sábado, 12 de noviembre de 2016

Course report: Managing your Voice

Those of you who have been students of mine will know that as a pronunciation trainer I got very serious when it came to voice care. Working on pronunciation requires working on your voice (and of course, finding your L2 voice): stretching your pitch range, finding new articulations, and thus, new "resonances", etc. At times, for some people, this may result in strain, and that is when we need to intervene. We are not speech therapists, but we have the duty to tell students when we feel there is something that needs to be seen to by a professional. And as we are (well, I was) training teachers, I think it becomes all the more important that we train our students on ways in which they can take care of and manage their voice in a healthy manner. Denying that voice care is part of our job, is, in my very humble opinion, a serious neglect. I have seen far too many colleagues and students get serious vocal trouble, and I would not want to see this happening to more teachers.

I personally underwent some training at the Instituto de la Voz in Buenos Aires (I am so grateful to Carlos Demartino and Fga. Liliana Flores, they saved my voice!), because I needed to take care of my own (at the time, "decaying") voice, and then I felt I was responsible for passing this on to my students. I had an opportunity yesterday, here at York, of reviewing some of my training and doing a bit more in a short course called "Managing your Voice", delivered by the two most fantastic facilitators I have met lately, David Howard and Francis Newton.

So in the next few paragraphs, I'll be sharing some of their "tips and tricks" with you. (I don't have access to the slides, so I will have to describe them for you, I am afraid!)

The course began with a lecture. David Howard is an engineer (who actually also trained in UCL with Gimson!) and gave a very interesting review of the organs of speech. What made it fascinating is that the description was made in both biological and engineering terms. So alongside the diagram we are all familiar with, he included one that showed fabulous representations of the diaphragm as a piston, the intercostal muscles as a bellows. He discussed the whole phonatory and articulatory process in the three stages, according to activity: the power source, the sound source, and the sound modifiers. With the help of some videos and some gadgets (pic below!), David showed how the whole mechanism works.

Through some eletroglottograph (EGG) recordings, the facilitator showed us the "noise" the vocal folds make before they are amplified and turned into specific sounds. He recorded members of his choir, and we heard their "singing" through the EGG output. It was fab!

I was particularly interested in the description of vowels, because in my previous training at IV I had also found the treatment of vowels by speech therapists quite surprising. At times when we describe vowels in articulatory terms in our phonetics courses we focus on tongue raising and lowering,  and of course, what part of the tongue is involved. For speech therapists and speech science in general, the focus is also on the areas of resonance within the mouth cavity that result from tongue movement, which is why for a vowel like // it is not just the front tongue raising that interests us, but also the resulting space in the back area . David showed vowel production and resonance with the use of an electrolarynx and two tubes that had already been set with three spaces of resonance for Japanese vowels [i] and [a]. (Of course, after the course I just had to get into eBay and see whether these were available!)
Elecrolarynx and the oral cavity tubes. The elecrolaryx would send air into the tubes and these would produce vowels! 
This is David's demonstration of an electrolarynx and the tubes:

After the theoretical presentation, we had our practical session with Francis. Some of the highlights are described below:
  • Dos and Don'ts (applicable 1-2 hours before performing/teaching/lecturing):
    • Don't drink: coffee or black tea (astringents), alcohol, fizzy drinks or coke
    • Don't eat: chocolate and banana (high levels of fat, cannot be "washed off" easily with water, you need acid, like lemon, to do so), dairy products
    • Don't shout: in difficult spaces with bad acoustics, just choose your spot and make sure there is more space in your mouth, overarticulate if necessary. It will make a great difference!
    • Dooo drink: lots of water, herbal teas.
  • Posture:
    • you need to make sure your neck stands high and tall but you should look forward, not up or down;
    • you need to stand straight, as a "Frankfurt sausage" (ha!), finding your posture by standing on tiptoe and making sure the golden thread that goes from your head to the floor acts like your axis.
    • you need to make sure your shoulders are not "crouched", so you should try to act as if you were wearing a "Bolero jacket" (that is quite high at the back) and you needed to bring the back of it down.
    • (sorry about this one!) in order to make sure your belly comes out (yes, ladies, essential, sorry to say!) and your diaphragm has enough room to do its job, you have to imagine you are holding a lemon between your butt cheeks (of course, we just had to laugh!).
  • Exercises:
    • going from a normal [a] sound very softly towards your creaky/frying quality helps you feel and somehow massage your vocal folds;
    • to check your that you are breathing properly, and to see how the diaphragm, intercostal muscles, and belly work, you can try very energetic sequences of [fːtʰ], with the plosive halting the /f/ really strongly. You should keep a hand just above your belly navel to check this.

At the end of the course, we were asked to introduce ourselves briefly, and we received some feedback on our speech, posture, and presentation skills.

As teachers, our voice is our most precious treasure. We need to be systematic in our vocal exercises, before and after using our voice for a long time. Dr. Howard reminded us that over the course of one day, a teacher will have made her vocal folds vibrate over a million times (imagine getting other muscles of your body to move that much in just 8 hours!). So always keep your water at hand, work on your posture, make sure you feel grounded to the floor, and be kind to yourself.

Some extra tips I've learned at Instituto de la Voz:
  • To avoid clearing your throat or coughing (both could be really damaging to your vocal folds, if you need to cough, do so gently), you can produce a continuous alveolar trill [r] for a few seconds (easy for us, Spanish speakers!)
  • you can massage your larynx area gently with your thumb and index finger, going in circles.
  • you can create more space in your mouth by making sure your tongue has got enough tonicity. Stretch your tongue out (as dogs do when they yawn), to the front and to the sides.
  • Yawn!

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