which again in turn pushes against the lungs, and exhalation has begun.

One can breathe without significantly affecting the diaphragm. This is known as shallow or clavicular breathing because the collarbone and shoulder muscles rise while the abdominal and rib muscles barely move or do not move at all.

Shallow breathing has devastating effects for the speaker. Speaking is overlaid on breathing. To speak, we must exhale. If our inhaling is too shallow to affect the diaphragm, we cannot sustain strong speech. In addition, the air in our lungs vibrates as we speak and acts like an echo chamber. This reverberation gives strength and power to our voices.

As we exhale, air from our lungs passes through the vocal cords, making vocalization possible. The vocal cords are delicate instruments which cannot stand too much tension or too much pressure. Also, they dry quickly when too much air is forced through them.

Most vocal misuse occurs when preachers, on a shallow breath, try to project their voices from their vocal cords rather than from the reverberation of their lungs.

Vocal Exercises

A few minutes of exercise per day will preserve, protect, and give the preacher the maximum potential of his individual voice quality. The various kinds of breathing and vocal exercises are too numerous to list. Those who play brass or reed instruments are already familiar with the diaphragm and how it works. For those of us not so musically gifted, a simple counting exercise will suffice.

Stand straight, and on one breath, count from one to ten. Start with a little less volume than you would use in ordinary conversation. Increase the volume but not the pitch as you move from one number to the next. Pace yourself so that you are as loud as you can be by the number ten. At no time during the exercise should you put any pressure on the vocal cords.

If you feel vocal strain, stop. It may take a few practice sessions before you can attain the count of ten. Do not be discouraged; any physical exercise requires developmental time.

A similar exercise will also help. Shout, "Halt!" As you shout, bring your abdominal muscles in with a sharp movement. You should feel as if the abdomen muscles were causing the word to explode from your mouth. Again, the vocal cords must be free of strain as you shout.

During these exercises, listen to your voice. You will hear more resonance. Your voice is not necessarily "deeper," although resonance may make it seem deeper.

Our individual voice quality is a combination of the length and thickness of our vocal cords, and the size and capacity of our chest, throat, and head cavities. Never put pressure on your vocal cords to make your voice sound deeper. Full vocal production will achieve this for you.

Al Fasol is professor of preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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