I skimmed a long thread on a friend’s Facebook page this morning, pre-coffee, and I see (without noting specific names) that there’s a hearty debate going on about vocal fry and “policing” young women’s voices.
Like I said, I just woke up, I have an Advent Order of Service to get to my Music Director and Director of Community Life and Learning, breakfast to eat and a dog to walk and square away within the next hour, so I’ll keep this brief:
Vocal fry is an affectation and a misuse of the vocal apparatus. As preachers, we are using our voices the same way singers do: to communicate our art. To reduce vocal sound to an issue of personal freedom is like saying that expecting opera singers or dancers to practice is oppressive.
Vocal production is both natural and cultural. We learn how to use our voices by gurgling as babies and then learning language at whatever rate and way we do as we develop. Along the way, speakers learn how certain sounds and timbres endear us to adults upon whom we rely for food, comfort and protection. Our voices may be formed by trauma or illness: in response to pain or abuse, we may swallow sound, learn to hold our breath while speaking, develop permanent baby talk, or have some of our ability to support a full sound from the diaphragm disrupted or destroyed.
Not all people choose speaking as their primary mode of communication. I am thinking of the Deaf community, but there are others. But I am speaking to speakers.
For most preachers, the voice is the instrument of communication and means by which we share our art. Preaching is an ancient art form. Vocal affectations that arise as a result of fads whose origins can be traced and tracked (as can vocal fry) and easily analyzed are not sacrosanct. Every 21st century preacher has audio and video recording available to them and can listen to and analyze how well they are using their vocal apparatus to communicate their message. Analyzing the voice this way is not sexist or oppressive, it is standard professional practice among all those who go before the public in the hopes of being effective.
Actors have directors to guide them and to inform them of their effectiveness. Singers have teachers who train them in art, the safe use of the vocal apparati, and musicianship. Athletes have coaches. Young women athletes who train hard to use their instruments to the very best of their ability would not consider critique of the way they are using their bodies in their sport to be oppressive, silencing or policing.
Vocal fry is an affectation that communicates elaborate hipness and insouciance. It is used by Garrison Keillor as an intimacy-creating storytelling device (the listeners both have to lean closer in to hear him, and the gravelly sound signals folksy warmth). It is used by radio personalities to (probably unintentionally) reveal generational, class and culture identity that differentiate them from old school radio voices. It is used as a kind of lingua franca among young, white women to communicate jaded sophistication. That is why it is so easily mocked. The fact that vocal fry is a technique that actually harms the vocal apparati is what makes it so difficult to listen to, just as it is difficult for discerning ears to sit through a production of “Annie” when the cast is full of little girl actors belting musical numbers in a way that strains and damages their developing vocal chords.
Upspeak is another component of poor speaking that I saw referenced in the same thread, so I’ll address it here: upspeak is not natural, it is learned. It is learned by women living in patriarchy to diminish the impact of what they are saying in order to be less of a threat to men. Upspeak at the ends of phrases undermines the impact of a sentence exactly the same way that swallowing volume at the end of a phrase does. Vocally implying that everything one says is a question is confusing, and undermining. A good coach can help. So may a therapist or spiritual director.
Voices are not as organic and “natural” as some argue. “He just talks that way” is far less accurate than “he learned young to lower his force his vocal register unnaturally low for his age and size to compensate for insecurity about being sufficiently masculine in a household full of macho men” or “she learned in childhood to hold back her breath and diminish her volume so as not to anger her exhausted mother.” We learn; we can unlearn, or strengthen, or change aspects of our vocal production in order to be more effective communicators.
I wrote more about the dreaded vocal fry here.
Now for coffee!