Speaking Is An Art Form

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.

And here.

Now for coffee!

7 Replies to “Speaking Is An Art Form”

  1. Personally it is the “I’m so hip = what I have to say is so important and on trend that you shouldn’t care how I say it or that you have to work so hard to hear me” arrogance revealed in vocal fry that is offensive. But then I have little patience for arrogance masquerading as substance, in any form.

  2. IMO, seminaries are underserving people who are training to be ministers by not offering vocal training. It’s every bit as important for preachers as it is for actors. While we’re at it, teachers in training should do this work too, both in order to be heard and communicate well and also so not to develop vocal problems from misuse and overuse. The vocal cords are muscles and if we are going to be professional users of them, we have to train to use them effectively and efficiently. Vocal training is not about limiting choice or expression but actually about gaining choice and mode of expression. I have particularly wondered about the difficulty in communicating with elders who are hard of hearing when women are speaking in the fry register. And since speaking in the fry register can do damage to the vocal cords over time, avoiding it seems like it would be win win. /rant. stepping off soapbox.

  3. When I did my MDiv at Princeton we had a full year of speech training required in our first year. It was very helpful. Fewer than half the churches I’ve served had sound systems. And the less-young in the congregation are so pleased when they can actually hear you that you build up lots of pastoral chips.

  4. I was ‘lucky’ that I spent 6+ years in speech and vocal therapy for nodes on my vocal cords. It actually helped as I had a lot of ‘re-learning’ to do and I un-learned a number of damaging and irritating vocal tics. It has helped me considerably in my preaching – I am much more aware of how I sound. And now we are recording our sermons so I can listen back and see how I sound. It is very helpful!

  5. Sadly I’ve begun to have a hard time listening to NPR because of how many of their correspondents speak with vocal fry. (And switching over to the BBC, no one speaks with vocal fry or upspeak, no matter their age!) I just heard someone give a presentation and interview for an academic executive position and they had both vocal fry and upspeak. I could tell this young woman was trying to mitigate both of these affectations but it was there.

    I find some voices so difficult to listen to that I can’t “hear” what they are trying to convey as well as making me feel like an old codger because I associate it with a younger generation. I’m not sure if it’s the latter that also gives me the impression that whatever they are speaking about lacks authority or gravitas. The uncertainty upspeak conveys is certainly unsettling. When my now mid-20’s daughter spoke with upspeak as a pre-teen, I would stop her and make her repeat the sentence without the upward inflection.

  6. I agree 100%. I got my seminary to offer vocal coaching from an acting teacher and he continued for years. Unfortunately he was not replaced when he retired. In my Boomer generation I did an experiment at a bi- partisan political event and found that I could tell the liberals from the conservatives from their vocal production. Conservatives used higher, more girlish voices with less support from the diaphragm . The kind of speech patterns you reference in millenials reminds me of that, don’t take me seriously kind of voice but with a new manifestation.

  7. There’s a great This American Life episode on vocal fry. It a Glass points out that he doesn’t get comments on his vocal fry, but women do.

    This article points out many of the issues in the discussions around vocal fry, including the myth that it is harmful. http://www.dictionary.com/e/vocal-fry/

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